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Minnesota Travelers Wonder: What’s the Point of Real ID?

The implementation deadline was extended yet again, prompting Thrifty Traveler's Kyle Potter to tell us: "It feels like a joke at this point."

a southwest airplane takes off out of MSP
Samantha Gades via Unsplash

As I flashed my standard driver's license at TSA before a return flight to MSP this weekend, I had a fleeting thought: "Hm, am I supposed to have a Real ID sometime soon?"

Turns out, the several-times-extended deadline to get a Real ID—the enhanced federal identification that will theoretically someday be required to board domestic flights—was May 3, 2023. I know now because on Monday, the Department of Homeland Security extended the deadline yet again, by another two years, to May 7 of 2025.

As Kyle Potter, the Minnesota-based editor of Thrifty Traveler, tweeted yesterday:

Potter has reported on the Real ID... I think we can safely call it a "fiasco" a few times now. And once again, his mentions (and Twitter more broadly) have been full of people wondering what the point of Real ID is, especially if you have a passport already, and suggesting of the program: "They should just scrap it."

We caught up with Potter yesterday afternoon to ask: What is the point of Real ID? Why does it exist? Is it really "real" if you never see one anywhere or feel any need to get one?

Racket: Reading the responses to your tweet yesterday, it seems I'm not alone in feeling that I'll never actually want or need a Real ID. Can you take me back to the introduction of it? Why are they even a thing?

Kyle Potter: This all really stems from 9/11, more than two decades ago. It was eventually passed in 2005, and really the heart of it is: Just like it's more complicated to apply for a passport than it is to apply for a standard driver's license, there are more verification steps in place to get a Real ID. Among other things, the primary purpose is that these IDs, once you actually get them, show that they're federally approved. So in addition to having the sign of approval from the state that you are who you say you are, it also has the sign-off from the federal government. It's an anti-terrorism measure, essentially. Whether it's an effective one... I'm not going to try to answer that question.

What was the thinking that we needed this in addition to or instead of a passport?

My guess is that the big thing is cost. Getting a passport now costs more than $150. Real ID, in Minnesota, costs the same as a standard driver's license, the main hurdle is just the additional paperwork that you need to bring in. In some other states it costs a little more, but still, we're talking under $25. And for someone who has no plans to travel internationally, if you can get what you need in order to keep flying via a real ID rather than something that's more than $150, that is an important way to carve something out.

The rollout has been delayed over and over and over again. Do you have a short timeline of what's happened since 2005, when this was initially OK'd?

There are basically two phases of what's happened with Real ID. First, there's the, "Oh shit, states don't want this, so we have to keep punting." After the law was passed in 2005, it took a long time to get states on board with this. Many states, including Minnesota, actually passed laws that said, "We are not allowed to comply with Real ID. We don't want the federal government anywhere near this information." Minnesota didn't actually pass the law that allowed the state government to move ahead with Real ID implementation until 2017, and there were several other states, including Oregon and Washington state, that dragged their heels even more.

The second phase of everything that has gone wrong with Real ID is more or less about the pandemic. At least that's the way the Department of Homeland Security paints it. Basically, when everything shut down in March of 2020, that hit the DMV offices that handled these applications really hard, and they haven't been able to get these new IDs into people's hands. After many, many extensions in the first phase of this fight, it was supposed to go live in October 2020; when the pandemic hit, it got pushed back to October 2021. The potential of turning people away from flights that they paid for a month before the election was a bad idea, so they extended that to May of 2023. And now what we have is another push back to 2025—a full 20 years after the law was originally passed.

It makes you wonder if there's a point where they'll say, "Enough is enough, we need to drop this idea."

It feels that way, right? Whether they just scrap this altogether and say, "You know what, never mind, sorry we ever bothered," or if they extend this thing into perpetuity... it feels like a joke at this point. How do you, after more than a decade of pushing this thing, how do you talk to Americans and level with them in 2024 and 2025 and say, "No, guys, we really mean it this time!" Who's buying that? I think that's part of the problem: The federal government has created this problem where there's no way for them to create an actual sense of urgency that people are going to need these things in order to fly.

Absolutely. I saw the latest delay, and my thought wasn't, "Oh thank god, I'm gonna rush to the DMV and get one," it was, "You know what, if it comes to it, I'll worry about it in another two and a half years."

And this is what happens every time: The federal government says, "Crap, this is going to be a real problem for people, because not enough of them have these Real IDs, and we're going to be causing a lot of heartache. We need to extend it." But by doing that, they make it that much harder for people to actually feel like, "I've gotta do this the next time I renew my license." I think that's combined with the real hurdles of applying for a Real ID: the additional paperwork that you need to bring in.

I'm sure there are so many people who get to the DMV, and they know about Real ID, and they know that it's at least somewhat important. But when you don't have the paperwork and you're already there and this place is such a hassle anyway... it's starting to feel like there's no way to get to where this needs to be. Brian Bakst from Minnesota Public Radio reported that Minnesota says only 30% of Minnesota license holders have a Real ID compliant license.

To that point, when I went to renew my driver's license earlier this year, I simply... didn't feel like gathering all the stuff I'd need to get a real ID.

You know, there's never really been a concerted push with messaging, that people need to do this. Part of it is the beauty and idiocy of American bureaucracy, right? It's a federal program, the states are ultimately responsible for it, the buck stops somewhere in there and nobody knows where or wants to put the money into it to raise awareness and get it where it needs to be so they can actually launch it. But it's going to be a tough sell at this point. I imagine we're going to be on the phone two years from now, talking about this again.

I look forward to it!

Do you, though? [Laughs] When this came out today, my coworkers and I were talking about this, and it's like, I'm so sick of talking about it at this point. It just feels like a given that this is what we're going to be talking about again.

Maybe you can pre-write your story for two years from now. Have it in the can like a Bob Dylan obit—you'll be first to the news.

Oh, yes. Just copy and paste.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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