Have Real ID? You don’t need to renew in person

People wait in line for DMV service in the San Fernando Valley. You do not need to return in person to renew your Real ID.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Don’t believe everything you read about renewing your Real ID, even from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Some of you are still struggling to get Real ID, but I’ve had mine for more than two years.

When I received a driver’s license renewal notice from the DMV, I felt no dread, no fear, no anxiety, because mine was safely tucked in my wallet, bear, star and all (which is what tells you that you have a Real ID).


My sense of triumph was grounded in the fact that while many Californians (and others across the nation) are having to go into the DMV to get their first version of the federally compliant driver’s license, I had been told I did not have to return.

My sense of superiority was short-lived. The renewal notice read, “When you renew by mail you will not get a Real ID.”

And: “To get a Real ID, do NOT [emphasis DMV’s] complete this notice.”


It had a number to call — (800) 777-0133 — so I did.

As Oct. 1 nears, millions of drivers need to update their licenses with Real ID, yet the DMV still has bugs to fix.

Feb. 5, 2020

After 29 minutes on hold, I was connected with an agent. I explained I already had Real ID but that the notice said I could not get a Real ID by mail. She wanted to know where I read that, and I said it was on the notice. She didn’t believe me so I read her the notice.

“Well, then, you’ll have to come in,” she said. My heart sank.

I explained I applied for my Real ID the first day it was offered: Jan. 22, 2018. I was an early adopter and knew that as we drew closer to Oct. 1 of this year, all fliers would need a Real ID or another federally acceptable identification, such as a passport or passport card, to board a domestic flight. I wanted to get ahead of that curve, and I did not want to pay a return visit to the DMV.

The agent then looked up my driver’s license and said that because I already had Real ID, I didn’t have to return and go through the whole process again. I said I didn’t read the form that way. But I was happy to take yes, you’re spared, said thank you and hung up.


Just to be sure, I went online. When I applied to renew, you scrolled down on this page and you’d find the “Renew my Real ID” button. But now, when you’re looking to renew your Real ID, you go to this link and you click on “Start Driver License Renewal.” That link is good for Real ID or the regular license that is not compliant.

I didn’t remember my password so I wasted about 30 minutes getting back in. Now when you click this, you get this message: “Note: DMV is improving the customer experience in our offices and on our website. We’re starting fresh with a new, upgraded online customer account system that is easier to use. If you previously had an online account with DMV, you must register for a new account. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

The form was a breeze to fill out, and I received my driver’s license, the Real ID version just as I had been promised from the beginning, in about 10 days.

Just to be sure I wasn’t being too much of a literalist, I asked the DMV about this and was assured I did not have to go back in.

“As more and more early adopters of Real ID come up for renewal, the information provided is outdated,” Anita Gore, deputy director of the DMV Office of Public Affairs, said in an email. “The Renewal by Mail form is currently under revision. I do not have a timeframe for the revised form.”

If you were among the 5,000 people that the DMV said applied for Real ID just on that day in January 2018, perhaps you have had a similar experience. Depending on how much you take all government forms at face value, you may panic a tiny bit. Relax. You can renew by mail or online.

And if you’re the DMV, perhaps knowing that some people take at face value what they see on a form or hear from a DMV employee (as was this case with this applicant who was told to return with her birth certificate and did, only to be told it couldn’t be used because it reflected her birth name, not her real name) can help ward off such time-wasters.


6:40 p.m. Aug. 6, 2020: This story was updated to add current information from the Department of Motor Vehicles.