REAL ID and Mass. driver’s licenses: March 2018 update

REAL IDIn 2016 Massachusetts passed legislation to implement REAL ID, a federal standard adopted by Congress in 2005. Under the new law, state residents will have two options for their driver’s license or ID card: a REAL ID-compliant one, or a standard Massachusetts state license. The new system is effective on March 26, 2018. 

If you already have a valid, unexpired Mass. driver’s license or ID on March 26, it will still be valid until its expiration date.

The changes affect everyone, but are particularly important for non-citizens to understand. 

Key differences between a REAL ID and a standard license:

  • The REAL ID licenses will be marked “valid for federal identification purposes” with a gold star in the upper right-hand corner.
  • If you want a REAL ID license or ID, you must apply in person, whereas five-year standard licenses can be renewed completely online in most cases.
  • Starting in October 2020, only licenses/IDs that are REAL ID-compliant will be accepted as identification at airport security checkpoints. You will NOT be able to board an airplane using a standard Mass. license or ID.
  • You will still be able to use a valid passport (from any country), an EAD card, a permanent resident card (green card), or any of the other documents listed to board flights or as ID to enter a federal building.
  • Until October 2020, your standard license or ID can still be used to board an airplane; in federal buildings where ID is required, you already need REAL ID or one of the other federally accepted documents listed above.

MA IDHowever, starting on March 26, 2018, if you need to renew your driver’s license or Mass. ID, or if you are applying for the first time, you will need proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful presence, regardless of whether you get a REAL ID or standard license (though the requirements for REAL ID are more stringent).

Key things to know:

  • A Social Security number alone will no longer be enough to get a new or renewed license or Mass ID of either type.
  • To qualify for either type of license, you must have documents showing U.S. citizenship or that you have been granted at least 12 months of lawful presence. People with pending applications for asylum, TPS, adjustment of status, and others without a definite “duration” to their authorized stay will qualify for a 12-month license.
  • All licenses will expire on the same day as lawful presence expires, but no license can be issued for less than 2 months, or for more than 5 years.
  • If you qualify for a limited-term license (authorized stay of less than 5 years), you need to apply or renew in person.

We have heard that some local RMV offices have misinterpreted the duration requirement by requiring at least one year of prior lawful presence, or one year of future presence. This is incorrect. If you encounter such problems or have other questions, contact Michele Ellicks, RMV Community Outreach Coordinator, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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If you are a U.S. citizen, you can prove lawful presence with a U.S. passport or passport card, a certified copy of a U.S. birth certificate, a certificate of citizenship, a certificate of naturalization, or a consular record of birth abroad.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, here are common documents you can use to prove lawful presence:

  • Foreign passport with U.S. visa affixed and I-94 stamp
  • Employment Authorization Card (work permit) (Form I-766 or I-688B)
  • Permanent Resident Card (green card) (Form I-551)

However, there are many other document types that provide evidence of lawful presence, such as a refugee travel document, an asylum approval, evidence of a pending petition for asylum, TPS or adjustment of status, and more. Note that the RMV flyers listed in the box at right do not list these because of space considerations.

How is lawful presence determined?

The RMV will be using the SAVE system to verify lawful presence. This is the same system that MassHealth uses to verify a person’s eligibility for healthcare benefits. The SAVE system electronically checks the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) database for your immigration records based on the information (such as document numbers) that you provide. It does not store your information.

If the RMV cannot verify your status electronically through SAVE, you’ll have the opportunity to either scan or bring your documents in for review by specialized RMV staff.

Any other documents needed?

You will also need to show proof of residency in Massachusetts: 2 documents for REAL ID, 1 for a standard license or ID. While for a standard license, all you need is to be able to upload scans of all these documents, for a REAL ID, you will need to bring the originals with you. And for a REAL ID, you must also have your Social Security card, tax form or pay stub showing your full SSN, or if you don’t have an SSN, you must bring an SSA denial notice and a foreign passport with a valid U.S. visa affixed and an I-94 stamp – which also serves as proof of lawful presence. For a standard ID, you just need to enter your SSN for verification.

The RMV recommends that everyone start their application or renewal process online at mass.gov/rmv to determine what documents they will need. As a reminder, however, limited-term licenses (less than 5 years) will require a visit to the RMV.

If you need to register a vehicle in Massachusetts:

Contrary to concerns circulating on social media, you DO NOT need to prove lawful presence to register a vehicle in Massachusetts if you have a Social Security number or a valid driver’s license from any state. Under the new regulations, you can register your vehicle with a Social Security number alone, OR with other evidence of lawful presence, OR with a valid driver’s license from any state.


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