Does the U.S. Require Citizens to Carry ID?

national ID
An NYPD officer checks the photo identification of a driver in preparation for the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The U.S. is one of just a few countries that does not have a national ID. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

"Can I see your ID, please?"

How many times has someone asked you that question? It doesn't matter if you're boarding an airplane or buying a drink at a restaurant. People constantly want to see your ID. And typically, you gladly provide it. If the person asking is satisfied with what they see, you're good to go.


Still, think about this the next time someone asks you to see your identification: There are no laws that require you to show your ID, even to a cop. Let's put that in context. Nearly half of the states in America have so-called "stop-and-identify laws." Under these laws, police can legally require a person to reveal their identity if the police have a "reasonable suspicion" that the person has committed a crime. Still, if a cop stops you, just ask if you are under arrest. If they say no, you are not required by law to tell them who you are or show them identification. Walk away because you're legally free to go.

Although there are no laws that require you to show identification — typically a driver's license — reality is a tougher cookie to chew. The courts have upheld ID requirements when safety and security are at issue, such as boarding a plane or entering a secure building. Plus, if you don't comply with a request to show identification, you won't be allowed to do things like buy that vodka and tonic, purchase some types of cold medicine or open up a checking account, among other things.

Although personal identification cards seem to be so important, the United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a national ID card.


ID Cards 101

Most Americans carry a variety of identification cards. Some have a military ID, others a veteran's card, others an insurance card, some a university identification card and so on. Each has bits of information that is specific to the carrier. Yet, it is the ubiquitous driver's license that acts as a de facto national identification card, providing proof of age, residence and identity.

If you're an American citizen, no one can force you to get an ID card of any type. That, however, is slowly changing because of a controversial law that Congress passed in 2005.


At that time, federal lawmakers passed the REAL ID Act, which outlined minimum security standards for state-issued driver's licenses. The Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush but has yet to be fully implemented, was put in place after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Under the law, states had to upgrade the security features on their driver's license, essentially making those documents a national identity card.

The enhanced licenses not only give an individual's name, gender, date of birth, address, photograph, signature, and identification number, but they're supposedly tamper- and counterfeit-proof. Twenty-seven states are already compliant with the mandate, with California expected to be fully compliant by the end of 2018. According to the law, a person cannot get into a federal facility, enter a nuclear power plant or board an aircraft without one of the new IDs.


Privacy Concerns

However, some states have balked at implementing the law. Some don't want to spend taxpayer dollars on an unfunded federal mandate, while others are concerned about privacy issues. Those states are angry because the government is slowly creating a national identity system database, centralizing every person's information. State legislatures in Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri and Oregon, have passed laws prohibiting their states from complying with federal law.

The American Civil Liberties Union has also strongly spoken out against the federal mandate claiming it impacts a person's right to privacy without doing much to bolster security. "If fully implemented, the law would facilitate the tracking of data on individuals and bring government into the very center of every citizen's life," the ACLU says on its website.


"By definitively turning driver's licenses into a form of national identity documents, Real ID would have a tremendously destructive impact on privacy. It would also impose significant administrative burdens and expenses on state governments, and it would mean higher fees, longer lines, repeat visits to the DMV, and bureaucratic nightmares for individuals."

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU says that the basic problem with a national identification card, including one that masks itself as a driver's license, is that it can become a "unifying system for tracking and control," of American citizens. Showing a photo ID of any sort as a security measure, Stanley says, is a "silly security measure that doesn't tell you who is dangerous. It's security theater."

Stanley says a national ID card would lead to increased monitoring of citizens and "encourage more demands for identification" by government officials while creating a "bureaucratic nightmare." Plus, he says, there is something un-American and un-democratic about a national ID card.

"We don't want to turn into a regimented society like we see in the movies, or in totalitarian societies," where police are asking citizens to "show us your papers," Stanley says.