Ask The Consumerists: Can I Fly With No ID?

Reader Dan asks:

I have a friend that moved to NYC a little while ago from Iowa. She hadn’t switched to a NYS Photo ID yet, as she isn’t sure if this is going to be a permanent move, so she has been using her Iowa State Photo ID (non-Driver’s License, which is important as you’ll see) around town.

Yesterday morning, she left her wallet in a taxi in midtown, and didn’t realize until it was too late to get the medallion number. In her wallet was her Iowa ID, a college photo ID, and her social security card (yes, she knows it’s not a good idea to carry it on her at all times, especially now).

So basically she is without ID right now. We’re supposed to be flying out of town next Wednesday, but obviously she won’t be able to board a plane without ID. The lovely folks at the Iowa Department of Transportation – Motor Vehicle Divisionhave informed her that they cannot issue a replacement ID for non-Driver’s Licenses without her going to Iowa, in person, to request one. Were it a Driver’s License, they’d send out a temporary one until a new Photo Driver’s License was completed — but for non-Driver’s License, State Issued IDs they have no method for providing replacements. At all.

She does have a filed police report, as well as a Birth Certificate. Will she be able to fly? What more can she do to try to get some sort of valid ID?

Our answer inside.

Well Dan, the good news is that she’ll probably be able to fly. The bad news is that we can’t definitively say that she will be able to board a plane without ID because the laws regarding IDs and planes are secret. Yes, these laws are considered “SSI” or Sensitive Security Information. A civil liberty activist recently petitioned the Supreme Court to disclose the law, but his petition was denied.

So, the answer is we don’t know if you’re legally required to show ID or not, but we do know that people have, in the past, been allowed to board planes without showing ID. To board a plane without ID, you should explain your situation to the TSA agent. Bring any documentation you have, and expect to go through secondary screening.

As for your question about how your friend can go about getting her ID back, this is going to get a little complicated.

Unless she is willing to go back to Iowa, here is the best way we found for her to get her ID mess sorted out:

1) She can use her birth certificate, credit cards, library cards, atm cards, and a witness to apply in person for a US Passport OR Ask her college to send her a new student ID. To get a passport without showing photo ID, the witness will need to bring ID, fill out a form DS-71 in the presence of a passport agent, have known her at least 2 years, and be a US citizen.

2) Once she has a new student ID and/or a passport, she can apply for a new Social Security Card. She will need her birth certificate and either the passport or the student ID.

3) Once she has a social security card, she can apply for a New York State ID Card.

The moral of this story is not to carry your social security card. In addition to dealing with this mess, your friend is going to want to check out the FTC’s ID Theft page, as well as contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to see what programs Iowa has in place. We’d also suggest complaining about their lack of a replacement program for ID cards. Good luck, and be sure to say “Hi” to the TSA for us.

If she’s still feeling nervous about flying without ID, NPR has a helpful story she can listen to. Heck, some people refuse to show ID on principle!—MEGHANN MARCO

(Photo: Ben Tubby)


Edit Your Comment

  1. JohnMc says:

    Why doesn’t she just get a NY nondriver photo ID? As long as she can show some sort of residency like maybe a rental receipt, the state should be willing.

  2. brooklynbs says:

    Dan’s friend can read this info and see if she can get a New York State non-driver’s ID:

  3. Sandtiger says:

    She can fly without an ID HOWEVER she will be subject to a higher amount/level of security screenings. (I read an article in USA Today about this about a month ago)

  4. Meg Marco says:

    She lost her social security card. “A U.S. Social Security Card is required when you apply for an original New York State photo license, learner permit, or non-driver identification card. It is also required when you renew a non-driver identification card.”

  5. Tallanvor says:

    It is possible to fly without an ID. You just have to be prepared for extra security. There’s an article in Wired about a guy who did it purposely.

    Since Dan’s friend has a police report and birth certificate, they’re not as likely to hassle her about it as much. Believe it or not, the TSA knows this happens.

    As an aside, there are adults from Iowa who never needed a car? That just blows my mind!

