Homeland Security says the days are numbered for using your standard Washington driver’s license to board a plane. But how numbered are they?
There’s plenty of confusion about whether your standard-issue Washington state driver’s license will get you through security checks at the airport for much longer. Here’s a Q&A that tackles some questions that might be on the minds of concerned travelers:
Q: Why is anything changing?
A: The Department of Homeland Security this past week denied Washington state an extension from complying with tougher federal standards — part of the 2005 federal REAL ID Act — that require proof of legal U.S. residency in order for state driver’s licenses and ID cards to be valid for federal purposes, including, eventually, boarding commercial flights.
In a letter to our state Department of Licensing (DOL), the feds offered a three-month grace period before the current temporary extension expires.
Q: When does that grace period end?
A: Hard to nail anyone down on that. In January, Homeland Security had granted the state an extension through Oct. 10. If that’s the date they’re using for the start of the grace period, then it would end Jan. 10. Homeland Security hasn’t responded to our requests by phone and email for confirmation.
Q: Is my standard Washington license or ID card invalid at the airport when the grace period ends?
A: It sounds like procedures at the airport won’t change within three months, though using your Washington driver’s license to access military bases and other federal facilities could be a problem.
An Oct. 9 release from the Homeland Security Press Office included this statement: “(The department) plans to announce the schedule for any changes to air-travel requirements by the end of the year, and will ensure that state governments and the traveling public are notified at least 120 days in advance of implementation.” The boldface was theirs. And it was underlined.
Q: So, that’s four months. So maybe April 2016 is the date to worry about?
A: Could be. But Tony Sermonti, legislative director for Washington’s DOL, has a long history of dealing with Homeland Security — you get the idea he’s torn out a lot of his own hair in the process. And he’s telling us all to relax.
“They’ll make an announcement that they will make an announcement — and then either they never make the announcement or it’s an announcement that changes in context,” Sermonti said Friday. Full implementation of REAL ID “has been delayed many times, and there’s a complete lack of specificity” from Homeland Security folks, he says.
He thinks it’s more likely that the airport crackdown on noncompliant driver’s licenses is a year or two away. “I would be shocked” if it happened as early as April, he says.
Q: Are we different from other states in how we issue our driver’s licenses?
A: Yes. Washington and New Mexico are the only states that issue standard driver’s licenses without proof of legal residency, one of the REAL ID stipulations for state-issued ID that can be used at airports and federal facilities.
But we’re by no means alone in being out of compliance with REAL ID requirements. Sermonti says some 24 states still issue driver’s licenses that are not compliant, which might mean the license doesn’t incorporate special security features, or the agencies don’t conduct required employee-background checks or any of many detailed criteria.
Q: What can I use once my standard, old, dog-eared Washington driver’s license is no longer honored at the airport?
A: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) offers a complete list of acceptable IDs at tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/identification.
At present, the two most common choices for Washington residents are a state-issued “enhanced driver’s license,” available since 2007, or a U.S. passport.
Q: Is one better than the other?
A: Both require that you present proof of citizenship, such as an original birth certificate or a naturalization certificate. The bad news: Both cost more than the $54 you now pay for a standard license renewal.
• A passport is easily recognized worldwide and happily accepted at domestic airports, too. If you choose to travel by air outside the United States, it’s required. Cost for a first-time adult applicant (16 and older) is $110 plus a $25 processing fee, or $135, good for 10 years. Processing can take up to five weeks. More info: travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports.html.
• Washington’s enhanced driver’s license can be used for land-based border crossings and for boarding domestic flights. It fits easily in a wallet. Cost for first-time applicants is $72 plus a $35 processing fee, or $107, good for six years.
If you hold a valid standard Washington driver’s license, you can upgrade for $3 per year for the time remaining on your license. Processing can take up to three weeks. Note: Lawmakers might reconsider, but the plan for now is for the fee to increase to $108 in July 2016. More info: dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/edl.html.
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Q: What are the requirements for children flying with me?
A: TSA does not require children younger than 18 to provide identification when traveling with a companion within the United States.
Q: In order to get an enhanced license or passport, I need my birth certificate. How can I get that?
A: It depends on where you were born, whether you were adopted, born on a military base, etc. Here’s a quick primer from your friendly U.S. government: usa.gov/replace-vital-documents#item-36582.
Q: Is it true that passports and enhanced driver’s licenses have chips in them that could allow the government to track me?
A: It’s true that any U.S. passport issued since August 2007 carries an electronic radio-frequency identification chip encoded with your personal information and a digital photo. Here’s a Q&A from the U.S. State Department on how those chips function: travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/FAQs.html#ePassport.
The state’s enhanced driver’s license carries a similar chip but requires an added step to access personal information. The chip is encoded with a unique ID number that corresponds to personal information held in the state’s private database. Only when that number and the state database are both accessed is the cardholder’s personal information revealed.
Q: Who in state or federal government can I complain to about all this?
A: Find contact information for your state or federal representative or senator at app.leg.wa.gov/DistrictFinder.
Information in this article, originally published Oct. 31, 2015, was corrected Nov. 3, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a radio-frequency identification chip embedded in enhanced driver’s licenses issued by the Washington Department of Licensing carries personal information and a photo of the license holder.