28 States Use Outdated Driver's License Format, Which Could Leave You Stranded At The Airport

December 30, 2015

When we think of technology and change, we often think of computers, mobile phones, cars, and such. But today, even the most mundane objects are evolving, from electrical outlets to thermostats.

Driver's licenses are not immune.

Unfortunately, like your grumpy uncle who's still mad about the disappearance of incandescent light bulbs, some states have failed to keep up with the times. To date, 28 states still issue driver's licenses that fail to meet new "REAL ID" standards, which could prevent folks from using those documents to verify their identity next time they want to board an airplane.

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Not that those states haven't had plenty of time to get their acts together. The notion of REAL ID came from the 9/11 Commission's final report, published in 2004. The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the REAL ID Act of 2005, which "established minimum security standards for license issuance and production and assigned responsibility for determining whether a state is meeting these standards to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)." 

The standards aren't all that extraordinary. They require that licenses include the usual things like a date of birth, a residence address, and a front-facing photo, as well as elements that have now become commonplace on other cards, like magnetic strips or bar codes that allow machines to verify the documents.

The standards also require background checks for people who issue IDs and higher security at ID-issuing facilities. The goal is to ensure that licenses are accurate and that they can't be acquired or used by terrorists.


Technically, the new REAL ID rules were supposed to kick in on May 11, 2008, but states pushed back, asking for a five year phase-in period. (Two years later, DHS still hasn't begun to enforce the regulations.) Now, despite the decade that state agencies have had to prepare, and despite countless recent cries by elected officials about immigration and terrorism, more than half of the states in America haven't yet jumped through the necessary hoops. 

The bad news is, DHS has signaled that it's planning to get serious about REAL IDs very soon -- potentially this week. The good news is, when it makes its decision, people will have 120 days before the rules go into effect. That will give many of those people the time they need to secure passports or other approved IDs for flying on airplanes or visiting certain facilities, like military bases.

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The better news is that 23 of the 28 non-compliant states have applied for waivers from the federal government, and most have been granted extra time to get their metaphorical houses in order. Those states are 

  • Alaska (pending)
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California (pending)
  • Idaho
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey (pending)
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina (pending)
  • Texas
  • Virginia

That leaves just five states that are fully non-compliant:

  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • Washington

None of those five have filed or been approved for federal waivers, either.


If you live in any of the states not listed here: congratulations! You can continue to use your state-issued driver's license or ID at airports or other facilities with federal oversight.

If you live in any of the states that have applied for waivers: do yourself a favor and apply for a passport. If you already have one, make sure it's up to date. Depending on how fast your state falls in line with these rules, you might need it next time you fly.

If you live in one of the five states that remain non-compliant: head to the passport office as soon as possible. It can take time for passport applications to run through the proper channels, and you don't want to be left at the gate.

No matter where you live: your driver's license will still be valid for driving purposes, and it can be used as a form of ID at state-run facilities. 

For the most accurate data on states and REAL ID compliance, visit the DHS website and scroll over your home state.

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