  6. phloighd says:

    The moral of this story is not to carry your social security card?

  7. phloighd says:

    @phloighd: bah, ignore that

  8. virgilstar says:

    Simple – just call ahead and speak to the TSA at the local airport, and let them know about the situation. We occasionally have to carry dangerous looking items (metal tubes) on a plane, and rather than deal with the idiots on the front line of the TSA, we just call ahead and get ushered into a back room, all very nice and cosy chat with the boss, and we’re through in no time. So long as you have nothing to hide, they’re cool.

  9. jamesdenver says:

    Of course this is after the fact, but I always keep a scan of my passport and driver’s license in my e-mail files. If I’m traveling, especially overseas, I can simply pop into an internet cafe and print it out.

    You’ll be way ahead in the game if your documents are lost of stolen, or heading back to an airport to fly home, domestic or internationally.

  10. brilliantmistake says:

    I am one of those retards who forgot her id before flying, and still got through security just fine. Really, it just pointed out to me that the whole “show id” thing is pretty pointless. Any terrorist worth their salt can fake an id anyway.

  11. Gari N. Corp says:

    I had a social security card and NYS non-driver ID stolen once while on a business trip. I was able to travel by calling ahead to the airline, and bringing along a copy of the police report and a business card. I don’t recall having to deal with the TSA though – this may have been in the halcyon pre-9/11 days. Thanks for the info about the need for social card to get a driver’s ID, I’ve never bothered to replace it and use a passport, but I’ve been feeling I should do something about that.

  12. valthun says:

    With regard to the Social Security card, be sure to apply for a replacement card, not a new card as that can result in a new number. Then result in lots of headaches with the IRS.

  13. roamer1 says:

    At least Dan’s friend has a copy of her birth certificate — I’ve heard horror stories of people having severe difficulty resolving ID problems because they didn’t have a copy of their BC and couldn’t get one because they had no other ID. Presumably, the Real ID act makes these sort of Kafkaesque nightmares even more possible…and is one reason a lot of states are fighting it.

    IMO, the requirement to have a SS card to get a DL or non-driver ID is completely asinine, especially when applied to native-born Americans, for whom a BC proves citizenship. What exactly is the point?

    TSA has ways around the ID requirement in cases of lost/stolen ID — I nearly had to deal with that very situation myself a few years ago when I lost my DL somewhere between check-in and security at LAS, but fortunately, someone found it and turned it in to lost-and-found at the last minute.

  14. weave says:

    btw, another point to this. The TSA considers an expired driver’s license as invalid. I had that happen to me once during a trip. On the outbound flight the TSA screener said “I hope you’re coming back before Thursday (my birthday) else you’re not coming back.” I asked why and she pointed out my license will expire then.

    Then when I got to the destination airport, the car rental company refused to rent me a car unless I returned it before my license expired.

    So thanks to that date on your license, one day you’re legit, the next you’re a potential terrorist.

    Fortunately I was able to get my wife to FedEx me my passport.

    I read some horror stories about missing IDs and expired licenses on the net, including claims you could land up on the TSA watch list and get the special treatment every time you fly after that.

  15. jules1651 says:

    I’ve flown domestically out of IAD without ID before. She should give herself plenty of time at the airport, as you definitely open yourself up to extra screening. The dumped out my bag, the whole thing.

  16. tftp says:

    The TSA website addresses this issue. ID is not required, but results in “additional screening.” See the FAQ on the TSA website.

  17. drierp says:

    Instructions on how to fly without an id can be found here:

    You’ll probably get some extra searching, but they’ll let you on the plane…

  18. MadMolecule says:

    I lost my Social Security card back in about 1992 when my wallet got stolen, and getting a replacement was alarmingly easy. I just went into the nearest SSA office and told them my name, address, and SSN, and they gave me a temporary card on the spot. I got the permanent card a week or so later.

    That’s right: 15 years ago I didn’t have to show ID of any kind for a SocSec card.

  19. EtherealStrife says:

    @MadMolecule: That’s right: 15 years ago I didn’t have to show ID of any kind for a SocSec card.

