Advertisement

How to Update Your Identity Documents to Match Your Gender

Here’s how to change your documents and IDs to help ease the process of affirming your gender.

Medically reviewed in August 2021

For many transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people going through the process of gender affirmation, it’s essential to change your name and gender marker on official documents. Not only will doing so bring psychological relief, it can also make you feel more connected to a supportive community.

“It’s important for many people to make these document changes to show that the state supports who you are,” says Charlie Arrowood, counsel for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (TLDEF’s) Name Change Project.

Here’s what you need to know about updating your identity documents, with answers to key questions about how the process works.

What are the benefits of name and gender changes?
Making name and gender marker changes on official documents can have profound emotional and psychological benefits. For one, it can help relieve feelings of gender and social dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria refers to the distress and discomfort someone might experience when they feel their gender identity doesn’t align with their physical or physiological characteristics. Many transgender and gender nonconforming people experience gender dysphoria. Social dysphoria is the feeling some gender-diverse people experience when others do not treat them as the correct gender.

Changing official documents can also boost resilience. Transgender people who make legal name and gender marker changes have about half the chance of experiencing negative emotional responses to gender-based mistreatment, according to a 2020 study published in SSM - Population Health.

There are practical reasons to make these changes, too. For example, having accurate Social Security records and up-to-date identity documentation can help people avoid harassment or discrimination in the workplace and can make it easier to travel or vote without being questioned.  

How do I begin updating my documents?
The precise process of updating your documents will depend on where you live, but it typically involves the following steps:

1. Changing your legal name
The first step is to get a name change order. Most states do this through probate court in the county in which you live. The court should be able to provide the forms you need to get the name change order yourself. (Note that people under 18 years of age typically need parental permission to start this process.)

2. Updating Social Security records
Next, apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to change your Social Security records using your name change order. SSA can provide the forms you need online or in your local office.

If you don’t have a Social Security number, you will need to establish your citizenship/immigration status and provide identification. Non-US citizens should use immigration documents and one other form of ID to update records.

For US citizens without a Social Security card, a valid passport can work to establish citizenship and identity. (It’s not a common occurrence, but according to the US Department of State, it is possible to apply for a passport without a Social Security card: You would need to sign an affidavit stating that you were never issued a Social Security card.)

3. Updating your driver’s license or state ID
The next move is to change the name on your driver’s license or state ID at your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Most states require you to do this in person with your name change order.

To change your gender marker, you’ll typically need to fill out an application or a gender designation change form and have it signed by a healthcare provider (HCP). Some states may require a letter from an HCP, so check the requirements in your state before you go.

If you have a valid passport, changing your gender marker is easier, and doing so first (see below) may support your application for your updated driver’s license or state ID.

4. Updating your passport
Having a valid, accurate, updated passport can significantly ease the challenge of many of the other changes you have to make by providing a single, multipurpose ID.

Male (M) and female (F) are the only gender marker options for US passports, but in June 2021, the State Department announced plans to add a gender marker for nonbinary, intersex and gender nonconforming individuals to passports in the future. (The State Department is providing updates on the progress of the change via their website.)

Having a letter from your HCP that verifies your gender change can help with this update, but as of June 2021, the State Department also began allowing applicants to self-select their gender as “M” or “F” without medical certification, even if their gender does not match the gender marker on other citizenship or identity documents.

5. Updating your birth certificate (optional)
The process for changing your name and gender on your birth certificate varies from state to state, but it usually involves submitting a birth certificate correction form, a letter from your HCP indicating that you’ve undergone treatment to affirm your gender and a small processing fee (usually around $10 to $20).

Some states have stricter standards than others for what they recognize as appropriate treatment (with some requiring proof of surgery), so it’s important to research this carefully before applying. While changing your birth certificate is helpful for things like school enrollment or employment, having an updated birth certificate it is not required for updating the other documents noted above. In many cases, an updated passport can satisfy the same function as an updated birth certificate.

6. Updating financial, insurance and employment records
Using your new documentation and name change order, you should be able to complete the process for other documents, including:

  • Credit and debit cards
  • Bank accounts
  • Insurance documents (including auto, home, rental, life and health insurance)
  • School and employment records (such as transcripts and graduation certificates)
  • Marriage licenses
  • Military service records
  • Mortgage and other loan paperwork
  • Court documents (custody, estate, etc.)

What about immigration documents?
Noncitizen immigrants face unique challenges when making name and gender changes. “Immigration documents are the most expensive to change,” says Arrowood, “and some states require you to notify other agencies when you do so.”

The evidence requirements are also high. In order to recognize a gender change, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires a court order, an updated official document (such as a passport or driver’s license) or a gender designation letter from an HCP (though this letter doesn’t need to specify any particular treatment). The letter may be issued by a licensed counselor, nurse practitioner, doctor or osteopath, physician assistant, psychologist, social worker or therapist.

