Mystery Shopper: Is It Easy to Get a Real ID in PA?

In our latest Mystery Shopper installment, a local student test-drove how easy (or not) it is to get a federally approved source of identification.

Mystery Shopper: Is It Easy to Get a Real ID in PA?

In our latest Mystery Shopper installment, a local student test-drove how easy (or not) it is to get a federally approved source of identification.

As a (somewhat) newly licensed driver, my disdain for the DMV is not as deeply rooted as that of my father’s. But because I was still a minor when I got my license, I needed him to be involved when I decided to get a Real ID to complement my license. That meant trying to avoid the actual, in-person DMV at all costs (even $10 in gas).

So after I passed my driving test and received my letter telling me to go get my photo taken, my dad and I drove 25 minutes to a ‘DMV-certified photo licensing center’—basically the DMV with fewer services, less exhausted employees and a shorter line.


Alas, this Walmart version of the DMV didn’t offer Real IDs, the little star on your driver’s license that means you’ve been okayed to fly domestically or get into a federal building. Not that I do a lot of domestic travel (especially in the last year), but when I go to college next year, I don’t trust myself to keep my passport safe on the way home for Thanksgiving.

Ergo, I need a Real ID. So, to the DMV I went …

Steps taken to get a Real ID in PA

  1. I went to the PennDOT website and clicked on Real ID. Easy enough!
  2. There was an option to “Apply for REAL ID Pre-Verification Online” which seemed much more appealing than facing the wrath of my father when told him that I had to go down to the DMV. The online pre-verification process is for people who received their first Pennsylvania driver’s license (or learner’s permit or photo ID card) after September 1, 2003, but there is no guarantee that PennDOT has the right documentation on file. If you qualify, there is no need to go to the DMV!
  3. I applied, and waited about a week to receive an email telling me that I had not qualified. Damn DMV.
  4. I went to the South 70th Street DMV (I had to go twice because I forgot that it was closed on Mondays) at opening time. I brought my birth certificate, my social security card, my driver’s license—and my dad. I waited in line, got my number ticket, widened my eyes a few times at the number of people with their masks hanging around their chins (this was before the CDC relaxed mask requirements for vaccinated people, in May 2021), and wasted time until my number was called.
  5. After about 40 minutes, I was called up to the desk. I collected my documents and unceremoniously plopped them in front of the plastic shield separating the counter teller, Dolores, and me.
  6. Dolores took all official documents verifying my existence and identity into the back corner where the imaging machine was and I waited at the desk.
  7. Dolores came back and gave my documents back to me, then informed me that my Real ID would arrive in the mail within 15 business days. And it did!

Time Spent: 2 hours (plus 3 weeks waiting)

Result: My Real ID arrived within 15 business days, as promised. Hurrah! Still: Is it a sign of adulthood that I now hate the DMV?

Takeaway: Getting a Real ID isn’t necessary unless you travel a lot, or you go to a lot of military bases. If you can, try to do the pre-verification online (it saves you a headache-inducing couple of hours).

Lightning Bolt Rating: ⚡⚡⚡ (because the website was awesome but the waiting time at the DMV and at my mailbox is a bit much.)

Special thanks to the students of Meg Cohen Ragas’ and Anne Gerbner’s journalism class at Germantown Friends School.

Header photo by Paulo O / Flickr

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