Identity documents in the United States

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There is no true national identity card in the United States of America, in the sense that there is no federal agency with nationwide jurisdiction that directly issues such cards to all American citizens for mandatory regular use. As a federal republic, citizens are identified and regulated by a patchwork of documents issued by both the federal government as well as individual state and local governments. All legislative attempts to create a national identity card have failed due to tenacious opposition from liberal and conservative politicians alike, who regard the national identity card as the mark of a totalitarian society.[1]

At present, the only national photo identity documents are the passport and passport card, which are issued to U.S. nationals only upon voluntary application. The driver's license, which is issued by each individual state, operates as the de facto national identity card due to the ubiquity of driving in the United States.

Birth certificate[edit]

The birth certificate is the initial identification document issued to parents shortly after the birth of their child. Birth certificates are typically issued by local governments, usually the city or county where a child is born. The birth certificate is an important record, often called a "feeder document," because it establishes U.S. citizenship, which is then used to obtain, or is the basis for, all other identity documents.[2] By itself, the birth certificate is usually only considered proof of citizenship but not proof of identity, since it is issued without a photograph at birth, containing no identifying features. A birth certificate is normally produced along with proof of identity, such as a driver's license or the testimony of a third party (such as a parent), to establish identity or entitlement to a service.

Social Security card[edit]

SSN Card with Not For Identification Purposes tagline

The social security card is a card issued by the Social Security Administration containing a person's Social Security number (SSN). Although it is not mandatory, in modern practice parents almost universally file for a Social Security number shortly after the birth of a child. In the absence of a national identity card (and concordant national identity number), the Social Security number has become the de facto national identifier for a large variety of purposes, both governmental and non-governmental.

The SSN was originally intended to ensure accurate reporting of a worker's taxes towards the Social Security program. Prior to 1986, it was common to apply for a SSN when a person was in their teens. Since 1986, a series of decisions undertaken by the IRS have led to parents applying for their child's SSN at birth for tax purposes.

Because their original purpose was so limited, Social Security cards were not designed with the rigorous security measures normally expected of identity documents. They do not have a photograph or physical description of the bearer, nor are they required to be renewed. Therefore, the social security card is not usually considered proof of identity, only proof that the person named on the card holds the number indicated on the card. It is normally used in conjunction with other documents, most notably a photo ID, to prove that the person holding the card is legally present in the US and has the right to work in the US (unless the card is marked with a restriction).[3]

Many organizations, universities, and corporations historically used SSNs to uniquely identify their customer or student populations, but have since yielded to public demand that the SSN be reserved for government and credit purposes. Instead, they assign their own unique numbers to persons at first contact and request SSNs only when absolutely necessary. Also, several states have passed laws that require such institutions to assign their own identifier numbers to individuals, and prohibit them from using the SSN as a primary key.

Driver's license[edit]

Because it is so prevalent, the de facto official identification card for adults is the driver's license issued by each state, which must be carried at all times when operating a vehicle in most states,[citation needed] and in most states must be presented to law enforcement officers upon request while one is driving a motor vehicle. Driver licensing authorities in each state also issue a nearly-identical "non-driver identification card" to identify persons who are unable or do not want to drive, which is typically treated like a driver's license for all purposes, except for proving that a person has the right to drive.

48 states have a Department of Motor Vehicles (or an equivalent agency of the state government) which issues and manages driver's licenses and identification cards. The states of Hawaii and Kentucky delegate driver licensing to county governments (along with vehicle registration).

Driver's licenses issued in any state are recognized as valid identity documents in all other states under a variety of legal principles like comity and the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution. Many countries also recognize American licenses as valid identity documents.

Besides state agencies, federal agencies also accept driver's licenses as proof of identity for many purposes, such as boarding an airliner.[citation needed]

The driver's license is often requested by private businesses to verify identity, especially in combination with the use of a credit card, or to verify age, such as in the purchase of alcoholic beverages or cigarettes. Auto insurance companies usually request driver's license numbers from drivers seeking insurance for their vehicles. The companies have real-time access to driving records and can immediately access a person's record to assess the risk of insuring them.