Some immigration documents have additional requirements for making updates, such as special forms, filing fees, passport photographs and other pieces of supporting documentation. It’s important to research the requirements for your specific documents carefully.

The National Center for Transgender Equality provides a helpful guide for updating each type of immigration document. Fee waivers are available for some applicants via the USCIS website, which also provides the criteria to find out if you’re eligible, so check for those if you might have trouble paying the filing fees.

How is travel affected by the process of updating documents?
Traveling by air as a transgender person is often difficult and nerve-wracking, but there are steps you can take to prevent some problems. When making reservations, use the name that’s on your ID, even if it’s currently different from your legal name. Your ID is the only source of information the booking needs.

If you need to disclose your gender, book using the one listed on your ID, whether you’re using a driver’s license or a passport to fly. Arrowood says that if you need to change the name on a preexisting booking, you should contact the company you made it with directly, using your name change court order as proof. Arrowood also recommends that you bring a copy of your change order with you on your trip, along with any other supporting documents, in the event someone challenges your identity in person.

Will I be able to vote if I’m in the process of updating my documents?
As of November 2020, 35 states require IDs to vote in federal and local elections. This can present unique challenges for transgender and nonbinary people, as they often lack IDs that match their gender identity. This affects around 260,000 individuals across the US, according to the Williams Institute, an LGBTQIA+ research center at the University of California, Los Angeles. There are a few things you can do to make sure that you aren’t prevented from voting on election day.

First, check your voter registration status at the Can I Vote website from the National Association of Secretaries of State. From the landing page, click Voter Registration Status and follow the instructions. If any information is no longer accurate, you can update it by reregistering; click Register to Vote on the landing page and follow the instructions.

Next, check what kind of ID (if any) your state requires. If voter ID laws are in effect, you’ll want to ensure that the name and address on your voter registration match the information on the ID you’re planning to use. Legally, your gender identity or presentation don’t need to match your ID. That said, you may want to bring other forms of ID to the polls as extra support. A utility bill with your registered address and your voter registration card are helpful here.

If you’re still prevented from voting, there are often volunteer attorneys stationed at polling stations who can help. If not, call the national Election Protection hotline at 866-687-8683 to make sure your vote gets cast.

What resources can I access for more help?
The process of updating your identity documents can be complicated, time-consuming and, at times, expensive. The good news is that a number of advocacy groups are working to make the job easier for gender-diverse people. Here’s a list of resources that can help:

  • TLDEF’s Name Change Project provides free legal name change services to low-income transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people in 26 counties across 7 states.
  • The National Center for Transgender Equality provides a helpful checklist of the steps that go into updating one’s name and gender marker, as well as a state-by-state guide to requirements for legal name and gender marker changes.
  • Trans Lifeline provides microgrants for name and gender marker changes. (The microgrant program is expected to resume service as of September 1, 2021.)
  • TransSocial, Inc. offers free legal and financial assistance for name and gender marker changes.
  • Lambda Legal has compiled a state-by-state directory of requirements for changing sex designation on birth certificates.

Medically reviewed in July 2021.

Sources:

Transportation Security Administration. Transgender Passengers. Nov 24, 2015.
Justia. Transgender Immigration Rights. Last updated July 2018.
Stuart Baum, Izabela Tringali, Mikael Morelión. How Voter ID Laws Threaten Transgender Voters. Brennan Center for Justice. November 20, 2020.
U.S. Department of State. Selecting your Gender Marker. Accessed July 16, 2021.
The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel. Transgender? How to Legally Change Your Name, Gender and Vital Records. Accessed July 16, 2021.
Restar A, Jin H, Breslow A, et al. Legal gender marker and name change is associated with lower negative emotional response to gender-based mistreatment and improve mental health outcomes among trans populations. SSM Popul Health. 2020;11:100595.

Featured Content

article

5 Keys to General Wellness for Gender-Diverse People

Following these tips can boost your health and overall well-being.
article

A Guide to Gender-Affirming Surgery for Transmasculine People

Here’s what you need to know about masculinizing surgery, from finding a surgeon to establishing a safe recovery.
article

Insurance Coverage for Gender-Affirming Health Care: A Troubleshooting Guide

Here's how to know what your insurance covers and what to do if your services are denied.
article

What Transgender Men and Transmasculine People Need to Know About Breast Cancer

Depending on your risk factors and your surgical history, you might need to begin having mammograms sooner or more often than you think.
article

What Transgender Women and Transfeminine People Need to Know About Breast Cancer

Your risk may be affected by gender-affirming hormone therapy.