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Maybe your Social Security card moldered away years ago in your sock drawer. Maybe you haven’t used a passport since your honeymoon. And maybe you’ve never even seen an official copy of your birth certificate.

Better get looking, because you’re going to need some of those documents — or a good backup — if you want to get a new, federally approved driver’s license in Massachusetts, beginning next week. The so-called Real IDs, created by a post-9/11 security law, will require Massachusetts drivers to go in person to a Registry of Motor Vehicles office when their licenses expire, clutching a handful of official documents to prove who you are and that you’re in the United States legally.


Real ID licenses will be needed by late 2020 to board domestic flights and to enter federal buildings. But even drivers who want to renew a standard license will need to produce some official documentation.

So if you have no idea where that tattered Social Security card is, here’s a primer on how to get a new license:

What do I need?

If you want a Real ID, you’ll need a Social Security card or another document that shows a Social Security number; a W-2 form from work is an acceptable stand-in. If you don’t have a Social Security number, you’ll need to provide a denial letter, a foreign passport, and more.

Then, to prove citizenship or lawful presence in the United States, you will need either a valid US passport, a certified copy of your birth certificate, naturalization papers, a green card, or other relevant immigration documents.

Lastly, you need two documents to prove residence in Massachusetts. These could be a utility bill, bank statement, firearms card, or a renewal letter from the RMV itself. Be careful, as many qualifying documents need to be recent— issued within 60 days of the renewal.


In 2016, the Legislature crafted a state law to establish Real ID in Massachusetts.
In 2016, the Legislature crafted a state law to establish Real ID in Massachusetts.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file 2016/Globe Staff

If you want to forgo the Real ID, you still need much of the same documentation: a passport, birth certificate, or other document to prove citizenship or lawful presence, as well as one of the documents proving residency. Crucially, though, these licenses can be renewed online, as long as you’re eligible to do so; applicants will need to enter some information from the documents into the system.

The various document options are available in this checklist from the RMV. However, in the RMV guidance there’s an important omission: what to do if you’ve changed your name, such as through marriage. If your name differs from that on your other official documents, you’ll also need to bring proof of the name change, such as a marriage license.

Where do I get all of this?

If you don’t have these documents available, better plan ahead.

For example, getting a certified copy of a birth certificate will require a trip or a request by mail to the registry that holds your record. And expect to pay a fee. You can order through an online state vendor, although that is more expensive.

You can get a new Social Security card online or by going to a Social Security office. But that, too, will require documentation, such as a passport, or ironically enough, a state-issued driver’s license.

Expecting that some won’t have easy access to these documents, state officials said they will work with groups that represent the homeless, felons, and domestic violence survivors who were forced to flee a home, to help them through the process.


Real ID has also resurfaced longstanding questions about whether undocumented immigrants, historically not allowed to obtain driver’s licenses in Massachusetts, should be able to do so.

The issue was debated some in 2016, when the Legislature crafted a state law to establish Real ID in Massachusetts. Some supporters wanted undocumented immigrants to be able to obtain non-Real ID licenses, as they can in certain states, arguing it’s safer to license these drivers than to have them on the roads without licenses. But Republicans successfully pushed for the law to specifically bar anybody in the country illegally from obtaining either type of license.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles in Boston.
The Registry of Motor Vehicles in Boston.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Why is this happening?

In 2005, in a bid to boost security following 9/11, Congress passed a law saying that state-issued driver’s licenses would no longer be acceptable for purposes such as boarding a domestic flight unless they complied with the new federal requirements. Those included increased verification of a person’s identity, citizenship, and residency.

After years of extensions and delays, the clock is running out in Massachusetts. Residents here won’t be able to board flights after October 2020 using a traditional state ID, so the state is next week joining the more than two dozen that have already begun issuing the new IDs.

The timing means there’s no need to rush in for a Real ID, because there are still a couple of years before it’s required.


Should I bother to get a Real ID?

If you’re comfortable carrying your passport around or don’t expect to fly, then you can get by with a state license that is not Real ID-compliant.

The big benefit there: You can renew online, whereas getting your first Real ID will require a trip to an RMV service center or, for AAA members, a branch of that organization.

There’s no price difference to renew; each type of license costs $50. You can learn more at mass.gov/id.

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com.