Do you really need a passport to fly domestically now?

Sep 23, 2015 at 12:24 p.m. ET
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Between the crowded seats, weather delays and playing luggage Tetris to fit all your items into your bags, traveling by airplane is already pretty stressful. Hearing that the federal Real ID program could complicate matters by requiring you to have a passport to take a domestic flight hasn't been welcome news for most Americans.

But there's no need to panic over your upcoming travel plans just yet.

Here's the truth about the Real ID program, how it may affect you and whether or not you'll soon need a passport to fly domestically.

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The Real ID Act was passed by Congress in 2005. It established certain standards for state-issued driver's licenses and state identification cards to increase their reliability and make it harder for fraudulent cards to be produced. Implementation of the Act has been in progress since 2013, with access to restricted and semi-restricted government buildings being subject to the Act's standards over time. The final phase of the Act's implementation is set to begin Jan. 1, 2016, and deals with the ability to board federally regulated commercial aircraft.

There are a few important things to note — mainly, that the majority of states and U.S. territories already have licenses and cards that satisfy the requirements of the Real ID Act. Therefore people from those states should have no difficulties in continuing to use their existing cards as their identifying documentation when boarding a plan.

Currently there are only four states and one territory in which residents could be impacted when trying to fly under the Act — American Samoa, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New York — and even there, the issue is much less cut-and-dried than "you'll need a passport to fly anywhere."

So if your driver's license or identifying card isn't from one of those locations, you do not need a passport to fly domestically; for you, it's business as usual.

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If you do happen to hail from one of these areas, there still might not be a need to fill out a passport form or get an alternate form of TSA-approved ID just yet.

Phase 4 of the Real ID Act is set to begin no earlier than Jan. 1, 2016, and even then, there appears to be a buffer period to continue to allow people to fly without Real ID Act-compliant forms of identification.

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According to the Department of Homeland Security, "Each phase will begin with a 3-month period where agencies will provide notice to individuals attempting to use driver’s licenses or identification cards from non-compliant states but still allow access." Assuming the government follows through on this statement of allowing people access for this three-month period, the earliest anyone would need a passport to travel domestically would be April 2016. The DHS has stated it plans to provide ample and advance notice in the event that people from these three areas would need passports or alternative identification documents, so there are no surprises at the airport security desk.

So if you were dreaming of avoiding holiday hosting duties because all your guests can't fly to your home, sorry to ruin your dreams of getting takeout instead. Turns out the Real ID Act will have a pretty limited impact on domestic flight passengers.