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REAL ID: What Notaries Need To Know

Update 6-4-21. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the federal government ushered in a new era of national security to improve protections of our infrastructure, government and citizens. One of the major initiatives was the REAL ID Act, which set new and improved security standards for all U.S.-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards.

After 13 years of planning and implementation, 37 states and territories have been certified as “compliant” with all REAL ID requirements, with the remaining 19 expected to be compliant by October 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

For Notaries, that means you’re going to encounter a lot of identity documents that have unfamiliar designs, symbols and security features. And while the REAL ID Act will have a tremendous impact on reducing fraud and imposture, your challenge in the short-term is ensuring your ability to recognize valid credentials and not refuse a notarization because you’re not familiar with them.

What’s Changed?

Since the REAL ID Act was passed by Congress in 2005, the focus has been on improving both the security of the physical IDs themselves, and the process by which they are issued. Specifically, government-issued IDs must now possess anti-counterfeiting technology; the issuance process must have checks and balances to prevent “insider fraud”; and the issuing agencies must use documentary evidence and record checks to ensure applicants for REAL IDs are who they claim to be.

By October 2020, anyone who wants to board a domestic commercial flight or enter certain federal government facilities must have a REAL ID-compliant ID (or a passport). And while they aren’t mandatory for other uses, like registering to vote or opening a bank account, those people and entities who rely on ID documents will have an increased level of trust in REAL IDs.

Familiar Features, New Processes

Under REAL ID, all identity credentials must be made of modern, tamper-proof materials and have designs that are difficult to replicate. According to the Act, the personal data on each license or ID card must include the holder’s:

  • Full legal name
  • Date of birth
  • Gender
  • Driver’s license or ID card number
  • Address of principal residence
  • The holder’s signature
  • Photograph (digital)

The Act also specifies that cards contain machine-readable technology and security features that prevent counterfeiting, tampering and duplication. And, like U.S. currency, they must be stored in, and issued from, highly secure facilities by carefully screened employees.

In the application and issuance phase, the REAL ID Act requires strict control and careful verification of the identity of every applicant, whether they apply for a REAL ID-compliant or a standard (noncompliant) driver’s license. Every state DMV must obtain a minimum proof of identity before a driver’s license or ID card can be issued. Two key requirements are:

  • Proof of lawful status (U.S. citizen, or foreigner who is in the U.S. legally)
  • Social Security Number

The DMV will verify the authenticity of these documents before issuing an ID to the applicant.

One key difference between standard and REAL ID cards occurs during the application process at the DMV. Everyone who applies for a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or ID card must present additional documents (such as a birth certificate) in person at a DMV office. The additional documents provide an extra measure of security as defined in the REAL ID Act.

Differences In Design

Some of these differences are visible symbols and other markings on the ID. Most states are placing symbols on the REAL ID-compliant IDs they issue. The symbols currently include:

Standard state-issued IDs also have specific visual indicators that further ensure they are authentic. These indicators vary by state, but typically are accompanied by the text “Not for Federal Purposes” or a similar phrase. Enhanced driver’s licenses, which some states issue, are also considered REAL ID-compliant and are marked as “Enhanced”; some of them have an American flag as their REAL ID symbol.

What REAL ID Means For Notaries

To achieve full compliance with the REAL ID Act, a state must meet more than 30 different criteria set by Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some of the criteria relate to the administration of REAL ID by the DMV, and control of facilities that store and issue licenses and ID cards. Other requirements are more relevant to Notaries. For example:

  • States must start issuing REAL ID-compliant credentials before DHS deems them or the IDs they issue fully compliant. This means that you may start seeing REAL ID-compliant credentials from states that are not currently in compliance. However, these are acceptable IDs so long as they line up with your state Notary requirements and guidelines. If the DHS later asks a state to change its ID’s, you may see anything from minor changes (such as a different symbol) to a totally new design.
  • A state’s REAL ID cards may look a lot like — or completely different than — its previous IDs. This is because some states make only minor changes to their card design, if it already meets the criteria for REAL ID. Other states issue REAL ID-compliant credentials in a totally new and different design.
  • Once a state achieves full compliance with REAL ID, they must apply for REAL ID certification every 3 years. During the recertification process, they may modify design of the IDs they issue.

Where We Are And What’s Ahead

You may have noticed that some states adopted the REAL ID Act early on, while others are only doing so now. This has resulted in an uneven implementation of the standards nationwide. But by October 1, 2020:

  • All U.S. states and territories should be fully compliant with the REAL ID Act.
  • Individuals will need to present a REAL ID-compliant ID (or, alternatively, a passport) to board a domestic commercial flight, enter a military base, certain federal buildings and a nuclear facility.

All this means that the look of IDs you encounter may change over the course of time. No state requires Notaries to only accept REAL ID-compliant IDs. But the current environment means the IDs from some states may come in different forms for the near future.

Having access to a current and reliable reference resource, such as the Keesing Documentchecker Guide, is also critical. This approach will help you stay the course on what has been a long and winding road for our nation.

Kristin Stanberry is an editor and ID document acquisition expert for Keesing Technologies, global leader in ID document verification. She gathers her knowledge from multiple sources throughout North America, including personal contacts with leading experts and government agencies.


Add your comment

John Axt

11 Mar 2019

What is not mentioned in the article is the fact that BECAUSE of this program, many people are being forced to use names that they do not commonly use. Let's say your ID shows your name as Nancy D. Public. When you go through this REAL ID process they determine that your name, because of a marriage, will be shown as Nancy Q. Public. For years you have used the name Nancy D. Public including on the deed when you purchased your home. Now comes time to refinance or sell your property. The recorded deed shows the name as Nancy D. Public and the Title company or lender has not bothered to ask for a copy of your ID before closing. They don't know there is a difference because they have not bothered to verify your identity. Now you are at the closing and you present your ID. The ID and the documents do not match! Funny how that works. In Florida, the law is very specific that the Notary may use ONE form of ID to verify the identity of the party. The law does not state that you can hobble together an identity by using multiple documents until you arrive at the identity that is required on the documents. To further back this up, take a look at the SOS Q&A. One is very clear that if the identity on the ID does not match, there are only a few paths to follow. Go get a new ID in the proper name or use and AKA statement. Many have suggested that you may use Subscribing witnesses. NOT TRUE! IN Florida you can only use them when there is little likelihood that the person can obtain a state sanctioned ID. Very simply, a bad closing could be avoided if the lender and or title company would ask for ID early in the process!


12 Mar 2019

Well said, Mr. Axt. I nearly did not get to board my flight back home after vacation because one ID says "Julie," which is the name I use/go by/called, and the other says "Julia." The people who make the notary laws are not notaries and do not know how difficult -- and risky -- being a notary is. It's a wonder we have any notaries at all!

Debora Green

02 Apr 2019

Thank you for this useful information

Julie Rydell-Uriarte

14 Feb 2024

This was very helpful, thank you

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