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'Nab the earliest appointment you can get' for a Real ID, travel experts say — soon, you'll need one to fly

"It may take significantly longer than normal to get your Real ID."

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Though the pandemic delayed the national enforcement deadline for Real IDs by a year, the revised deadline is getting closer. Starting October 1, you'll need a Real ID-compliant driver's license or state identification card to get through security screening at all U.S. airports.

That deadline may seem far away, but experts say that if you plan on flying this fall or winter, you should book an appointment at your state's Department of Motor Vehicles as soon as possible. Covid-related protocols are likely to reduce the number of DMV appointments and increase the turnaround time for new licenses, and pent-up demand for post-pandemic travel means more people are likely to fly this year.

The closer it gets to the deadline, the harder it will be to get an appointment, travel experts say.

"Nab the earliest appointment you can get," agrees Gabe Saglie, senior editor at deal site Travelzoo.

Why do you need a Real ID to fly?

Real ID-compliant licenses look a lot like your standard driver's licenses but have a star in the top right-hand corner. The star signifies that you underwent a thorough vetting process to obtain your ID.

The rollout of Real IDs is the final phase of an act passed by Congress in 2005, after the bipartisan 9/11 Commission found that the 19 terrorists who participated in the 9/11 attacks had collectively acquired more than 30 driver's licenses and identification cards that helped them rent cars and board flights.

Real IDs will be required not only to board a commercial flight but to enter federal facilities and nuclear power plants, according to the Department of Homeland Security. If you don't have a Real ID, Transportation Security Administration officers will also accept your passport (U.S. or foreign), Global Entry card, and a few other forms of identification.

Each state has different requirements for undergoing the Real ID vetting process. You can check your state DMV's website for more details on what you'll need to bring with you. A few states — Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, and New York — are offering both Real IDs and "enhanced" driver's licenses, both of which will pass muster with TSA. Washington state only offers enhanced licenses.

'It may take significantly longer' to get your Real ID

"Due to Covid-19 restrictions, appointment availability at your local RMV or DMV may be limited, and many states are reporting processing delays," says Hayley Berg, travel expert at Hopper. "Therefore, it may take significantly longer than normal to get your Real ID."

The most difficult appointments to get will be during "the next few days or weeks," Saglie says. However, if you wait until the late summer or fall, the backlog of appointments might push you past the October 1 deadline. So it's best to book an appointment now.

Be prepared to pay more for a Real ID than you would to obtain or renew a regular license. For example, Pennsylvania charges a one-time fee of $30 for Real IDs, on top of its typical driver's license renewal fee of $30.50. However, not all states are charging extra. In Missouri, a Real ID-compliant license is the same price as a noncompliant license. (Check your local DMV's website for costs.)

Check your passport expiration date

Passports offer the same clearance as Real IDs when it comes to flying. However, if your passport is going to expire soon, you'll want to start the renewal process now. Covid has slowed down passport processing, says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommers.com.

"In 2021, the process has taken 10 to 12 weeks for standard service, and 4 to 6 weeks for 'expedited' service that costs an extra $60," she says.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, appointment availability at your local RMV or DMV may be limited, and many states are reporting processing delays.
Hayley Berg
travel expert at Hopper

Remember that "soon" for passport expiration usually means within the next year or so, not within the next few weeks.

"Many destinations could require at least six months of passport validity for entry," says Travelzoo's Saglie.

Don't count on expedited service to save the day, either. "Options to expedite can be pricey, and are not as dependable as they were pre-Covid," Saglie notes. "If your passport expires in 2021 or 2022, even, the time to renew is now."

With so many Americans planning to travel, "you won't want to put off the process of getting your Real ID or passport renewed until the fall, because there will likely be a surge of people trying to go through the process," Berg says.

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