Is a Real ID California driver’s license hard to get? No. But is the hassle worth it?

Real ID, the federally compliant driver’s license that can be used as identification for getting on a plane starting in October 2020, became available Jan. 22, 2018 in California.

You don’t need a federally compliant driver’s license, called Real ID, to drive. So why bother getting one?

Maybe I shouldn’t have. Even after getting one of the new licenses the first day they were offered, I’m sure it would have been prudent to wait.

But I felt about getting a Real ID driver’s license as I did about my wedding day: Once I knew it was happening, I couldn’t wait for it to get here.

About 5,000 people applied for the new ID on Monday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said in a release Tuesday.

Amazing, considering this about the new license: You must appear in person the first time you apply. If you’re smart, you make an appointment. If you’re me, you’re in line at 7:19 a.m. Monday at the Glendale DMV.


Why is this happening?

Much has been written about the federally compliant driver’s license, because it’s never too early to let readers know about something that might affect their travels, even if it’s more than two years from now.

I could have waited to write about Real ID. But once I began seeing signs in airports saying that ID requirements would be changing, I was certain readers would be confused. Why? Because I received emails from some of them. And because I was flummoxed myself.

The back story

The legislation setting “standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses” (those words are from the Department of Homeland Security’s Real ID website) grew out of recommendations from the 9/11 Commission.

President Bush signed the legislation May 11, 2005; 4,639 days passed until Jan. 22, the first date the enhanced license was offered in California.

Why so long? There were postponements because of the complexity of reissuing more than 200 million driver’s licenses, objections to the costs that the states would have to bear and concerns that these new licenses were actually a national ID, among other things.

Through it all, the goal was clear: Your documentation needed to reflect your real identity if you wanted to get on a plane or enter a federal facility such as a military base.

What other states are compliant?

You can see the list of compliant states on the Homeland Security website. Several of our neighboring states have been in compliance for some time, including Nevada, Arizona and Utah.

What about the rest of the states and the five territories? As of this writing, all have extensions until Oct. 10. (Noncompliant states usually get extensions so no need to worry too much, at least for now, if your state is not yet golden.)

For travelers, the real need begins Oct. 1, 2020, when you must have a federally compliant license or other form of identification, such as a passport, to board an airplane. Other IDs that will get you on a plane can be seen at the Transportation Security Administration website.

Why not just use a passport?

Personal preference on my part. I spend a lot of time worrying about losing my passport, which costs significantly more to replace than a driver’s license. My passport doesn’t fit in my wallet. I always feel as though my passport needs a bodyguard just to be with me.

But I don’t think too much about my license. Maybe it’s not the gold standard that a passport is, but it’s the BFF of identification: It’s with you every day and always ready to help.

Plus, I wanted to see how hard it would be to get one.

Not very. My total wait time was less than 75 minutes, maybe because I did it the first day the license was offered, maybe because I went early.

The process itself took about 30 minutes for which my gem of a DMV person — yes, I did just write that without sarcasm — kept apologizing. Maybe I got through quickly because I had all my docs in a row.

What documentation is required?

It can vary, and you can see what is acceptable at the California Real ID website.

I had with me my passport, my property tax bill and my Social Security card. I also had my current driver’s license, of course, and $28 in cash because this is considered a replacement license. (A new license costs $35, and checks also are accepted.)

My license expires this year. Should I get Real ID?

Depends. If you fly and don’t want to lug your passport starting in October 2020, it’s an easy way to ensure you have documentation that will get you on a plane.

Will I have to return to the DMV to renew my Real ID license?

Good news, travelers: No, said Jessica F. Gonzalez, a DMV representative. “Once you have received a Real ID, you can renew by mail or online as long as you are in good standing [no issues on your driving record],” she said in an email.

It’s kind of a trifecta in my book: not expensive, not impossible to do and you don’t have to show up each time you have to renew it. What’s not to love?

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