    Uh what’s your point? You shouldn’t have to. A SS card isn’t terribly useful without an id and a body to go along with it, and if you already know the SSN then it’s completely worthless to anyone other than you.

  20. nullset says:

    Find a friendly health club and ask them if they’ll create a member card for you. I did this once when my wallet was stolen, and I had no trouble getting through.

    I was probably just lucky though :)

  21. timmus says:

    This is why it’s a good idea to have an extra copy of your drivers license. Last year I switched my license temporarily to my parents house. Technically you’re supposed to destroy the old DL but instead I tucked it away in a hidden pouch in my travel bag, for “just in case”. I actually had to rely on it last month when my wife & I went briefly out of town and I stupidly left my wallet at home. No sweat; I had my travel bag with me.

  22. Make an ID.

    (Probably illegal)

    Assuming that your friend is a student and that she looks to be a younger student, i.e. a minor, just make a crappy school ID and plead youth. It is entirely reasonable that someone under 18 who doesn’t drive would not have a state issued ID. How exactly is it that children fly?

    Making n ID is not unreasonable and has been known to work (pre-TSA, anyways). We all know that TSA or airline officials could never compare to a bar bouncer when it comes to checking fake IDs. I’ve never seen “The Bar Book” in an airport.

    BTW: If you create an ID for yourself, representing your actual data, is it really a fake ID anyways?

    Make a decent high school ID (requires an iron, a laminating sheet and photoshop), explain that the school ID is the only ID you have because you don’t drive and are under 18, therefore not required to have legal identification in your state. Your innocence, youth and fear of not getting where you want to go should persuade the check-in agent, who sees hundreds of IDs a day and is most likely untrained, to shoo you through. Then to the security gate, Mr. “Take your shoes off, water is a liquid” will ask for your ID and make sure that your boarding pass matches the name on your ID, there will be no actual scrutiny of your ID here just matching characters. Now you are at the gate, nobody cares anymore; you went through several security checkpoints already, at this point the faster everyone gets on the plane, the less-likely it is that someone will write to The Consumerist.

    Now get ready to see Mom and Dad and safely destroy the false document which you likely committed several felonies and an act of treason with.


  23. Antediluvian says:

    @weave: I understand the rental car company issue — they probably have a policy that says the won’t rent to an unlicensed driver, and when your license expires you become unlicensed.

    An expired passport is still considered valid for ID purposes, so I don’t see why an expired driver’s license wouldn’t be too. But maybe that’s why I don’t work for the TSA.

  24. Apeweek says:

    My 80ish uncle, after visiting us, lost his wallet on the way to the airport for his flight home. They let him fly, after probing all of his orifices.

    I doubt the security personnel enjoyed the experience either.

  25. ChiSoxFan says:

    This happened to me just today. I got a ticket last night and the cops in IL take your license. Forgot this morning on my way to the airport and told the Southwest gate. They gave me a special boarding pass after only asking my name and where I was going (no credit cards required or anything). I had to go into the “special” line where they went through my bags and had the chemical blower machine test me. It was surprisingly easy.

  26. RandomHookup says:

    The expired driver’s license issue seems a bit ridiculous. The Federal Government accepts expired driver’s licenses and passports for identification when you start a new job. The way I heard it explained when I worked on the project to hire all these TSA screeners years ago was that “your identity doesn’t expire…”

  27. xkaluv says:

    She should take all identification documentation and her story to the DMV in New York and ask for assistance in getting a New York ID. They will help, they did so for a cousin of mine with the same problem.

  28. Hawkins says:

    This happened to me, and the annoying thing was the INCONSISTENCY with which the secret rules are applied.

    At the sceurity screening in Charlottesville, Virginia, I realized that I’d left my driver’s license at home. “No problem,” said the kindly TSA ID-checker. “You can travel without a driver’s license. You’ll just be a selectee.”

    With that he wrote “SSS” on my boarding pass, and when I went through I was taken aside for the extra-special treatment: full wanding, luggage dump, jokes about having to confiscate my doughnut.

