Am I Required to Carry an ID?

Am I Required to Carry an ID?

Last updated: June 2009

The following questions were submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.This article was published on July 16, 2008.

Q:    I’ve been told that the law requires everyone to carry some kind of legal ID.  Is that true?  If so, what kind of ID satisfies that requirement?

A:    No, it’s not true.  Neither Illinois nor U.S. law requires anyone to have an ID card, let alone carry one at all times.  An ID can be required if you want to do certain things, like buy alcohol, but you’re never required to simply carry one with you.

Because driver’s licenses and passports are the rare government-issued documents with photos, for all practical purposes we treat them as ID cards.  But officially, they’re not.  A driver’s license proves you’re a legal driver, and a passport proves you’re a U.S. citizen, but neither one is officially a general ID card.  Legally, each has a limited, specific purpose.

That goes for a Social Security card, too.  You don’t have to have one, and it’s only supposed to be used by employers for Social Security deductions, or for tax purposes.  (Kids need them only if their parents claim them as dependents.)  The Amish, for example, typically resist getting SSNs. 

And if you have a Social Security card, you’re not supposed to carry it.  Social Security’s web site warns:  “Do not carry it with you.”  In bold letters, even, to emphasize that carrying it around makes identity theft too easy.

The Illinois Identification Card Act creates an all-purpose ID card.  But nobody’s required to get one.  The Act simply says the card “may be used for identification purposes in any lawful situation.”  They’re completely optional, and if you get one, nothing in the law requires you to carry it with you.

It’s perfectly legal to have both an Illinois ID card, and an Illinois driver’s license.  As a government-issued ID card, the state card is useful back-up if you lose your license.

An Illinois Driver’s license is only required if you want to drive legally.  You’re therefore only required to carry it when you’re driving.  But even if you drive without it, you can avoid a fine as long as you can show you had a valid license when you were ticketed.

The closest thing to a federal ID is a U.S. passport.  It may be used as an ID, but is only required for air travel outside the western hemisphere.

Federal law does require legal non-citizens to carry a permanent residence card.  “Every alien,” according to that law, “shall at all times carry with him and have in his personal possession” what most people call a green card.

Americans have traditionally disliked the idea of any national ID card.  Although the unpleasant memories of authorities in the old country demanding “papers” may be dimming, there’s still a strong suspicion of a compulsory national ID. 

For example, the federal “Real ID Act of 2005” sets “minimum document requirements” for all state driver’s licenses and ID cards.  Making them standard makes them very like a national ID card.  Which, in turn, explains why opposition to the law keeps pushing back the deadline for actually implementing it.  It’s now not scheduled to go into effect until 2011.

Some countries do have a compulsory national ID card.  It’s rare, though, to combine a national ID law with a compulsory carry law.  Spain appears to one of the few countries to require its citizens to carry a national ID card.

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