Returning from a Miami getaway, my family encountered a forgotten ID hiccup that we’ve never experienced before. The night before our flight my brother packed his bag and took a bus from NYC to my parent’s home in New Jersey. At 4:30 in the morning, just as we loaded the last of our bags into the car to catch our 6:15am flight from Newark, my brother suddenly had a look of horror plastered across his face—he realized that he left his bag containing his wallet (including all of his valid photo identification) on the NJ Transit bus.
My first instinct was to have him retrieve his bag at the bus depot once it opened for the day, and then have him hop on a later flight to Miami. We booked all of our tickets using Southwest points, so canceling and rebooking a flight for him would not be an issue.
But then another idea dawned upon me (knowing how frustrating and difficult it is to retrieve items left behind while traveling). A quick Google search about flying without an ID uncovered this discovery from the official TSA website:
“In the event you arrive at the airport without valid identification, because it is lost or at home, you may still be allowed to fly. The TSA officer may ask you to complete an identity verification process which includes collecting information such as your name, current address, and other personal information to confirm your identity. If your identity is confirmed, you will be allowed to enter the screening checkpoint. You may be subject to additional screening, to include a patdown and screening of carry-on property.
You will not be allowed to enter the security checkpoint if your identity cannot be confirmed, you chose to not provide proper identification or you decline to cooperate with the identity verification process.”
We decided to roll with it. If that failed, he could always just drive back home. After all, at the very least, it would be an interesting case study to report back on.
Luckily my parents had my brother’s childhood passport collecting dust in the garage filing cabinet. With that in hand, we went to the airport together and hoped for the best.
To everyone’s surprise the process of getting my brother through security was insanely simple. After explaining the situation of the lost bag to the TSA agent and presenting the expired passport (who looked at it perplexingly after seeing the photo of my brother as a kid, while blurting out “How old are you, man?”), a supervisor was called over.
After about 10 minutes of questioning to confirm his identity and a pat down similar to an “opt-out” pat down, my brother was cleared. When it came to the return flight at MIA, my brother indicated that the procedure was the same, and actually faster.
Here are some tips to help you if you might find yourself in a similar scenario:
1. The answer is always no if you don’t show up
Having to miss or delay a trip because of a lost or stolen ID stinks, but with anything in life, you’re not getting anywhere without showing up. In our case, we were this close to changing my brother’s travel plans, but we gave it a shot and it worked.
2. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions and to do some explaining
The first order of business is to explain your situation and be honest. The amount and type of questions asked will vary from person to person until the agent feels he’s gathered enough information to confirm your identity.
3. Some ID is better than no ID
Of course being without a valid government-issued ID is stressful enough, but if you can, try to bring anything that might help your case in proving who you say you are (work ID, expired passport, photo of your license, ATM card, Costco card, etc.). I’m not sure if a “verified” social media account would help, but anything is better than nothing.
4. You have no shot at traveling overseas
Let’s be honest, it’s a gamble to try to fly without a valid ID on domestic flights, and I’m sorry to say it, but you have no shot trying to fly internationally without a valid passport. In the case where you have an international flight, your best bet would be getting an emergency passport (my experience getting a same-day passport was super easy), or paying a visit to a US Embassy office wherever you might be abroad.
5. Bottom Line
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised that flying without an ID was a seamless experience for my brother, but of course it’s totally a YMMV experience. Without a doubt, I believe that the experience will vary greatly from individual to individual, for more reasons than one.
Oh, and an update about the bag: it’s been over a week and my brother has many dozens of calls and several visits to NJ Transit to try to retrieve the bag. NJ Transit’s response: “we haven’t checked for you yet… sometimes we don’t check the under-the-bus compartment for several weeks”. There you have it – that’s NJ Transit working hard to keep the public safe!
Have you ever had an experience where you were able to catch a flight (or were denied) without a valid ID? I’d love to hear more stories in the comments!
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