PA ‘REAL’ drivers’ licenses and what it could mean for you

September 10, 2017
An example of Pennsylvania’s new driver’s license

You’re a Pennsylvania resident, and you’ve booked a flight to Omaha.

As you go through your preflight checklist before heading out the door, did you remember to pocket your passport?


Domestic, not just international flights, could at some point require a U.S. passport or other document because the Pennsylvania driver’s license just doesn’t cut it under the federal REAL ID Act for screening passengers as part of security. The REAL ID Act, passed in 2005, is an anti-terrorism law aimed at making it more difficult for terrorists and criminals to hide their identities by fraudulently obtaining a driver’s license.

William McGowen, executive director of the Washington County Redevelopment Authority, which oversees the Washington County Airport, is a former U.S. Navy aviator who pilots his own plane, so he doesn’t deal quite as often as ordinary mortals with commercial airlines.

But aviation is a topic near and dear to his heart, and he wants the flying public to know it may reach a point when the Pennsylvania driver’s license is no longer adequate identification to board a domestic flight.

“Essentially, since 9/11, there have been requirements that have been put in place at the federal level for all drivers’ licenses across the United States,” McGowen said.

McGowen’s bailiwick, the Washington County Airport, as a denizen for private planes, does not have commercial service. “It’s not a big deal for Washington County, but it’s a big deal for Pennsylvania because all of a sudden you want to go fly someplace, you want to get on an airplane and they’re saying, ‘oh, no, you can’t do that,’” McGowen explained.

Alternatively, passengers must be cleared through satisfactory secondary screening before boarding commercial aircraft. “And everybody is in line. But you have to go over here and 45 minutes later you miss your airplane because you’re going through this separate evaluation where they have to verify some other way that you’re OK.

“That’s why we’re making a big deal.”

A “booklet-style” U.S. passport, of course, complies with the federal REAL ID Act for travelers and those visiting federal facilities, such as federal buildings, but the website in December stated “the majority of Americans do not have a passport.” The U.S. State Department’s statistics at that time placed the number of passport holders at about 46 percent, excluding “passport cards,” which are identification cards that allow sea and overland entry to the United States from Canada, Mexico and certain parts of the Caribbean, but not the rest of the world. The national figure also mirrors the number of Pennsylvanians with U.S. passports.

The passport isn’t the only alternative. The aforementioned passport card will work, too. The Transportation Security Administration at its website,, lists 16 valid means of identification for passengers 18 and older.

In May, Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 3 of 2017, which will allow Pennsylvania to eventually issue REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards, which can be used to access airports and federal facilities.

And on Wednesday, the state requested another REAL ID enforcement extension from the federal Department of Homeland Security, lengthening the time granted on a previous one that is set to expire Oct. 10.

Beginning Oct. 1, 2020, all air travelers will need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license, photo identification card or an acceptable alternative identification approved by the Transportation Security Administration to board domestic commercial aircraft or enter a federal facility.

Information on REAL ID in Pennsylvania, including frequently asked questions, is available at

Like Pennsylvania, about half the states have been given extensions, according to the federal Department of Homeland Security website.

Under the federal REAL ID Act, beginning Jan. 22, 2018, residents in states that have not come into compliance with federal requirements or obtained an extension will need to show an alternative form of identification such as a passport at airports and when accessing federal buildings and military bases.

The state Department of Transportation will continue to request extensions from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security until REAL ID products are available for residents. Under Pennsylvania Act 3 of this year, no Pennsylvania resident will be required to get a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or identification card, but residents who choose to do so will be able to use those forms of identification when the new federal requirements go into effect.

According to a PennDOT news release, a variety of changes will be necessary for Pennsylvania to issue REAL ID-compliant products. Preliminary work on REAL ID has begun, and PennDOT estimates REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards will be available at the customer’s option in 2019. This will allow ample time for customers who want a REAL ID product to obtain one before the final Department of Homeland Security effective date of Oct. 1, 2020.

Asked for clarification, Alexis Campbell, community relations coordinator for PennDOT’s driver and vehicle services in Harrisburg, responded via email, “What those changes specifically are is not known at this point, however, PennDOT has begun to develop a deployment plan and will update the public with more specific information as it becomes available.”

In a news release issued over the summer titled, “PennDOT to phase in newly designed driver’s licenses, identification cards,” the department discusses what it calls “enhanced features” for new cards that “are not REAL ID-compliant.”

The features include:

• A larger primary portrait and a smaller “ghost portrait.”

• A two-dimensional barcode that contains data from the front of the card unique to the cardholder.

• Laser perforation. The keystone outline with “PA” is embedded into the card stock. It can be observed by holding the card up to a light.

• Lamination. Each card is laminated with a variable pattern with the state motto, “Virtue, Liberty and Independence,” keystone outline and 1787, the year in which Pennsylvanians ratified the U.S. Constitution.

Eliminated from the new cards, which will be generated at all driver and photo centers by the end of October, will be a magnetic strip. PennDOT worked for 22 months with Morpho Trust USA on planning, design and deployment of the new cards.

“The update is an important component of PennDOT’s ongoing work to enhance and protect the integrity of the driver’s license and identification card issuance process,” said PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards in a news release.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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