Is your driver’s license Real ID compliant? What air travelers should keep in mind.

The federal Real ID Act sets stricter standards on identification.

The federal Real ID Act sets stricter standards on identification.

(Paul Sakuma / AP)

As a traveler, I find that the best surprise is no surprise. That doesn’t mean I like staying in cookie-cutter hotels or eating at chain restaurants, but it does mean that anticipating a problem before it becomes a disaster is the way I like to roll — or keep rolling.

If you’re not like that, stop reading because this is a problem that may not occur until 2018 at the earliest. But if you’d like a bit of outrage for breakfast, continue.

And if you’d like to know what may lie ahead or if you live in Washington, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Illinois or American Samoa, sound the alarm, softly for now.


That’s because your federal government is trying to fix a problem that the 9/11 Commission pinpointed in 2004 and that became law in 2005.

That’s the problem of driver’s licenses or state IDs that must meet certain federal requirements. It has fallen to the Department of Homeland Security to begin making people aware of the problem.

There are 23 states in which this isn’t a problem. Those driver’s licenses meet the criteria that make them what is called Real ID compliant. To see whether your state is on that list, go to the DHS website .

If yours is a California driver’s license or one from 26 other places, you’re not on that A-OK list — at least not yet. Those six places listed above may never be on the A-OK list, thanks in some cases to state laws that countermand federal requirements.

This means that eventually — maybe by 2018 and maybe by 2020 — you will not be able to use your driver’s license at Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints so you can get on a plane.

This issue is as complicated as only the federal government and multiple state departments of motor vehicles can make it, so your head may feel as though it’s going to explode, sort of the way you may have felt when you watched “The Big Short.” Only with this column, you don’t get Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it for you.

You get California’s Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Homeland Security.

If you go to the DHS map and hover over California, you’ll see that it says California has an extension that allows federal agencies “to accept driver’s licenses from these states until Oct. 10, 2016.” That sounds alarming. In fact, it sounds a lot like you won’t be able to get on a plane after that with only your driver’s license.

That’s not the case. Here is what Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said last month in a statement: “Right now, no individual needs to adjust travel plans, or rush out to get a new driver’s license or a passport for domestic air travel. Until Jan. 22, 2018, residents of all states will still be able to use a state-issued driver’s license or identification card for domestic air travel.

“Passengers can also continue to use any of the various other forms of identification accepted by [the Transportation Security Administration] (such as a passport or passport card, Global Entry card, U.S. military ID, airline or airport-issued ID, federally recognized tribal-issued photo ID).”

After that, if the state that issued your license still isn’t in compliance with regulations, you’ll need a passport or another form of federal-government-approved ID to get on a plane — unless your state gets another extension.

I’m stopping here to reiterate something important for us travelers: California driver’s licenses don’t comply, but for right now, you can get on a plane using one.

California is taking steps to try to comply with what the feds want, the DMV said. One of those is legislation passed last year that will make the approval process of licenses for new applicants comply with the federal standards.

That compliance (for everyone, not just California) involves the physical driver’s license document, security around the issuance process and whether the information we applicants provide is true.

That last part is tricky. How do you prove you are a resident of California if you’re, say, moving here? What constitutes proof exactly?

Unknown as of now. Still working on that, the DMV said.

This also doesn’t address what happens to the 25 million of us who already hold driver’s licenses, never mind the 6 million who have a state ID.

What is the DMV doing about us?

“California is moving towards having a mechanism to issue Real ID-compliant licenses or identification cards,” Artemio Armenta, a spokesman for the California DMV, said in an email. He could not say what that mechanism is.

But something must be done unless California gets another extension.

A DHS statement also notes this: “Starting Oct. 1, 2020, every air traveler will need a Real ID-compliant license, or another acceptable form of identification, for domestic air travel.”

If you’re a Californian, you might have two years. You might have four.

You also might have a headache thinking about this. You might be annoyed that the federal government is telling us what to do.

On that last point, if that’s what we’re thinking, we’re wrong, officials are quick to note. The federal government isn’t telling states what to do. But I will note that although that is technically true, it’s also true that the government can make life more difficult if you happen to live in a state that doesn’t comply. Residents in those five states and one territory listed above that have dug in their heels about this issue should take note of this and also that 2018 deadline.

The federal government also maintains this isn’t a national ID card. (Google “Real ID” and “national identity card,” and you’ll find many people who dispute that.) And, a senior DHS official told me, it’s wrong to think that our driver’s licenses are not better pieces of identification than they were 12 years ago.

Finally, of course, there is a cost to this for every state that will try to comply. No one can say what that is today. Figures are bandied about. One of them is $11 billion.

Not calculated into this figure: the cost of the confusion, frustration and outright anger at any number of difficulties this raises.

No one wants to be less secure. San Bernardino and Paris remind us that danger lurks and that all the best efforts haven’t been enough to stop terrorism.

If there’s a big issue here — other than our inconvenience, the cost, the issue of states’ rights, the uncertainty about how this is ultimately going to be addressed for Californians and others — it is this: This issue isn’t new.

It is now more than a decade since the original legislation was approved, and this is still not solved. By the time that 2020 deadline rolls around, it will have been 15 years.

If you don’t think things have changed, consider this small but significant date marker: The first iPhone wasn’t released until 2007.

Head hurting now? Take two aspirin or your pain reliever of choice and email with your thoughts.

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