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Here’s What Happens If You Forget Your ID at the Airport

Yes, you can travel without an ID, but it won’t be easy.

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies surprisingly work in my favor before, during, and after my travels. I pack appropriately and intelligently, I maintain an unnatural level of organization in my suitcase, and am quick to do laundry upon my return. So, you can only imagine my horror when I, an experienced travel writer, arrived at the airport only to find I had left my ID in the glove compartment of a rental car after hiking in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park.

After seeing the expression on my face melt from joy to terror, the Delta gate agent assured me there was a remedy to this unfortunate (and common) situation. And she was right; I made it back to New York in one piece (albeit exhausted) but not without a few additional hiccups along the way. Here is everything I learned about what happens if you show up at the airport without any form of ID.

Don’t Throw in the Towel

Misplacing or losing your ID does not guarantee that you’ll be stranded in a city or airport and forced to find a temporary alternative from a local government agency (though this doesn’t sound half-bad if you end up in a more exotic locale). In fact, TSA’s own website states that if you arrive at the airport without valid identification, 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, but you will be allowed to enter the screening checkpoint if your identity is confirmed.

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This is precisely what happened for me in South Dakota’s Rapid City Regional Airport. A jarringly friendly TSA agent asked me to step out of the pre-check line and into a side area so that he could call the top-secret identity verification phone number and start the process of confirming who I am.

What’s in a Name? Everything, Apparently

If you’ve lost your driver’s license or passport but still have a credit card or social security card—congratulations! You’re already one step ahead of most unlucky travelers who lose or forget their IDs. A TSA agent will use this information to help verify the legitimacy of your existence a lot quicker and with less questions.

If you’ve lost your wallet altogether, your next bet is a prescription medication bottle with your name printed on it. Digital copies of anything are not accepted, which was an unfortunate revelation since I had photos of my driver’s license and passport stored on my cell phone.

But before the big phone call or any type of verification happens, airline passengers are required to fill out a sheet with their full legal name, address, social security number, and signature. Once completed, the call takes place, and you are required to speak only to the TSA agent in a true game of telephone. The questions asked were as follows:

  • What is your current address?
  • What was the address before your current one?
  • What state was your social security card issued?
  • When did you purchase a vehicle, and what are the make and model? (This is something they continuously harped on, despite my never owning a car. I live in Manhattan and walk everywhere, so I wondered if they were confusing me with my dad, who shares the same name.)
  • What is the nearest landmark to your place of residence? (“Um, the NYC skyline? The Statue of Liberty?” I replied sarcastically. The operator apparently wasn’t thrilled and asked me to name a nearby park. Central Park was the last greenspace I’d been to in New York and only because a cute boy invited me to chug White Claws on an unseasonably warm day in winter. Instead, I named a nearby bridge.)

After approximately five minutes of dialogue, I was cleared for takeoff and went through a more thorough security screening, where the agent shuffled through everything in my carry-on bag before bidding me adieu.

Two Strikes and You’re Out

The travel Gods were against me that day because my connecting flight from Minneapolis to New York was canceled, meaning I would have to return to the airport and go through this process all over again.

I arrived extra early the following day, assuming that round two would be a hassle. This was confirmed by a more stoic gate agent who warned me that TSA would never allow me to go through this process again for a third time. In fact, he said that if I were to get stranded at the next connecting airport (Detroit), I should just bank on sleeping in the terminal overnight so that I don’t have to go through security again. This was a second verification call I simply could not mess up.

I filled out the same form as the day prior, and the agent called the exact same number, except this time, the questions were far more intrusive and even a little bizarre. This time around, I was told to speak in one-word, direct answers while maintaining consistent eye contact. These were the questions:

  • What is the password to your Google email address? (This was something I could never remember without the assistance of a security question like my mom’s maiden name or the first concert I ever went to. I also felt as if I was giving away some deep, dark secret like I was allowing them to snoop around an inbox filled with unread work emails and spam from Yankee Candle. Needless to say, I failed to provide the right password.)
  • What are the names of neighbors? (Having just moved to Brooklyn and been in my apartment no more than 30 days, I blanked. “Um, Marcus? Monica?” I mumbled. A double fail.)
  • What is the name of a nearby school or hospital? (I don’t have children, and I hadn’t been hospitalized, so I was clueless on this one. Fail times three.)
  • What is a nearby landmark? (I said the bridge name confidently before being asked to confirm the past few addresses I resided at. I couldn’t remember most zip codes, but my memory generally served me well. A half-fail.)

Thinking I was fully going to march back to the hotel in the clothes I had been wearing for more than 24 hours, I finally got the green light to travel. Luckily, my flight from Detroit to New York was delayed, so I didn’t have to worry about finding a bucket of fried chicken and newspapers to use as a pillow and blanket, respectively. 

Tips for My Future Self

If there is one thing I learned from this entire ordeal, it’s to never hike again. Hiking just leads to bad things like losing IDs, and in the wise words of Sweet Brown: “ain’t nobody got time for that.” (Just kidding, kind of).

In all honesty, keeping one credit card or form of identification in a bag separate from a purse or wallet is a good idea. Possessing something with your name printed on it also makes the verification process a lot easier since that will be the first thing an operator will ask for when chatting with the TSA agent who is assisting you.

It may also be in your best interest to keep an empty pill bottle in your carry-on. I could have used one (along with the Xanax that was once inside of it) to deal with my travel woes and spare me some of the prolonged interrogations. But you live and learn, as they say, and now I can file myself under having officially “learned.”