Plenty of things can go wrong while you’re on vacation. But a lost or stolen wallet is especially stressful — especially when that wallet contains the ID that you need to get on your return flight home.
That’s what happened to me during a recent trip to Charleston, S.C., when I discovered that someone had taken my wallet. Even worse than the fact that the thief had used my debit card for a $200 Saks shopping spree was the fact that my flight was the next day — and I had no identification to show to airport security.
So, what do you do in a situation like this?
First of all, don’t panic. You’ll want to follow the usual contingency plan if your wallet is lost or stolen: Freeze your credit and debit cards; alert your bank and credit card companies about what happened; put a freeze on your credit at the three major credit bureaus; file a police report. In other words: take a deep breath, and take control of the situation as best you can.
But can you still get on a plane if you lost your wallet and ID? I turned to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website for help. And upon safely returning home (more on that later), I reached out to TSA press secretary R. Carter Langston for some more insight about what to do if you’re coming to the airport without valid identification. And the good news is that if you are flying domestically, TSA agents have been trained to work with you to get you home – if they can verify that you are indeed who you say you are, that is.
“This unfortunately happens a lot, and it does create a delay,” said Langston. “But in those instances when something is lost or stolen, we do have alternative mechanisms to prove identification. And it does take a little bit more time at the security checkpoint. But we are able to do it, and it always involves enhanced screening.”
So, first of all, keep in mind that there are many forms of identification that the TSA accepts, including:
Driver’s licenses or other state photo identity cards issued by Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent)
U.S. passport card
DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
U.S. Department of Defense ID, including IDs issued to dependents
Permanent resident card
Border crossing card
State-issued Enhanced Driver’s License
An acceptable photo ID issued by a federally recognized, Tribal Nation/Indian Tribe
HSPD-12 PIV card
Foreign government-issued passport
Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
Transportation worker identification credential
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential
Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC)
What’s more, you may still be able to fly if you have an expired license or passport, as long as it’s not more than 12 months past the identified expiration date, the TSA says.
But if you don’t have access to any of these forms of identification, then the TSA site says that you “may still be allowed to fly,” and the key word there is “may.”
“I would say, show up extra, extra early for your flight and be prepared for a delay, as the officer needs to be able to identify you through alternative measures,” Langston said. “And then prepare to undergo enhanced screening, which always involves a pat-down.”
Once at the airport, go to a TSA officer and explain your situation. It will also help to smooth the process along if you’ve already checked into your flight, and you’ve got a physical or digital boarding pass ready to present to security.
What happens next is up to the TSA officer’s discretion. The TSA officer may ask you to complete an identity verification process, such as getting your full name, your current address and other personal information to help confirm your identity. You might be asked to sign a Certification of Identity form with your name and address, which includes a disclaimer saying that you consent to the government reviewing your personal info. And the TSA officer will cross-check the personal information you provide against databases, like DMV records, that they have access to or that is already publicly available. If they are satisfied that they’ve confirmed your identity, then you will begin the process of moving through the security checkpoint.
But Langston warned that being allowed to go through security without an ID is much more difficult if you are at your point of origin; that is, you’re leaving home and going away on vacation, and you still expect to return. In this case, the officer is more likely to send you home to retrieve some valid identification, and they will suggest that you reschedule your flight. But if you’re already on vacation, and you’re just looking to come back home, then a TSA officer is more likely to let you on the return flight.
Why? Langston explained that not having your ID for a return flight is a one-time occurrence, while embarking on your vacation without the ID suggests you’ll need this enhanced screening process both ways on your round-trip journey. “Rather than inconvenience fellow travelers twice with all of the delays associated, it would be far better for your flight to just be rescheduled, and [for you] to go home, get everything you need, and then come back to the airport when you’re ready to travel,” he said.
What’s more, while I didn’t have access to the forms of ID that the TSA was looking for, I was able to collect some other documentation to help make my case that I was … me. I went onto the New York DMV website to report my ID stolen, for example, and the DMV sent me a PDF for an interim ID. I printed that out and brought it to the airport to help prove my identity.
I also went to the Charleston police, showed the officers the fraud alerts from my bank, and filed an incident report claiming that my wallet containing my ID and credit cards had been stolen. I brought this incident report to the airport with me as documentation that my identification had been taken.
And I got to the Charleston International Airport a good four hours before my flight and went straight to a security officer at the check-in area. He escorted me to the security checkpoint, where another TSA officer followed the protocol outlined on the TSA site: She asked for my information, took my interim ID and police report, and checked in with a supervisor. To be honest, she wasn’t sure at first that the documentation I was presenting was enough to get me through security. She also recommended presenting a prescription bottle with my name on it, or a credit card with my name on it, to help prove my identity — which I unfortunately did not have.
It should be noted that these other forms of identification aren’t listed on the TSA site, so they are not a guarantee to get you on the plane. But Langston agreed that these are items of documentation that “might help.” Fodors notes that you may also be carrying plenty of other materials to help prove your identity, such as: school IDs, or iPhone photos of your identification. If you’re traveling with family members who have their IDs on them, you can try showing pictures of you with your family. If you happen to have a checkbook, utility bill, magazine with your mailing address on it, or a Costco membership card, these may all help make the case that you are you.
What’s more, Langston noted that, “If you had TSA PreCheck on your boarding pass, that shows you’re a vetted passenger, and it gives the TSA officer another kind of database to search,” he said. “So by all means, that would help.”
So what happened in my case? The TSA agent ultimately confirmed my identity, and let me enter the security screening checkpoint. But we weren’t done yet!
There, I was subjected to a much more rigorous security screening than I’m accustomed to receiving at an airport, including a full pat-down. I was also escorted by a TSA officer every step of the way through security, and I had to put my carry-on bag and purse in special red bins for even closer scrutiny during the screening process. My baggage also was opened and thoroughly searched. Once both my person and my possessions were cleared, I was able to leave the security area and get on my plane.
The TSA site warns that you will not be allowed to enter the security checkpoint if: your identity cannot be confirmed; you choose to not provide proper identification; or you decline to cooperate with the identity verification process. And obviously, declining to go along with the extra security screening would also get you turned away.
The bottom line: Show up early. Bring whatever you can get your hands on to prove your identity. Stay calm, and be patient. This extra screening process may take a long time; I was in a smaller South Carolina airport, so my enhanced security screening didn’t take too much longer than going through security on a given day with my ID cards in hand. But a bustling international hub like JFK in New York, or LAX in California, might be a different story.
Something else I learned: I’m never traveling with just one form of ID again. And next time I travel, I’ll be sure to keep the IDs separate from one another, and I’m also going to keep them in a different place than my credit cards.