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You Totally Can Get on A Flight When You’ve Forgotten Your ID

You Totally Can Get on A Flight When You’ve Forgotten Your ID

Ever since I left my boarding pass behind after putting it down to wrangle ketchup packets at a Sarasota-airport burger counter, I’ve tried mightily to avoid travel screw-ups. When I circled back minutes later, slightly panicked, my ticket was right there at the pickup window where I’d left it. Lucky break. Still, I swore to myself, never again.

That is until, years later, when my wallet sped off in the New York City taxi I’d just exited. I broke out in a cold sweat. With a flight home in the morning, I now had no identification—and no way to replace it. (Lesson one: Get a receipt. Or use taxi apps, Arro or Curb. Either way, you’ll be able to track down your driver and spare yourself loads of anguish.) The Delta agent who took my call that night was sympathetic, but his answer was strictly by-the-book: I’d need a government-issued identification card or passport to board the plane. There was no way around it.

Except, as I would discover, there was.


Mistakes happen. And while the TSA may be tight-lipped about allowing unidentified passengers through security (my request for an interview on this topic went unanswered), U.S. airports would be awash in marooned flyers if the agency couldn’t provide a reasonable workaround.

The next morning, I arrived extra-early at LaGuardia ready to beg for mercy. I figured I’d be ushered into a double-secret office, where an agent would type my name into a database and scrutinize the results. Not even close. Instead, the first airport-security person I found to plead my case just shrugged and said simply, “Get in line.”

Good manners and a cooperative attitude were my only currency. So when I reached my turn at the security checkpoint, I apologized for my situation and offered a photo of my driver’s license on my phone. Would that help, I asked?

“No,” the agent said flatly before he called over his shoulder to summon an agent from the line behind him: “We’ve got a secondary!”


A female agent appeared, motioned for me to hand over my boarding pass, then asked a surprising question: “Do you have a prescription on you?”

“Do I have a what?” But I’d heard her right. A prescription bottle, with my name neatly typed on the label, would confirm my identity. And the pharmacy address would corroborate my hometown. This was genius! I rummaged through my bag, but came up empty-handed. With nothing to show but a debit card and a snapshot of my driver’s license, I held my breath and mentally prepared for her to turn me away.


Instead, she motioned me toward the stack of bins by the conveyor belt. I was now officially a Secondary Security Screening Selectee (SSSS, for short). I’d get the same treatment as a traveler who’d been randomly flagged for extra screening; or worse, someone whose name appeared on the no-fly list. After I passed through the metal detector (again, the agent kept my boarding pass firmly in her hand), she pulled me aside to wait for my bag and shoes. When they emerged from the scanner, one agent patted me down while another carefully swabbed my shoes, unzipped my suitcase and, with gloved hands, rummaged through my clothes. She inserted the paper strip she’d used on my shoes into a black-lit box. When it beeped, she turned to me and said the magic words: “You’re cleared to go.”

I wanted to hug her. Instead, I thanked her for her professionalism and apologized for causing the problem in the first place. A rule-follower to the core, I was pained to find myself on the wrong side of the TSA’s.


Since then, I’ve heard stories of ID-challenged travelers fielding questions about the color of their house or whether there’s a park nearby, as agents zoom-in on their addresses using Google Earth.  And I’ve discovered more garden-variety items that come in handy during an ID crisis (see the full list here). My favorites include a school yearbook, library card, utility bill, piece of mail, school transcripts, or a copy of your mortgage, your lease, tax return, or vehicle registration. If you’ve appeared in a news article lately, bring the clipping along, too. According to the TSA website, you’ll need five of these secondary sources of identification to earn a green light for domestic travel, but I’d had none of them.

Of course, after October 1, 2020, when the new REAL ID requirement kicks in, I might not be so lucky. And if you’re traveling abroad and your passport is stolen, this process becomes exponentially more complicated. For starters, you’ll need to file a police report before showing up at your embassy for help. I hope this is my first—and last—airport identity-crisis. But since I‘m only human, I’ve tucked an empty prescription bottle into every travel bag I own.

View Comments (19)


  1. rittenhousesq

    December 9, 2019 at 2:06 pm

    Yea, I always travel with my school yearbook and transcripts in my back pack! LOL But it isn’t a total secret (although not common knowledge) that it is still possible to get through airport security without an ID.

  2. DCAFly

    December 9, 2019 at 2:34 pm


  3. Centurion

    December 10, 2019 at 12:39 am

    The best advice the writer leaves out as if all possible avoid the airlines airport check in counter when this happens. They often have no idea what the heck they are talking about or how to handle this situation.

