Think DMV lines are long now? Imagine if 4 million people wait to get their REAL ID.

A driver’s license with a gold star in the corner is a REAL ID.
A driver’s license with a gold star in the corner is a REAL ID.

As publicity stunts go, this one was pretty low-key: State Board of Transportation member Allen Moran went to his local DMV office in Nags Head two days before Thanksgiving to get his REAL ID, a form of driver’s license that meets stricter federal identification standards that go into effect in October 2020.

The press was notified and invited to come along, as they will be when transportation board members across the state go to their local DMV offices to get REAL ID’s in the coming weeks.

The Division of Motor Vehicles has no money to market the REAL ID, so it is looking to low-cost strategies like this to get the word out. DMV commissioner Torre Jessup says he expects as many as 4 million North Carolinians will want a REAL ID before October 2020, and he fears too many of them will wait until the last minute to come in.

“We need people to come in now,” Jessup said at a Board of Transportation meeting earlier this month. “If we set out to achieve a goal of getting every driver’s license holder a REAL ID by this deadline, we’re talking about 220,000 additional people coming through our offices each month. We can’t handle that with our current infrastructure, and we definitely can’t handle it if everybody waits until the last minute. And it would be a disaster. So we’ve got to start now.”

Why we need REAL ID

The REAL ID looks and works like a driver’s license or state-issued ID, except that it has a gold star in the upper right-hand corner. The star indicates that the license satisfies federal ID requirements for boarding airplanes and entering federal buildings, military bases and nuclear facilities.

Congress created the new identification standards through the REAL ID Act of 2005 in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Some military bases already require that civilian visitors either have a REAL ID or two forms of other identification, such as a veteran’s health ID card issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

But where most people will find the ID useful will be in boarding a domestic flight starting on Oct. 1, 2020. Those without a state-issued REAL ID would still be able to get on a plane with a standard driver’s license, but they’ll also need a second form of identification spelled out in the federal law, such as a passport.

The DMV began issuing REAL ID’s on May 1, and as of Monday more than 211,000 people have received them. Unlike a standard driver’s license, which can be renewed online, someone must come in to the DMV to obtain a REAL ID.

Jessup says he worries not enough people know about REAL ID yet.

He says DMV will use a “grassroots effort” to draw attention to the ID and urge people to get them sooner rather than later. The agency will make it easier to get one by taking some of its mobile driver’s license offices to businesses, university campuses and military bases where large numbers of travelers work. It will also work through travel agents associations, whose members book travel for business and pleasure, to draw attention to the ID.

DMV will also try to drum up free media, which is where the press events with Board of Transportation members come in. The board’s members may not be household names – can you name one? – but Jessup says the press came out when he got his REAL ID in Winston-Salem in late September. He told board members this month that he thinks the same can happen with them.

“People recognize you, recognize your faces,” he told them. “If we can get some media out of this, we need that free media.”

What you need to get a REAL ID

Some of the board members said they were concerned about having the right documents to get a REAL ID; they didn’t want to get turned away under the glare of TV lights. Board chairman Michael Fox assured them that they would be coached ahead of time.

“You will not be made to look foolish,” he said. “You will be successful because we want people to see how you can be successful.”

The documents that meet the requirements include a birth certificate, a valid U.S. passport or immigration documents, and a Social Security card or W-2 form. Applicants must also provide two documents to prove their residency. Under federal law, the DMV scans the documents used to obtain the REAL ID and permanently stores them.

A REAL ID costs the same as a standard driver’s license – $40 for a Class C license good for eight years. If your license is not up for renewal, getting a REAL ID will cost the $13 you’d pay for a duplicate license.

More information on North Carolina’s REAL ID, including the types of identification required to get one, is available at

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling