Identity documents in the United States

Identity documents in the United States

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. 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.

In the absence of one, government agencies and businesses have had to improvise with a patchwork of documents, perceived by some to be somewhat inconvenient.

Birth certificate

The birth certificate is the initial identification document issued to parents shortly after their child's birth. This document is issued by the individual states but is the first document establishing U.S. citizenship. [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."]

Social Security card

This document is usually issued by the Social Security Administration upon the request of a baby's parents. 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"). Then parents can report the baby to the Internal Revenue Service as a dependent, which will reduce the amount of federal income tax they have to pay.

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.

In the absence of a national identity card, the Social Security number has become the "de facto" national identifier for tax and credit purposes. In turn, the epidemic of identity theft in recent years has led to various proposals for a national identity card.

Many organizations, universities and corporations have used SSNs to uniquely identify their customer or student populations, but have bowed 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 like the U.S. Coast Guard are ceasing to use the SSN and now make use of an Employee I.D. Number (or EMPLID).

Driver's license

The "de facto" official identification card for adults in all states is the driver's license, which must be carried at all times when operating a vehicle and presented to law enforcement officers upon request (while one is driving the 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. 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.

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. However, if a credit card holder does not want to provide personal information, such as a driver's license, the merchant has no right to refuse the sale. In fact, it may be in direct violation to the merchant agreement. 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. 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. ["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. When he could not produce identification, he was arrested and searched. The officer found methamphetamine in McKay's sock.]

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. Critics charge that DHS will be given "carte blanche" to dictate the content of driver's licenses and to directly manage a "frighteningly" large amount of information about all Americans.Fact|date=May 2008


Americans normally do not obtain passports or carry them regularly unless traveling abroad. (Only [ 60 million, or 20% of Americans, have passports] .) Passports are issued by the U.S. Department of State, although applications for passports are most often filed at United States Postal Service offices, or local county/municipal clerk's offices. For many years a US passport was 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.) 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 is being 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 31 January 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 1 July 2009, people entering the United States by land or sea will need to present a passport, passport card, or other document proving citizenship or permanent resident status.

Other specialized cards

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:

* Certificate of U.S. Citizenship
* Certificate of Naturalization
* Immigration and travel-related documents issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to non-U.S. citizens.
* The passport card is a new travel document available to U.S. citizens for land and sea travel to Canada, Mexico, and various Caribbean destinations.
* NEXUS card for travel between the United States and Canada.
* Military identification card or Common Access Card, issued to active duty and reserve service members, employees, and contractors. (The ID number is usually the holder's Social Security Number.)
* Military dependent or retiree ID card.
* The Transportation Worker Identification Credential, a new document to be phased in over the next several years by the Transportation Security Administration. It will identify individuals who have been cleared to have access to sensitive security areas related to transportation infrastructure including sections of airports and shipping terminals, and ships.
* The Merchant Mariner's Document, issued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

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

* 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:

* Credit cards and debit cards
* Internal identification card issued by one's employer, university or school
* 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 state public health insurance 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


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