  4. rylan

    December 10, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    So I wonder how this would work if you had to check a bag… the airline is going to ask you for ID and if you present none I doubt they’ll accept your bag.

  5. fotographer

    December 10, 2019 at 1:05 pm

    ok… maybe people that travel should have a check list, that includes their ID..
    Its not that difficult to make a list before you leave.. and save you all the agro at the airport.

  6. tigertanaka

    December 11, 2019 at 4:21 am

    I realise that FT is a US centric website but maybe it would be more appropriate to have a headline of “You Totally Can Get on A *US Domestic* Flight When You’ve Forgotten Your ID”.

    Not sure you can check a bag without any ID either.

  7. Hotcat1970

    December 11, 2019 at 4:28 am

    or, alternatively, travel in other countries where one does not require to show any photo ID before boarding a domestic flight.

  8. whiskeytangofoxtrot

    December 11, 2019 at 5:54 am

    clear seems to manage this quite well. if you have luggage check in as the previous mention, expect more hassle, for sure.

  9. heffa


    December 11, 2019 at 6:25 am

    I’ve heard that many, me included, have gotten through security with the Costco credit card (the one with a picture on the backside)

  10. ulxima

    December 11, 2019 at 7:08 am

    Not sure the passenger would have been allowed to board a domestic flight in any country within the EU or elsewhere. Have you got any similar experience outside USA?

  11. ConnieDee

    December 11, 2019 at 7:49 am

    I’m not saying it’s never gonna happen, but my ID is generally attached to my body in some way when I travel (even when I leave the house to run to the store.) I don’t quite look like a biker, but I’ve got a few weird connectors hanging out of my cross-body purse. Never have understood why men in suits continue to stuff their wallets into their back pockets.

  12. drphun

    December 11, 2019 at 10:31 am

    That is a pretty normal result. You go through the extra “secondary” screening.

  13. Jamester

    December 11, 2019 at 6:08 pm

    Stick your GlobalEntry card (yes, the one they gave you that you think you never need) in your travel bag. It counts as an ID and have saved me number of times. Internationally though, you’re subject to their rule and may be S.O.L.

  14. superscot

    December 11, 2019 at 11:08 pm

    No ID required to board domestic flights in EU. Low cost airlines insist on ID but that’s to stop secondary market in cheap tickets, rather than any regulatory requirement. (Sitting in BA Lounge at LHR at the moment with no ID shown)

  15. disalex

    December 12, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    I had exactly the same experience when I lost my wallet. The one thing the TSA agent mentioned to me was that they really appreciated the fact I showed up 2 hours early. Apparently people in this situation show up 15 minutes before their flight then are shocked when they can’t make their flight

  16. eng3

    December 13, 2019 at 5:03 am

    CLEAR also lets you get thru without ID. Plus you keep your Precheck and don’t get stuck with SSSS

  17. JetBunny

    December 16, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Last week a colleague of mine lost her wallet and all her ID. She was able to check in at a Florida airport for an AA domestic flight with luggage, and pass through TSA checkpoint, with only her convention badge.

  18. chaseUA

    December 17, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    For all those asking, it happened to me on an international flight, LHR to one of the UA hubs (can’t remember if it was EWR, IAD, or ORD) back in 2012. I didn’t know yet, but my passport fell out of my bag the day earlier in the Tube. I realized this on the way to the airport, and went to the check-in desk. UA GA was super nice, said I’d miss the flight but put me on the next one, and called the DHS guy based at LHR. After a brief hour-long wait, DHS guy showed up with a copy of my passport on his Blackberry, matched it to the paper copy I keep in my wallet, and cleared me with UA GA. They put the little security-screening sticker on my paper photocopy of my passport, and that got me through LHR security and onto the flight. Landed in US, and at immigration they told me to go to the back room, which I’m familiar with because of getting stopped when returning from work in unusual countries. After a 20 minute wait, the CBP guy asked for last four of my SSN and let me on my way. Got home, called Tube lost and found (FYI each station has its own L&F…no centralized one), and someone turned in my passport. Got it in the mail 3 days later for 8 quid in shipping.

  19. fairhsa

    December 18, 2019 at 3:34 am

    A number of years ago I could not find my passport. (British, arriving back into UK). The kindly officer just waved me through after I explained. Apparently I sounded British. Pre 9.11 probably harder today!

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