Can I use a REAL ID for a Cruise? What you Need to Know Before Setting Sail

Can I use a REAL ID for a cruise? We discuss the ins and outs of this identification and whether it's acceptable documentation for a cruise.

Can I use a REAL ID for a Cruise? What you Need to Know Before Setting Sail

What is REAL ID and Why is it Important for Travelers?

Starting May 7, 2025, those who wish to fly on domestic flights within the United States will be required to present a REAL ID compliant document. In addition to needing this document to board a domestic flight in the U.S., you will also need to be in possession of this document to enter a military base or nuclear power plant as well as to visit certain federal buildings.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the purpose of REAL ID is to make identity documents more consistent and secure. The consistency across different states means that all states will conform to the same standards for a driving license. This uniformity also includes features that make it more difficult to illegally copy or alter licenses.

Can I use a REAL ID for a Cruise? What you Need to Know Before Setting Sail
Photo Credit: CT.GOV | Department of Motor Vehicles

Many cruisers already are REAL ID compliant. Other documents that you may use for domestic air travel, according to TSA, include the following:

  • State-issued Enhanced Driver’s License
  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
  • U.S. Department of Defense ID, including IDs issued to dependents
  • Permanent resident card
  • Border crossing card
  • An acceptable photo ID issued by a federally recognized, Tribal Nation/Indian Tribe
  • HSPD-12 PIV card
  • Foreign government-issued passport
  • Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • Transportation worker identification credential
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential
  • Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC)

How Does REAL ID affect Cruise Passengers?

Cruise passengers need to thoroughly understand what REAL ID is and which documents are needed for both getting to the ship and boarding the ship. Confusion has caused some people to be denied boarding.

It’s very important to pay attention to the documents that you need for your cruise. Just because you are REAL ID compliant does not mean that you can simply use that to board a ship.

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REAL ID For Getting To The Port

The REAL ID will soon be mandatory for boarding a U.S. domestic flight. If you are flying to the port to board your ship, you will need some form of REAL ID whether it is a REAL ID driver’s license or one of the above-mentioned documents that TSA will accept.

Without a REAL ID compliant document, you won’t be able to fly domestically to board your ship. Remember that this goes into effect May 7, 2025. So, you still have plenty of time to get your driver’s license compliant.

Even if you have a passport, this REAL ID driver’s license is easier to carry for domestic flights. However, you may opt not to get the REAL ID driver’s license if you have any of the other compliant IDs listed above. Again, these are for boarding a domestic flight, NOT for boarding a cruise ship.

REAL ID Requirements for Boarding a Cruise Ship

Depending on the identification you usually submit for boarding a cruise ship, you may not notice much of a change. Since the REAL ID connected to your driver’s license does not prove citizenship, you may not board a ship with just this document.

This license allows you to board a plane for domestic flights, but it does not allow you to board a cruise ship.

Actually, on a closed-loop cruise, U.S. citizens don’t need a REAL ID driver’s license, or a passport for that matter. You may still use a non-REAL ID driver’s license. However, you will ALSO need a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. If your name has changed, you will need proof of that as well. If you use your DL, you will still go through the same process as you always have when boarding a cruise ship.

Can I use a REAL ID for a Cruise? What you Need to Know Before Setting Sail
Photo Credit: | Washington State Department of Licensing

Do NOT get confused by the different driver’s licenses though! Some people think that the REAL ID license is the same as an enhanced driver’s license (EDL), just because it now has a star added. (An EDL is quite similar to a Passport Card.) They are definitely NOT the same. An EDL allows crossing land or sea borders with Canada, Mexico, and some places in the Caribbean without a passport, but the REAL ID does not.

Unless you live in one of 5 states that border Canada, you do not have an Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL). Only residents of Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington can have an EDL.

Bottom Line: Cruise lines still require that guests have Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative-compliant travel documents in order to cruise. These documents include proof of citizenship and/or appropriate visas. A REAL ID alone is not enough. Further, a REAL ID is not the same as an Enhanced Driver’s License. Think of the EDL as a REAL ID with added benefits.

Obtaining A REAL ID Before Your Cruise

Remember that REAL IDs come in many forms. You may already be compliant if you have a passport, passport card, or any of the other acceptable documents previously listed.

    While this new requirement goes into effect in 2025, you may already have one of these documents in your possession. Many states began offering the REAL ID driver’s license long ago.

    For your driver’s license or state ID, you can get the REAL ID designation when you renew. That is usually complimentary. If you decide to get a REAL ID before your license expires, there may be a processing fee.

    Just remember that this is ONLY for domestic flights in the U.S.

    Bottom Line: Nothing has really changed in regards to REAL IDs and boarding a cruise ship. The REAL ID driver’s license will still need to be accompanied by proof of citizenship to board your ship. If you travel with a passport, the process remains unchanged as well. The big change is really flying domestically to reach your cruise embarkation port.

    Tips for Navigating the REAL ID Process

    If you are considering the REAL ID driver’s license or state ID, you should go to the appropriate agency in your state, often the Department of Transportation or the Department of State, either of which may be in charge of licensing.

    Be sure to check your state’s website to see exactly which documents they require for getting the REAL ID. Many of the documents verify your identification and residency in your state. Typical examples of documents that you will need to bring with you include:

    • Proof of Name and Date of Birth
    • Proof of Legal Presence in the U.S.
    • Proof of Identity
    • Proof of Name Change
    • Proof of Address
    • Social Security Number

    Alternative Forms of ID For Cruise Passengers

    Although we have been focusing on the REAL ID driver’s license, you have hopefully learned that you can only use that for flying domestically and not as a WHTI-compliant document that is necessary for boarding a cruise ship.

    So whether you have a REAL ID driver’s license or not, you will still need proof of citizenship– i.e. birth certificate.

    In addition, you may use an Enhanced Driver’s License, a passport, or a passport card. The EDL and passport card only work on closed loop cruises leaving and returning from the same U.S. port.

    The Department of State recommends that everyone taking a cruise from the United States have a passport book (even if not required) in case of emergency, such as an unexpected medical air evacuation or the ship docking at an alternate port. The REAL ID driver’s license, passport card, and the EDL will not permit you to fly back to the U.S. from a foreign country. Only the passport book offers that capability.

    Don’t even consider using anything but a passport book for international flights, international cruises, or cruising that start or end at two different ports. Say that you do a repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle, which requires passing through the Panama Canal. You must have a passport book because this is not a closed-loop cruise.

    Final Thoughts

    Thoroughly research the facts about the REAL ID options. Talk with your travel agent and cruise line. Visit the appropriate issuing facilities before your cruise vacation.

    We strongly recommend you consider getting a passport book. It opens the world to you and definitely simplifies the cruising experience from flights to boarding your cruise ship. Just the stress that the passport book eliminates is worth the price you pay. If you are looking to get a passport, be sure to submit your application well in advance of your travel updates.

    If you already have a passport, be sure to keep track of your passport book expiration date and remember to allow 6 months of validity for travel.

    Why risk traveling without a passport book?


    Do you use a REAL ID driver’s license for a cruise? Or, do you prefer to travel with a passport? Drop us an anchor below to share which travel documents you prefer to use when cruising from the U.S.

    Theresa reluctantly set foot on a ship sailing French Polynesia many years ago. The rest is history. She now thrives on visiting new places, learning about a destination and meeting the locals. Taking her hotel room along for the ride, Theresa continues exploring the world by sea. She hopes to get to her 7th continent soon!
    Theresa Russell, Contributor
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