What the heck is it?
A real ID is a driver's license or other state-issued ID with a little star on the front of the license. That's not all that it is, but it is the most visible feature and easiest way to determine whether or not you have a Real ID. While you do not need a Real ID to drive or go to a bar in Pennsylvania (though you still need a regular ID), having a Real ID or a passport will be required to fly anywhere within the United States beginning on Oct. 1, 2020.
The change is part of the Real ID Act, a post-9/11 piece of legislation which was passed by congress in 2005 to tighten security around personal IDs used to access airports and military bases. Though it was passed in 2005, the deadline got extended from the original goal of 2014. If people still don't understand what a Real ID is now, then they definitely didn't 6 years ago.
Other than adding a fun little star to the front of my ID, what does a Real ID actually do?
The license itself is not actually that different, but it requires more information to get one. To get a Real ID, you need to present a certified copy of your birth certificate or a valid, non-expired passport, a social security card, two proofs of a current Pennsylvania address (lease, car registration, utility bill, etc.), and, if applicable, proof of any legal name changes.
More detailed information, including what documents and forms are required for non-U.S. citizens applying for a Real ID, can be found on the PennDOT website.
So a Real ID is mostly the same as my previous driver's license, but requires more scrounging around in my drawers where I keep "important stuff"?
Does it cost anything extra?
Funny you should ask! Because yes it does. A Real ID requires a one-time-only $30 fee (plus the $30.50 driver's license renewal fee).
So I have to get a Real ID but I also have to pay for it?
Technically you don't have to get one. If you already have a valid passport, then you can use that for any domestic flights after Oct. 1. But if you don't have a passport, or don't want to bring it every time you fly, then yes you have to go to the DMV and pay money. (Some Pennsylvanians are eligible to apply for a Real ID online.)
If you don't fly on planes or go to military bases, then you don't need one.
What if I can't find/don't have my social security card (we're just supposed to keep track of a small piece of paper for our entire lives?)
Such a small piece of paper. According to the Department of Homeland Security, you can use: a W-2 form, an SSA-1099 form, non-SSA-1099 form, or a pay stub with your name and SSN on it.
Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but is this just another way for the government to gather my information for a secret project?
No conspiracy here. According the DHS, "REAL ID does not create a federal database of driver license information. Each jurisdiction continues to issue its own unique license, maintains its own records, and controls who gets access to those records and under what circumstances."
Also, the government already has your social security number and birth certificate because they created them.
Do I need a Real ID to vote?
No, you do not. But since we're on the subject, it's always good to double-check your voter registration information, which you can do here.