    They couldn’t have been nicer.

    On the way back, however, in Dallas, the TSA ID-checker sent me to the Delta counter, where the Delta representative told me that I couldn’t possibly fly without an ID. “I don’t care what they told you in Charlottesville. Looks like you’ll be taking the bus home.”

    Eventually, an even nastier Delta supervisor decided to let me travel. “But you’ll be on a list from now on.” He wouldn’t tell me what kind of list, and I decided not to press my luck.

    Curiously, the authority that made the decision as to whether or not I could fly apeared to rest with the Delta supervisor, and not the TSA screeners.

    All part, I suppose, of the airlines’ “We Fucking Hate Our Customers” program.

  29. pmg1704 says:

    I forgot my ID once and arrived at the airport with my wallet sans drivers license (or any other legit id.)

    I was told by security to go back to check-in. I returned the United check in counter, explained the problem to a cust. svc. rep who took back my boarding pass, ripped it up, reissued it with the famous “SSSS” marking me for a TSA special. I returned to security and was sent to the “special” line and got the full pat-down, rub-down, someone-owes-me-a-dinner special. After this I was allowed to board no problem.

    It did not appear this was the first time this had happened.

  30. SaintCornelius says:

    I had an early flight from Las Vegas to San Diego a few years ago, and I forgot my wallet in the taxi – blame it on the gnarly hangover I was dealing with.

    I didn’t realize my wallet wasn’t in my pocket until I actually got to the check-in counter. I panicked, the clerk tried calling the taxi company (to no avail), and eventually they let me on the flight without an ID. I did have to subject myself to a cavity search, though – just kidding!

  31. trixare4kids says:

    Your friend is at such a high risk for identity theft! HE NEEDS TO PUT A FRAUD ALERT WITH ALL THREE CREDIT BUREAUS. PRONTO. That way someone cannot open any new lines of credit using her SSN without first contacting her at the number she personally gives. As a previous victim of identity theft, trust me, this small act could save 100’s of hours and lots of headache’s later.

  32. davezen2 says:

    I lost my ID in Vegas about a year ago and was nervous as to how I was going to get home. Once I explained my situation to a woman at the ticket counter I was sent to a seperate security line where they searched through my bag, and sent me through one of those machines that detect explosives. In the end, I ended up getting through security about 3 times faster than it would have taken waiting in the normal line where my brother was “stuck”. ;)

  33. Drop0ut says:

    My girlfriend and I took a trip to NYC over Christmas. She lost her ID sometime on the trip, but had no real problems boarding the plane. She had to go through a more secure search, but because that line was shorter we got through security at the same time.

  34. lalawgirl says:

    A picture ID is simply NOT required to travel.

    From the TSA website: “We encourage each adult traveler to keep his/her airline boarding pass and government-issued photo ID available until exiting the security checkpoint. The absence of proper identification will result in additional screening.”

  35. EagleEyez says:

    Thanks all for your help! After pursing may options, I actually spoke with someone from the TSA that was EXTREMELY helpful and told me that with a birth certificate she will certainly be allowed to board a plane, albeit she will have to undergo secondary screening.

    Oddly enough, the two most helpful agencies in all of this have been the TSA and the Social Security Administration. The SSA allowed her to come in same day with nothing more than recent hospital discharge papers (I guess it’s lucky she recently had pneumonia?) to issue a replacement Social Security Card — and, knowing that this would take several weeks, they provided her with an authorized letter stating that she had ordered a replacement card and that her SSN was verified by them.

    Of course, the NYS DMV (over the phone at least) insists that this is not enough to replace the SS Card they need even for a non-photo ID, but I think that in person she might be able to convince them otherwise, so we’ll see.

    Meanwhile, she’ll be testing out the Birth Certificate route (with police report too, just in case) next week for our flight.

    She’s also taking steps to prevent ID Theft, of course. But it’s a little weird for her, right now, wandering around the city with no ID whatsoever.

    Thanks again for all the advice and help!

    – Dan