Most people know you need a passport to travel internationally, whether by land, sea or air – but what about domestically within the US? What travel documents do you need? And how will the forthcoming REAL ID system change things?
And then there’s the question of non-US nationals, either resident or those visiting the country – what documentation do they need to travel within the US?
In this post, we have all the answers you need as we answer the question, do you need a passport to travel within the US?
The current situation for flying in 2023
When it comes to air travel within the US, a big change is on the horizon in the form of the REAL ID system. With this new system, things are likely to look a bit different, and we’ll come to that in just a moment – but what’s the situation now in 2023? Let’s talk about that now.
As things stand, US citizens currently don’t need a passport to travel by air within the US – which is just as well since around 60% of Americans don’t have a passport.
This includes the contiguous 48 states plus Alaska and Hawaii.
As a result, US citizens can board a domestic plane and fly anywhere within the US without a passport as long as they have another valid form of ID.
Here are some examples of acceptable forms of ID you can use when checking in at an airport, although you should check the TSA website for a more complete list:
- US passport card
- State-issued driver’s license
- DHS trusted traveler card
- State-issued Enhanced Driver’s License
- US Merchant Mariner Credential
- Border crossing card
- US Department of Defense ID
- Tribal-issued photo ID
It is also possible to fly without one of these forms of ID.
You can do this by completing an identification verification process with the TSA. However, for people flying with no ID in this way, it usually takes even longer than normal to pass through security and board the plane, so you should plan to arrive at the airport well in advance.
Also, minors less than 18 years old don’t need to show ID to fly.
Green Card holders
Green Card holders can also fly within the US without showing their passport.
To do so, you should show your Green Card as well as another valid form of ID such as a state-issued driver’s license when checking in at the airport.
Non-resident foreign nationals
If you are a foreign national visiting the US, you will automatically have your passport with you because you will need it to enter US territory.
As a result, by far the easiest way to travel is to carry your passport and use it to check in at the airport.
It may be possible to fly without a passport – for example, if you lose it – but this is likely to be extremely complicated. This means it’s best to simply think of a passport as being essential for flying within the US the same as it is for flying internationally.
REAL ID and the future of domestic air travel
What we’ve explained above describes the current situation. However, with the proposed REAL ID system, things are likely to change, so let’s talk about this now.
First, what is REAL ID?
The REAL ID Act of 2005 is an Act of Congress that essentially improves the security of certain forms of ID by increasing and standardizing the requirements for those forms of ID – for example, state ID cards.
Once the Act comes into force, only REAL ID-compliant documents will be accepted for use when boarding domestic flights as well as accessing certain sensitive facilities within the US.
When the Act was passed, it was intended to come into force by 2008, but it has since been put back several times.
Currently, the plan is for the measures to take effect on May 7, 2025, and from this date on, you will need REAL ID-compliant ID to board a flight.
In other words, any form of ID that is non-REAL ID-compliant – such as an older state ID card – will not allow you to board your flight.
This will include domestic flights to all 50 states as well as to territories including Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
What should you do?
All 50 states are now issuing REAL ID-compliant documents, so if you have recently renewed a state ID or driver’s license, there’s a good chance you already have a valid ID for domestic air travel, and you won’t need to do anything else.
If your ID is already compliant, you can just continue using it to board flights as normal.
However, if your ID is not REAL ID-compliant, you will need to make sure you renew it – or make sure you have a valid passport – before May 7, 2025, or you won’t be able to board domestic flights and will be turned away.
After this date, only REAL ID-compliant identity documents will be valid for domestic air travel. The only other acceptable forms of ID will be valid passports, military ID or federal government PIV cards.
In addition, even passports need to be compliant, so if you have an old one, make sure you renew it before the date to be sure to avoid any potential issues.
The same guidance applies to Green Card holders, who should ensure they also have a valid REAL ID-compliant document for domestic travel.
Advice for non-resident foreign nationals remains the same – a valid passport from your country of origin will still be required for boarding domestic flights in the US.
What about other modes of transport?
When it comes to other modes of transport, such as long-distance bus services or trains, there will be no change – REAL ID-compliant ID will not be required, and any regular form of ID that you would use when buying or collecting tickets will remain valid.
This means that there will be no change for US citizens or Green Card holders when using other forms of transport.
For foreign visitors, you should expect to show some form of ID when buying or picking up your tickets, and in effect, this essentially means using your passport – although other forms of ID such as a driver’s license may be accepted.
How do you know if your ID is REAL ID-compliant?
If you are not sure whether your ID is REAL ID-compliant, it’s easy to check. Simply look in the top corner for a star symbol. If you find one, it means your ID is already compliant and you don’t need to do anything else.
If not, you should apply for an updated one if you hope to use your ID for domestic flights.
All states are now issuing compliant IDs and have been doing so for up to four years.
However, if your ID is older than that, there is a strong chance you received it before compliant IDs started being issued, so you will need to replace it.
Does REAL ID allow you to enter Mexico or Canada without a passport?
To enter Mexico by air, you need a valid passport book, and if you try to use any other form of ID – including a passport card or a REAL ID-compliant form of ID, you will most likely be denied entry.
To enter Mexico via a land border, the current travel advice states that a passport card or book is required. It makes no mention of REAL ID documents.
To enter Canada by land, you are required to carry a valid ID, which may include a passport book, passport card or NEXUS card. The current travel advice makes no mention of REAL ID.
For permanent US residents, the Green Card may also be used.
However, advice on the DHS website clearly states that REAL ID is not valid for travel to Mexico, Canada or other international travel, so you should make sure you have the required form of ID for the destination you intend to travel to.
When should you apply for your REAL ID?
REAL ID documents take the same amount of time to issue as they did before REAL ID existed, so you should allow the same amount of time to receive your updated one.
However, the best advice, if you know you are planning to use the ID for domestic flights in the future, is to apply for a new REAL ID-compliant document well in advance to ensure you don’t have any issues when trying to board a flight.
REAL ID will soon be necessary for domestic air travel within the US
As we’ve seen, there are currently many forms of ID that are valid for flying domestically within the US, and you don’t necessarily need a passport to catch a plane.
However, in the future, supposedly from May 7, 2025, if the date doesn’t change again, REAL ID documents will be required to fly in the US, so you’re advised to make sure you obtain a valid form of ID well in advance of that date if you hope to continue flying without any hassle.