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. All legislative attempts to create one 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. Most people use state-issued driver's licenses as identity cards.

Birth certificate[edit]

The birth certificate is the initial identification document issued to parents shortly after the birth of their child. Although this document is issued by the individual states, it is the first document establishing U.S. citizenship.[2]

Social Security card[edit]

This document now is usually issued by the Social Security Administration upon the request of a baby's parents. In recent years, the parents customarily file such a request soon after birth to ensure issuance of a Social Security number (sometimes referred to as SSN, SS#, or simply social). Since 1986, dependents above a given age could only qualify for a federal income tax deduction if SSN were furnished to the IRS. Then the parents are allowed to report the child to the Internal Revenue Service as a dependent, which may reduce the amount of federal income tax they have to pay. Prior to 1986, since dependent exemptions did not require SSN numbers, SSNs were usually not applied for until the dependent was well into the teens. Earlier, in 1962, the requirement that bank accounts must have an associated account number (usually SSN) led to a small surge in issuance SSNs to minors. At the time there was no requirement for SSN to be claimed a dependent. However, custodial bank accounts by parent for child would default to parent's SSN if the child lacked SSN. This would cause interest to be taxed at the usually higher marginal tax rate of the parent.

The SSN was originally intended to ensure accurate reporting of payroll contributions so that an employee's Social Security benefits could be adjusted accordingly, and then the employee could claim their benefits upon retirement. Because their original purpose was so limited, Social Security cards were not designed with the rigorous security measures normally expected of identity documents. They did not (and still do not) have a photograph of the bearer or a physical description.

SSN Card with Not For Identification Purposes tagline

In the absence of a national identity card, the Social Security number has become the de facto national identifier for tax and credit purposes. It is usually not considered to prove that a person who appears before a person who is checking identity (such as a notary public or motor vehicle clerk) has the name on the card, but when used in conjunction with a photo ID it is usually considered proof that the person is legally present in the US and has the right to work in the US (unless 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 to 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.

The Armed Forces of the United States replaced the service number (sometimes erroneously called Serial Number) with the SSN in 1974 to identify servicemembers. Recently, some services such as the U.S. Coast Guard are ceasing to use the SSN and now make use of an Employee I.D. Number (or EMPLID).

On June 1, 2011, the DOD removed SSNs from ID cards, and replaced it with a 10-digit DOD Identification Number.[4]

Driver's license[edit]

Because it is so prevalent, the de facto official identification card for adults is the driver's license, 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 also make photo based identification cards available for those who do not have driver's licenses.

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.

In addition, when a person engages in bad driving in another state or country, there are often Traffic Violations Reciprocity agreements in place to ensure that bad drivers are appropriately punished for their out-of-state offenses.

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 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 no legal requirement that they must be carrying their license when not operating a vehicle[citation needed]. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states are permitted to require people to say their name when a police officer asks them (see Stop and identify statutes). 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.[5]

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.[6] As of 2011, approximately 37% of Americans have passports or passport cards.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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.).[12]

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.[13] 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 specialized cards[edit]

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

The U.S. federal government issues the following types of identity documents:

Other documents that are evidence of an individual's identity:

  • Airport Identification (SIDA Badges)
  • State/territory driver's license (see above)
  • ID card issued by federal, state, or local government agencies or entities, provided it contains a photograph or information such as name, date of birth, gender, height, eye color and address
  • School ID card with photograph
  • Voter's registration card
  • Native American tribal document

Other examples of documents involving personal identity include:


  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. ^ Garamone, Jim. "DOD to Drop Social Security Numbers from ID Cards." (U.S. Department of Defense, April 11, 2001)
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "U.S. sticks with passport plan for travelers entering from Canada, Mexico". USA Today. September 2, 2005. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  7. ^ "U.S. Passports and International Travel". 
  8. ^ 22 USC 2705
  9. ^ See "Why can’t I use the passport card to fly to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Bermuda?" at
  10. ^ "U.S. Passports & International Travel". 
  11. ^ Driver's License or Passports Preferred ID at Checkpoints, retrieved May 30, 2008.
  12. ^ Passport Card
  13. ^ "USCIS Informs The Public That New Passport Card Is Acceptable For Employment Eligibility Verification". USCIS.