Although most American adults carry their driver's license at all times when they are outside their homes, there is typically no legal requirement that they must be carrying their license when not operating a vehicle. However, a number of state legislatures have passed laws requiring citizens to produce identification on demand to a police officer. About half of the states have some variant of these stop and identify statutes. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states are permitted to require people to say their name when a police officer asks them. Furthermore, in some states, like California, failure to produce an identification document upon citation for any traffic infraction (such as riding a bicycle on the wrong side of a street) is sufficient justification for full custodial arrest.[4]

In 2005, the U.S. Congress passed a controversial bill known as the REAL ID Act that will transform the state-issued driver's license into what many contend will be a de facto national identification card (though still not a true one since it will still be issued by the state governments and not the federal government). The transformation will be carried out by giving the Department of Homeland Security the power to regulate the design and content of all state driver's licenses, and to require that all of the underlying state databases be linked into a single national database.[citation needed]


United States passports are issued by the U.S. Department of State. Applications for passports are most often filed at United States Postal Service offices or local county or municipal clerk's offices. For many years, passports were not required for US citizens to re-enter from countries near the United States (including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and most Caribbean and Central American nations.) In light of this, and given the country's immense size and the great distances which the average citizen lives from an international border, passport possession in the United States had remained relatively low. Indeed, most Americans normally did not obtain passports or carry them regularly unless traveling abroad, and as of 2006, only 60 million (20% of Americans) had passports.[5] As of 2011, approximately 37% of Americans have passports or passport cards.[6]

However, in response to recommendations in the 9/11 Commission Report, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security now requires proof of citizenship for people entering the United States from neighboring countries. This requirement is known as the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, and was implemented in stages:

  • On January 23, 2007, a passport, U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner's Document, or NEXUS card became mandatory when re-entering from those locations when traveling by air, with a few exceptions.
  • On January 31, 2008, officers at land and sea ports of entry stopped taking oral declarations of citizenship from travelers; all individuals entering the U.S. are now required to present documentary proof of identity and citizenship.
  • Beginning July 1, 2009, people entering the United States by land or sea must present a passport, passport card, or other document proving citizenship or permanent resident status.

By law, an unexpired U.S. passport (or passport card) is conclusive proof of U.S. citizenship and has the same force and effect as proof of United States citizenship as certificates of naturalization or of citizenship, if issued to a U.S. citizen for the full period allowed by law.[7]

Passport card[edit]

The main purpose of the U.S. passport card is to provide a more convenient travel document for citizens who live near a land border.[8] It can be used for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda but cannot be used for other countries or for international air travel.[9] Otherwise, it carries the rights and privileges of the U.S. passport book. The passport card is also accepted as identification for domestic air travel.[10]

When outside the United States and the above-mentioned countries, the passport card can be used as identification and proof of citizenship within a particular country, even though it is not valid for travel internationally (i.e., traveling from Germany to Switzerland/Austria/France/etc.).[11]

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has indicated that the U.S. Passport Card may be used in the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 (form) process.[12] The passport card is considered a “List A” document that may be presented by newly hired employees during the employment eligibility verification process to show work authorized status. “List A” documents are those used by employees to prove both identity and work authorization when completing the Form I-9.

Department of Defense Identification Card[edit]

Members of the Military and employees of the Department of Defense receive identity documents based on their status. A Geneva Conventions Identification Card (called a Common Access Card or CAC) is issued to Active Duty and Selected Reserve service members, DOD employees, and some contractors. Adult dependents of service members, retired service members, and members of the Inactive ready reserve receive a different kind of military ID that does not contain the smart card cryptographic chip that the Common Access Card has.

