You're 18 - or almost, done with secondary school, and planning a Gap year around the world. You'll need a valid photo ID for that trip. You'll also need an acceptable photo ID to buy a pint after 9pm or, dare we say, a pack of fags. No worries, there are a few options available to you - all valid, but some are more universally accepted than others.
The National Proof of Age Standards Scheme - or, simply, a PASS card
The little "PASS" hologram on the card indicates that the card issuer has passed a stringent audit carried out by Trading Standards Officers and that the card is reliable. This ID card, made popular after the demise of the National ID scheme, is endorsed by the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Security Industry Authority (SIA) and Trading Standards Institute (TSI). Impressive, no?
So a PASS ID must be perfect, right? It'll do the trick in Scotland - which even has its own Young Scot PASS card - where the cards have been mandated as valid proof of age. And they're mostly accepted in England, Wales and NI, just don't plan a night out at a club - many of the club "doors" are still not willing to risk jeopardising their business based on a little flashy logo. Nor, for better or worse, will you be able to travel on Ryanair or use it as a national ID outside of the UK. Still, quite handy down your local or the newsagent.
There are a few providers of PASS cards - all, you know, audited by TSI - and at least one, CitizenCard, that allows you to use theirs as a pre-paid VISA card. The prices range from £15-£30 and may be applied for in person, in some cases, or by post after downloading the application. All the options and info you need are on the PASS website listed in the resource section below.
Provisional driving licence.
You were going to get a driving licence anyway. Now's the time - even if you don't intend to use a motorised vehicle. The licence is accepted within all parts of the UK - whether a sunlit café or a dark, loud, undulating nightclub - as proof of age. With this magic card in your possession, you'll finally be able to legally buy some of the stuff you've most likely managed illegally.
Are there any limits to the use of a driving licence as ID? Well, you can't use it outside the UK as a travel document or national ID - and, as a provisional licence, you can't use it to drive outside of the UK, either. For most domestic flights the licence will be fine - aside from certain air carriers - although it's always a good idea to check ahead with the airline.
For some people, obtaining a provisional licence is the most difficult of the lot in that you must be physically capable of driving and, although you don't have perfect vision, you should be able to read a licence plate from 20 metres. You'll need to pay £50 and send ID, such as a valid UK passport - which you probably don't have - or a UK birth or adoption certificate. Check resources below for the link.
For Northern Ireland, the Electoral Identity Card
While limited as an acceptable photo ID outside of NI, it is good for domestic flights on some carriers, it should allow you to buy a pint anywhere in the UK, and it is free. Free works nicely.
You'll need to register to vote and supply a valid photo ID to apply. Oh, right, you don't have that yet. No problem, have a "Declaration by Elected Representative" form filled out by your local elected representative.
Be sure to tell them the form is very simple and very short - probably designed exclusively for elected representatives. And also tell them you can't vote for them with the proper ID. More info on the website.
Your very own United Kingdom passport
Is it universally accepted? Yes. A passport is the universally accepted photo ID. Use it for travel anywhere you like - as long as you don't have a criminal record and you're not planning a visit to an enemy state. Buy cigarettes and booze where you like, home or away - as long as they like you well enough to sell to you.
As long as you're a natural born citizen or legally naturalised, the application process is fairly straightforward. You'll need your birth certificate, that of your mother or father with Home Office certificate of registration/naturalisation, evidence of your parents' immigration status, if that applies, along with passport photos and payment for £72.50. Oh, if you choose to send your father's documents, you'll also need to provide the Home Office's Identity and Passport Service with your parents' marriage certificate. Honest. Best to send Mum's.
Your passport is an important and valuable document - to you and, perhaps, to others. Replacing a lost or stolen one is arduous and time consuming - multiply x10 if you're out of the country. Most people don't use their passport domestically for just this reason. But if you must, please be protective of it. If you're abroad, and walking around a city, place the passport in a secure place and carry a photocopy of it. If you're in possession of another photo ID, like a PASS card, surrender that to the hotel, if you can, when asked to leave your documents. Immediately report lost or stolen passports to your consulate first, and then to local police.
Don't let others use your ID. You know why. Always keep your ID in a safe place. If you're carrying it, secure it. Report lost or stolen ID immediately to the issuer and to the police. Have a good photo taken; bad photos last a long time.