The restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are starting to ease, and Americans are eager to travel by air, for both business and pleasure. But until today, there was serious concern that fewer than half of American travelers would have the necessary REAL ID credentials to board commercial flights this fall.

Today, in a press release, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas announced the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is extending the REAL ID full enforcement date by 19 months, from October 1, 2021 to May 3, 2023, “due to circumstances resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has significantly impacted states’ ability to issue REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards, with many driver’s licensing agencies still operating at limited capacity.”

Starting May 3, 2023, anyone over age 18 will need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or another federally approved identification document (such as a valid passport) to board domestic commercial flights.

Too few Americans ready to fly in a REAL ID world

The following statistics illustrate how few Americans have the REAL ID credentials they’ll need when enforcement begins:

  • Currently, only 43 percent (118 million of 274 million) of state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards are REAL ID-compliant.
  • If REAL ID were implemented today, an estimated 67,400 travelers would be turned away at airport security checkpoints on the first day, and more than 471,800 within the first week. This means that millions of travelers could be denied access to commercial flights come fall. (S. Travel and Longwoods International)

During the pandemic, many DMVs offered online transactions and automatically extended license expiration dates. While these measures helped customers avoid COVID exposure in DMV offices, the agencies now face a tremendous backlog. To complicate matters, applying for a REAL ID credential requires an in-person visit to the DMV, which is hard to come by with the current demands on DMVs. And DHS points out that “various states also need time to implement requirements mandated by the REAL ID Modernization Act, including changes that will streamline processing by allowing the electronic submission of certain documents.”

Groups Called for Another REAL ID Extension

The current state of REAL ID adoption prompted government associations and travel industry groups to speak up and recommend that the enforcement date be extended.

Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the nonprofit U.S. Travel Association, said her organization and other travel groups recently appealed to the federal government and the White House to extend the REAL ID enforcement date. She argued that those who would most be affected are casual travelers who don’t know about—or fully understand—the REAL ID travel requirement.

On April 8 of this year, the National Governors Association, put out a statement saying, “The prolonged impact of COVID-19 may require an extension,” and encouraged Americans to apply for the license if they don’t already have one.

REAL ID history repeats itself

This is not the first time the REAL ID enforcement date has been bumped into the future. Consider this:

  • Before COVID-19 emerged and the global pandemic ensued, the REAL ID enforcement date for boarding commercial flights was set for October 1, 2020.
  • In March 2020, as the ramifications of COVID-19 became clear, the DHS extended the REAL ID enforcement date to October 1, 2021. This was due, in part, to DMV offices around the country shutting down or offering limited services. No one knew, of course, just how long and devastating the pandemic would prove to be, including the ability to conduct business.

DHS officials will continue to work with states to promote REAL ID and guide license holders to upgrade their credentials to be REAL ID-compliant. DHS also provides an online portal that offers information, answers common questions, and links users to their local DMV.


National Governors Association

Travel Pulse

Travel Weekly

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

U.S. Travel Association

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