A DOD identification card number usually matches the holder's Social Security Number. But, on June 1, 2011, the DOD began phasing out use of the SSN to protect service members' identities.[1] It was replaced with a 10-digit DOD ID Number and a 12-digit Benefits ID Number.

Other identity documents[edit]

In the absence of a national identity card, the typical adult in the United States often has a large number of documents issued by many different public and private entities to prove their identity.

For citizens who acquire United States citizenship not by virtue of being born in the United States, the federal government issues a Certificate of U.S. Citizenship or Certificate of Naturalization, which are documents that function similarly to a birth certificate. These two documents, along with a U.S. passport, are by law one of the few primary documents for proving U.S. citizenship. These certificates are normally not carried on a day-to-day basis; instead, they are used to obtain other documents, such as a passport or driver's license, which are then used as the primary means of identification.

The federal government also issues a variety of other documents and cards which can be used to establish identity. Immigration and travel documents such as the Green Card or a visa can be used to prove identity and the right to work in the United States (if applicable). Trusted traveler cards are issued by US Customs and Border Protection to indicate participation in the NEXUS, SENTRI, or Global Entry programs used to facilitate expedited entry through customs.

Federal, state, and local governments and agencies typically issue identification cards for their employees. These cards can be used to prove identity outside of the workplace. Although there are varying degrees of acceptance, government workplace identification is generally seen as more trustworthy than workplace identification from a private company. A notable example is the Department of Defense's Common Access Card, which functions as the military's primary ID card.

There are a variety of secondary documents used to establish identity. However, these documents are typically not accepted as a primary form of identification. They are typically only used to obtain a primary form of identification (usually a driver's license or passport), when other forms of identification have been lost or stolen, or as auxiliary documents in conjunction with a primary form of identification. These other documents include:

  • Credit cards and debit cards
  • Proof of professional certification (for members of regulated professions)
  • Proof of automobile insurance card (when driving)
  • Health insurance card issued by a private health insurance company, by Medicare, or by a government agency
  • Library cards
  • Membership cards issued by private clubs (social, athletic, educational, alumni, etc.)
  • Membership cards (called loyalty cards) issued by private companies (supermarkets, warehouse club stores, etc.)
  • Membership cards issued by professional organizations
  • Membership cards issued by private associations
  • Access documents issued by private or governmental organizations, such as a press pass, or a stage pass
  • License documents issued by government organizations authorizing privileges other than driving, such as an amateur radio license or concealed firearm permit
  • Utility bills, which are often used as proof of residence or address.


  1. ^ G. David Garson, Public Information Technology and E-governance: Managing the Virtual State (Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2006), 171.
  2. ^ The importance of the birth certificate as a document establishing entitlement to American citizenship arises from the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, whose first sentence is as follows: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
  3. ^ "Instructions for Employment Eligibility Verification" (USCIS Form I-9), US Department of Homeland Security, March 8, 2013, p. 9.
  4. ^ People v. McKay, 27 Cal. 4th 601, 606 (2002) (upholding conviction for methamphetamine possession) and Cal. Vehicle Code 40302(a). The sole basis for stopping McKay was that he was riding his bicycle on the wrong side of a residential street; California, like most other states, requires bicyclists to ride with the flow of vehicular traffic even though that increases their risk of being hit from behind by wayward vehicles. When McKay could not produce identification, he was arrested and searched. The officer found methamphetamine in McKay's sock.
  5. ^ "U.S. sticks with passport plan for travelers entering from Canada, Mexico". USA Today. September 2, 2005. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  6. ^ "U.S. Passports and International Travel". 
  7. ^ 22 USC 2705
  8. ^ See "Why can’t I use the passport card to fly to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Bermuda?" at
  9. ^ "U.S. Passports & International Travel". 
  10. ^ Driver's License or Passports Preferred ID at Checkpoints, retrieved May 30, 2008.
  11. ^ Passport Card
  12. ^ "USCIS Informs The Public That New Passport Card Is Acceptable For Employment Eligibility Verification". USCIS.