Must Reads: California’s Real ID driver’s license? Still confusing. What you need to know now

The latest complications on the Real ID.
The latest complications on the Real ID.
(Tess Richards / For The Times)

Our last visit — “our,” because I am on this journey with you — to the topic of California’s Real ID driver’s license made my head hurt. In that Jan. 6 “On the Spot” column, we learned that the Department of Homeland Security had informed California that its second method of verifying a person’s residence was insufficient.

That was too bad, because thousands of the driver’s licenses had been issued by then, including mine, which I obtained Jan. 22, 2018, the first day they were offered.

What has this to do with you? Maybe nothing, but we’re going to tell you again why it matters, how this happened and why, as a traveler, you should care. Just try not to care too much, lest you implode.

If you know the answers to Questions 1-6, skip them and go directly to Question 7, where you can read about the latest complications.

1. Why does this matter to a traveler?


Beginning Oct. 1, 2020, you will need a driver’s license that meets certain federal standards to board a domestic flight, if a driver’s license is the form of identification you choose to use.

2. Couldn’t I use some other kind of identification?

Yes, you could: a passport, a passport card, a Global Entry card and many others. You can see the identification that will be accepted at the Transportation Security Administration’s explanatory page.

3. Why do I need Real ID?

You do not. You do not need a license that is Real ID compliant to drive in California. You do need a Real ID if you do not want to carry one of those other forms (see Question 2) of identification when you want to get on a domestic flight or enter certain federal facilities, such as a military base.

4. Why do you keep saying “domestic flight”?

Because you will need a passport to get on an international flight. Many readers are confused by this, judging from my mail, but a driver’s license is not going to get you to France.

5. Why not just carry a passport?

Some people don’t want to carry a passport to fly to Hoboken, N.J., or any other domestic location when it’s not necessary. “That’s stupid,” you say. “I say, ‘Call me ‘stupid.’” The ensuing discussion tends to devolve into a circular argument, so let’s move on.

6. What’s the proof of residence problem alluded to above?

In November, after California had issued thousands of these licenses, the Department of Homeland Security said the state’s second method of verifying residence was insufficient. It worked this way: The Postal Service would return to the DMV the envelope containing your license if you no longer lived at the address on that license. If it wasn’t returned, the reasoning went, you lived there.

7. I have a Real ID. I had to produce only one proof of residence. Does this mean my Real ID driver’s license is invalid?

No, it is valid. But here’s what this does mean: If you already have a Real ID license, you will at some point need to provide a second form of proof of residence. You can find a list of those on the DMV’s documents page

8. But if it’s not invalid, why do I need to provide proof?

The rules changed. You pay the price. Move on (or just move to a state that didn’t have the rug pulled out from under it).

9. I don’t have my Real ID license yet. Will I need two forms of proof of residence? If so, starting when?

Uncertainty about the process still prevails. After the issue arose in the fall, DMV said that starting April 1, you would need to have that second proof of residence. Now it’s saying you need it “sometime in April.”

10. So I’m supposed to guess what day this will happen?

You could, but guessing how this is going to play out has proved fruitless. The easier solution is to take a second form with you.

11. Why should I have to present documentation that isn’t mandatory?

You will save yourself trouble, because you must provide it at some point. Take care of it now. Avoid the rush.

12. Let’s say that it’s not yet mandatory and I don’t take that second form of proof of residence. Or that I wasn’t asked to provide it in the first place. Does this mean I have to stand in line again at the DMV in five years when I renew my license?

Unknown, although the DMV is trying to come up with a way so you won’t have to go back to do what you should have been asked to do at the outset. The DMV is trying to decide how to accomplish this. It could not say how or when this would be resolved.

13. Will TSA bar me from boarding a domestic flight if I use one of the early Real ID licenses?

No. Your Real ID license will have the bear and star in the upper right corner. That bear and star will look no different from the bear and star mark on those licenses that fully comply. What won’t get you on a plane: a license that says, in the upper right corner, “federal limits apply,” which is what non-Real ID licenses say.

14. My license is due for renewal in five months. Couldn’t I just wait to see how this all works out?

You could, but you will hate yourself. Make your appointment now, unless you enjoy hanging around the DMV. Despite Saturday hours and extended hours at some DMV offices (opening at 7 a.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays), the lines are long and appointments are hard to come by.

Do the math: About 3.1 million Real IDs have been issued since the start, but there are about 27 million licensed drivers in California. If one in three drivers is applying, as the DMV says, there are still about 6 million people who want to get that license.

15. Why did the DMV create these problems?

It didn’t. This is a federal program, not a state program, that grew out of security recommendations from the federal 9/11 Commission. DHS told the DMV in California and Wisconsin that their second way of verifying residency was OK until suddenly it wasn’t. Why? Jaime Garza, DMV spokesman, said: “No idea.”

16: How will I know when systems and procedures are in place at the DMV so this doesn’t feel like a big, disorganized mess?

Watch this space or go to the DMV’s Real ID website. And maybe wish upon a star while you’re at it.

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