On May 7, 2025, the long-awaited REAL ID system is set to come into effect, and this will impact anybody taking a domestic flight within the US who plans to use identification such as a state-issued ID or a state-issued driver’s license to board their flight.
But what exactly is REAL ID? How can you obtain one? Are they valid for international travel? And what else can you use them for? To help you understand queries such as these and more, in this post, we answer the question, does REAL ID replace a passport for international travel?
Does REAL ID Replace a Passport for International Travel? The short answer
There a quite a few details to go into regarding the upcoming REAL ID scheme, but before we get into that, let’s start with the short answer.
Does REAL ID replace a passport for international travel? In a word, no. When traveling internationally, you need to make sure you are carrying the required documents, which in most cases means a valid passport book.
In some cases, other documents may be used in the place of a passport – more on this later – but REAL ID is not a valid form of identification for international travel.
So now let’s discuss the question in more depth.
What is REAL ID?
Currently, to board domestic flights within the US, several types of ID are accepted, including state-issued IDs, state-issued driver’s licenses and others.
However, as part of an effort to increase security, the US government passed an Act of Congress in 2005 to introduce a new system known as REAL ID.
This system establishes “minimum security standards for license issuance and production and prohibits certain federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes driver’s licenses and identification cards from states not meeting the Act’s minimum standards.”
Once this system comes into effect, the only forms of ID that will be accepted for domestic travel will be those that are REAL ID-compliant. REAL ID will also be required for entering certain federal facilities and entering nuclear power plants.
As of now, all states are issuing REAL ID-compliant ID cards and have been doing so for up to four years. This means if you have received a new state ID, driving license or other relevant ID – or have renewed your old one recently – it is likely to be REAL ID-compliant.
However, if your card is older than four years, it won’t be.
When will it come into effect?
Although the Act was passed in 2005, the date when the REAL ID system will come into effect has been pushed back several times.
Currently, the date is set for May 7, 2025. Unless the date changes again, from this date on, you will need REAL ID – or a passport book or card – to board a domestic flight within the US.
This means you should apply to replace your old non-compliant forms of ID well in advance of this date if you plan to use them for any domestic flights.
Can you use REAL ID for domestic travel?
At the moment, REAL ID is not required, and all the usual forms of ID you use for domestic flights are still valid.
However, from May 7, 2025, it’s not the case that you can use REAL ID for domestic travel – rather it’s that you must use REAL ID.
After this date, the only alternative will be to use a valid passport book or passport card when boarding flights to domestic destinations.
Note that you can use REAL ID to travel to Alaska or Hawaii since these are domestic destinations. However, if you transit through Canada on the way to Alaska, you will need the relevant documentation for that part of the journey.
You can also use REAL ID for direct travel to destinations such as Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico etc. since these are also considered domestic destinations.
Can you use REAL ID for international travel?
When it comes to international travel, the situation is different.
In almost all cases, the only valid document for international travel is the passport book, and without one, you cannot leave US territory and travel abroad.
This includes traveling to Mexico by air. Usually, you won’t be permitted to board a flight to Mexico without a valid passport book, but if you somehow manage to board the plane, you will be turned back at customs and immigration and sent home again.
You also can’t use REAL ID to enter Mexico via a land border. To enter Mexico overland, a passport card as opposed to a passport book is also considered a valid form of ID, but a REAL ID card can’t be used to enter Mexico.
For Canada, you can use a passport book, passport card or NEXUS card to enter the country via plane. For overland travel, the FAST card is also valid – but REAL ID is not valid, either for air or land travel.
For all other countries, a valid passport book is required – and in some cases, a visa is also necessary.
When will REAL ID be available?
REAL ID is already available, and all states are now issuing REAL ID-compliant cards. This means you may already have a REAL ID-compliant card, and if you don’t, any relevant card that is issued now will be REAL ID-compliant.
However, if your most recent ID cards were issued before your state started issuing REAL ID-compliant cards, they won’t be compliant, and you will need to apply for replacements if you want to use them to board domestic flights.
How do you apply for REAL ID?
Since all state-issued cards in all states are now REAL ID-Compliant, you don’t need to do anything special to apply for a compliant card.
All you need to do is apply for a replacement of the relevant card, which includes state-issued ID and state-issued driver’s licenses along with several others, and the ID you receive will automatically be REAL ID-compliant.
How do you know if your ID is REAL ID-compliant?
If you have an ID card and are not sure if it’s REAL ID-compliant, it’s easy to check.
Simply look at the top corner to see if it has a star there. If it does, it means it’s REAL ID-compliant. If not, it means you’ll need to apply for a new one if you want to use it for domestic flights.
Here are some examples of the star logos you might find:
Can you use REAL ID to travel to Mexico or Canada?
No, REAL ID is not valid for travel into Mexico or Canada, either by air or overland.
Can you use REAL ID to re-enter the US?
Yes, certain forms of REAL ID can be used to re-enter the US – for example, a REAL ID-compliant Enhanced Driver’s License can be used to re-enter the US from countries participating in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
Can you use REAL ID for cruise ships?
If the cruise is an international one, REAL ID is not a valid form of ID – you will need to use an ID document that is valid for international travel, which, in most cases, means a passport book.
How can you apply for a passport?
Applying for a passport for international travel essentially involves filling out the necessary forms and then either presenting them in person at an acceptance facility or mailing them.
There are over 7,400 acceptance facilities in the US, with some accepting walk-ins and others requiring an appointment.
If you can travel to an acceptance facility, this is probably the easiest and fastest way to do it.
If you are unable or don’t want to travel to an acceptance facility, you can also apply by mail. However, this method may take slightly longer.
It’s also possible to receive an emergency passport in just a few days, and the process for doing this is different.
For further details on how to apply for a passport for international travel, check the US government’s official Travel.State.Gov website.
How long does it take to receive a passport?
The routine processing time for an application for a passport is 10-13 weeks, which is essentially around three months – so you should apply for your passport well in advance of travel.
You can also pay more for an expedited service, in which case the turnaround is around seven to nine weeks.
In emergencies, it is also possible to obtain a passport in a much shorter time, although this is not the usual procedure.
REAL ID is valid for domestic but not international travel
So as we’ve seen, once the new REAL ID system comes into effect on May 7, 2025 – assuming the date isn’t pushed back again – a REAL ID-compliant card will be required for domestic flights unless you have a passport book or passport card.
However, when it comes to international travel, REAL ID is not a valid form of ID, even for travel to Mexico or Canada by air or land, so if you plan to travel abroad in the near future, you should make sure you apply for a valid passport book well in advance of your trip.