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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 for mandatory regular use. 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.
At present, the only national photo identity documents are the passport and passport card, which are issued to U.S. nationals only upon voluntary application. Most people use state-issued driver's licenses as identity cards.
The birth certificate is the initial identification document issued to parents shortly after the birth of their child. This document is issued by the individual states but is the first document establishing U.S. citizenship.
This document now is usually issued by the Social Security Administration upon the request of a baby's parents. In recent years, 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). Since 1986, dependents above a given age could only qualify for a federal income tax deduction if SSN were furnished to the IRS. Then the parents are allowed to report the child to the Internal Revenue Service as a dependent, which may reduce the amount of federal income tax they have to pay. Prior to 1986, since dependent exemptions did not require SSN numbers, SSNs were usually not applied for until the dependent was well into the teens. Earlier, in 1962, the requirement that bank accounts must have an associated account number (usually SSN). led to a small surge in issuance SSNs to minors. At the time there was no requirement for SSN to be claimed a dependent. However, custodial bank accounts by parent for child would default to parent's SSN if the child lacked SSN. This would cause interest to be taxed at the usually higher marginal tax rate of the parent.
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. Because their original purpose was so limited, Social Security cards were not designed with the rigorous security measures normally expected of identity documents. They did not (and still do not) have a photograph of the bearer or a physical description.
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 the U.S. since the 1990s has led to various proposals for a national identity card.
Many organizations, universities and corporations historically used SSNs to uniquely identify their customer or student populations, but have since yielded 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 such as the U.S. Coast Guard are ceasing to use the SSN and now make use of an Employee I.D. Number (or EMPLID).
On June 1, 2011 the DOD removed SSNs from ID cards, and replaced it with a 10-digit DOD Identification Number.
Because it is so prevalent, the de facto official identification card for adults is the driver's license, which must be carried at all times when operating a vehicle in most states, and in most states must be 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 of the United States Constitution. 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. 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.
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. However, not all U.S citizens drive a car. Critics[who?] charge that DHS will be given carte blanche to dictate the content of driver's licenses and to directly manage information about all Americans.
United States passports are issued by the U.S. Department of State. Applications for passports are most often filed at United States Postal Service offices or local county or municipal clerk's offices. For many years, passports were 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.) In light of this, and given the country's immense size and the great distances which the average citizen lives from an international border, passport possession in the United States had remained relatively low. Indeed, most Americans normally did not obtain passports or carry them regularly unless traveling abroad, and as of 2006, only 60 million (20% of Americans) had passports. As of 2011, approximately 37% of Americans have passports or passport cards.
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 was implemented in stages:
By law, an unexpired U.S. passport (or passport card) is conclusive proof of U.S. citizenship and has the same force and effect as proof of United States citizenship as certificates of naturalization or of citizenship, if issued to a U.S. citizen for the full period allowed by law.
The main purpose of the U.S. passport card is to provide a more convenient travel document for citizens who live near a land border. It can be used for land and sea travel between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda but cannot be used for other countries or for international air travel. Otherwise, it carries the rights and privileges of the U.S. passport book. The passport card is also accepted as identification for domestic air travel.
When outside the United States and the above mentioned countries, the passport card can be used as identification and proof of citizenship within a particular country, even though it is not valid for travel internationally (i.e., traveling from Germany to Switzerland/Austria/France/etc.).
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has indicated that the U.S. Passport Card may be used in the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 (form) process. The passport card is considered a “List A” document that may be presented by newly hired employees during the employment eligibility verification process to show work authorized status. “List A” documents are those used by employees to prove both identity and work authorization when completing the Form I-9.
Members of the Military and employees of the Department of Defense receive identity documents based on their status. A Geneva Conventions Identification Card (called a Common Access Card or CAC) is issued to Active Duty and Selected Reserve service members, DOD employees, and some contractors. Adult dependents of service members, retired service members, and members of the Inactive Ready Reserve receive a different kind of military ID that does not contain the smart card cryptographic chip that the Common Access Card has.
A DOD identification card number usually matches the holder's Social Security Number. But, on June 1, 2011, the DOD began phasing out use of the SSN to protect service members' identities. It was replaced with a 10-digit DOD ID Number and a 12-digit Benefits ID Number.
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:
Other documents that are evidence of an individual's identity:
Other examples of documents involving personal identity include: