Mar 18 2024

Buses, trains, and US domestic travel without ID

In our previous article, we looked at the state of ID requirements and the the right to international travel for U.S. citizens.

What about domestic travel within the USA without ID?

Flying? Domestic US airline passengers are subject to demands for ID by airlines and the TSA. These demands are of dubious validity, and have arbitrary secret exceptions. Many people fly without ID every day. But not everyone is able or willing to challenge these authoritative-seeming demands for ID to fly.

Driving? States that choose to participate in the national REAL-ID system are making it harder and harder to get driver’s licenses or state IDs. It’s easier for a US citizen to get a passport or passport card than to get a driver’s license in some states. But you can’t legally drive in the US without a driver’s license issued by a state, US territory, or foreign government.

Unless you walk, ride a horse or bicycle, or get a ride in a car driven by someone else, that leaves buses and trains as the primary modes of long-distance travel for people in the U.S. without ID.

Can you take a long-distance bus or train in the US without ID? And if not, what could or should be done to guarantee that right?

Buses: Greyhound used to be the carrier of last resort for US travelers without ID. A Greyhound ticket was a paper document entitling the bearer to transportation from Point A to Point  B. You could buy a ticket for cash, give or sell the ticket to anyone else to use, and board buses without showing ID.

This changed in 2021 when Greyhound was purchased by the German company FlixMobility, which was already operating some US routes as “FlixBus”.

Some US routes continue to be operated by Flix under the “Greyhound” name, but in 2023 Flix took over all ticketing for buses in the US operated by Flix or Greyhound. Flix issues only e-tickets, not paper tickets, and requires passengers to show ID when boarding buses.

(It’s not yet clear how strictly Flix or Greyhound enforce demands for ID. We welcome feedback from recent Flix or Greyhound riders, or would-be riders, without ID.)

In other countries where Flix operates, you can buy a ticket from the bus driver at no extra charge. But “On-board purchasing is NOT available in the United States“, presumably because, unlike other countries, the US hasn’t chosen to require it by law. But the US could do so.

Flix has taken over ticketing for most other inter-city bus companies in the US. Some also still sell paper tickets for cash, but we know of none with transcontinental service.

As a wholly-owned subsidiary of a German company,  Flix North America, Inc. is arguably subject to the German and European Union “General Data Protection Regulation” (GDPR). But there’s little case law to date on the applicability of the GDPR to subsidiaries and activities of EU-based companies outside the EU. And German data protection authorities have been reluctant to apply the GDPR to US subsidiaries of German companies, such as T-Mobile USA (which is owned by Deutsche Telekom).

A solution to the problem of Flix using its hegemony in the US over long-distance bus booking to restrict the mobility of people without ID needs to come through a US law such as the  Freedom to Travel Act — a law firmly in the tradition of the Freedom Rides and the use of Federal law to enforce the right of all Americans to travel on interstate buses.

Trains: Amtrak uses a “.com” rather than a “.gov” Internet domain. But the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak’s proper name) is actually a Federally chartered corporation. The members of Amtrak’s Board of Directors are nominated by the President of the US and confirmed by the US Senate. As a public transportation company, Amtrak is a common carrier required to offer transportation services on equal terms to all US citizens.

Amtrak claims that “Amtrak customers 18 years of age and older must produce valid photo identification” to buy tickets or board trains. That claim, like the claims made by airlines and the TSA that ID is required for air travel, is of untested legal validity and often unenforced.

In practice, you can buy an Amtrak ticket without showing ID — from a kiosk with an anonymous prepaid debit card, for example. Amtrak onboard staff, to their credit, almost never demand that passengers show ID.

But the provision in Amtrak’s conditions of carriage purportedly requiring ID, even if largely unenforced, exerts a chilling effect on Amtrak travel by people without ID.

We’ve had Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests pending with Amtrak for years to try to learn more about Amtrak’s ID policies and practices. We’re still asking for answers.

Amtrak completely stopped processing FOIA requests or responding to inquiries about their status in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just this month (March 2024) we finally received our first interim release of Amtrak records in more than four years, including a compilation of Amtrak’s agreements with computerized reservation systems and ticket sales agents.

We were interested in what these agreements might say about Amtrak’s requirements for passengers to show ID or provide personal information as a condition of purchasing tickets.  The agreements we received are all silent on this point. While they include some provisions for protection of Amtrak’s trade secrets and “business” data (whatever that means for a public agency) they say nothing about protection of passengers’ or ticket purchasers’ personal data.

Perhaps the most striking statement in the documents most recently released to us by Amtrak is this clause of Amtrak’s contract  with Sabre, the CRS most often used by travel agents to make Amtrak reservations and issue Amtrak tickets:

According to this contract, “Sabre and its affiliates make no representation as to the number or identity of the parties having access to the Sabre system.”

That means that if a travel agency in the USA uses Sabre to sell you an Amtrak ticket from Chicago to Champaign, anyone in the the Sabre office in Shanghai — or any other Sabre office worldwide — can view your travel plans, with no record of that viewing being kept.

We’re still waiting for the response to another of our FOIA requests for Amtrak’s policies — if any — for complying with privacy and data protection laws applicable to Amtrak tickets sold through agents in Canada or the European Union.

In light of this, passengers have good reasons not to want to show ID to Amtrak or have their names or other personal information included in globally shared reservation records.

The Freedom to Travel Act, if reintroduced and enacted, would apply to Amtrak as well as to private carriers. But Congress doesn’t need to enact such broad protection for passengers on all common carriers to reign in Amtrak’s ID demands. All that’s needed is to add a  provision to the Federal law under which Amtrak operates, explicitly prohibiting Amtrak from requiring passengers to show ID or provide personal information, and requiring Amtrak to sell paper tickets tickets  for cash at all staffed ticket offices.

If Congress can mandate the details of Amtrak’s food and beverage services or rules on smoking, it certainly has the authority to mandate that America’s national railroad act like a common carrier and transport all Americans able and willing to pay the fare.

One thought on “Buses, trains, and US domestic travel without ID

  1. What about the Alaska state ferry? Their policies state that “customers will be required to show proper government issued photo identification” (, and in my experience they always ask for ID on boarding. This would seem to leave private plane (as a passenger) or boat as the only means of traveling without ID to/from, or in many cases within, the state of Alaska. As far as I can tell, the legal basis for the ID requirement is 46 CFR 122.502, which requires “a correct list of the names of all persons” on the vessel; but the reg says nothing about showing ID.

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