Real ID

REAL ID cards, like this example, differ from driver’s licenses in several key ways.

A century ago, more than half the states in America didn’t require drivers to have a license to get behind the wheel.

Times have, of course, changed.

And when the sun creeps over the horizon on Oct. 1, 2020, Pennsylvanians will need more than that driver’s license if they want to do anything as simple as hop on a puddle-jumper flight to Cleveland or Detroit, enter one of the commonwealth’s military bases or any other federal facility. That’s the day when, ready or not, Pennsylvanians will need REAL ID identification cards if they want to do those things and don’t have a valid passport.

Residents could start getting their hands on the REAL ID cards earlier this year. Since March 1, about 525,000 of the 2.3 million customers the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has dealt with have signed up for a REAL ID card, according to Alexis Campbell, a spokeswoman for PennDOT. That’s an opt-in rate of 23%. The remainder decided to get a standard driver’s license or an identification card that cannot be used for REAL ID purposes.

“We are encouraging our customers who foresee a need for a REAL ID compliant driver’s license or ID card to come in and get their product well before the October deadline,” Campbell said.

REAL ID cards differ from driver’s licenses in several key ways. First they have a barcode that contains data unique to the cardholder. There’s also a larger primary portrait and a smaller “ghost” portrait, and a laser perforation with “PA” embedded on the card. Each card is also laminated, with the state motto, “Virtue, Liberty and Independence,” keystone outline and 1787, the year that Pennsylvania ratified the U.S. Constitution.

These features make it harder for the identification cards to be forged. PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards said in a news release last year, “The update is an important component of PennDOT’s ongoing work to enhance and project the integrity of the driver’s license and identification process.”

The new identification cards are the result of the REAL ID Act, which became law in 2005, four years after the 9/11 attacks. Until 2017, Pennsylvania was one of just a handful of states that resisted the REAL ID requirements. Gov. Tom Corbett signed a law in 2012 prohibiting Pennsylvania from implementing the REAL ID law, saying that it was intrusive and too costly. Under the regime of Gov. Tom Wolf, a middle ground was reached where residents had the choice of getting a REAL ID card or sticking with the standard driver’s license.

The requirements to receive a REAL ID card are more onerous than they are when renewing a driver’s license. Individuals applying for a REAL ID card have to present either a birth certificate or an unexpired passport, a Social Security card and two pieces of proof that they live at their current address, such as a driver’s license, and a utility bill or bank statement that is less than three months old.

If a driver has recently gotten a standard license, they can trade that in for a REAL ID and be credited for the remaining time left on it plus four years.

The only location in the Pittsburgh region to get a REAL ID over the counter is the license center in the Chartiers Valley Shopping Center, just outside Bridgeville. Customers can also take the required documentation into a local driver’s license center and have it pre-verified for REAL ID. The transaction can be completed there, and the REAL ID shipped in the mail.

Additional information on REAL ID is available at


Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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