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Transportation and Mobility

With Free Upgrades Available, Here's What You Need To Know About California 'Real-ID' Driver's Licenses

Image of a driver's license shows the characteristics of a REAL ID, which includes two versions of the driver's photo and a distinctive background.
An example of a California "Real ID" driver's license.
(Courtesy California Dept. of Motor Vehicles)
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If you've been waiting to get your drivers' license upgraded to a REAL ID, now may be your best time to act.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles announced this week that it would be offering free REAL ID upgrades to Californians who renewed or received a driver's license or identification card during the pandemic.

The extended deadline is now May 3, 2023, for U.S. citizens to show a federally approved document, such as a REAL ID or a passport, in order to board a domestic flight. These will also be required to enter military bases and federal facilities.

You can start your application for a free upgrade online — which is available through the end of 2021 — and then schedule an appointment at a DMV office near you.

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Here's what Californians need to know about Real ID licenses, how to get them, and how necessary they will be:

Q: What is a Real ID drivers license or identification card?

It's a license or ID that is compliant with the Real ID Act, a law passed by Congress in 2005 following 9/11 that sought to create standardized driver's licenses in all states. The law established certain national security requirements for these state-issued documents.

Beginning May 3, 2023, travelers boarding domestic commercial flights, entering a military base, or using their ID for other federal purposes will need to present a Real ID-compliant driver's license or state ID card.

While non-compliant licenses or IDs won't be accepted, people can present other federally compliant documents, such as a passport, passport card, or military ID for taking flights and other federal uses.

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Q: Is obtaining a Real ID license or identification card necessary?

No, it is not. "A Real ID driver's license or ID card is optional," said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. "It is just an easier way for you to continue using your driver's license to board a domestic flight. That is really the main part of it."

Californians who don't wish to obtain a Real ID license or state identification may apply for what's called a "federal non-compliant" driver's license or ID card. The card will be marked with the words "federal limits apply."

Californians who choose this option may continue to use their state licenses to drive and use it as they do now. But they won't be able to use them starting in 2023 for taking a domestic flight, for example. If they don't have a Real ID license or identification card, they'll need to present a passport or other approved document to fly.

Q: How does this affect AB 60 driver's license holders?

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According to the California DMV, the changes don't apply to the nearly one million immigrants who have driver's licenses under A.B. 60, the law that allows unauthorized immigrants in the state to apply for the licenses. According to the DMV, only people who are legally in the United States may apply for a Real ID license or identification.

"If you already have an A.B. 60 driver's license, when it is time for you to renew, you can just continue to renew by mail, or online as normal," said the DMV's Gonzalez. She added that A.B. 60 license applicants' information will not be shared with the federal government.

Q: Must those who want a Real ID license apply right away?

No, there is no rush, according to DMV officials. Initially, you had until Oct. 1, 2020 before a REAL ID was required to board a domestic flight, or to enter a secure facility. That was extended to May 3rd, 2023, due to the pandemic. The Real ID option first became available to California residents Jan. 22, 2018.

One thing to consider in terms of timing: California is offering free upgrades from now until Dec. 31, 2021.

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Q: How do I apply?

Those wishing to apply for a Real ID license or identification card may start the application online, but must finalize the process in person at a DMV office. Applicants must make an appointment and come prepared with proof of California residency, proof of their Social Security number, and proof of identity such as a U.S. passport, a birth certificate, an employment authorization document, a permanent resident card (green card) or a foreign passport with an approved form I-94 arrival and departure record. The DMV has posted a list of documents that Real ID applicants may use.

Typically, the cost is the same as for a regular California driver's license, $38. The cost is $33 for state ID cards. DMV officials said the processing time should be about four weeks.

Corrected June 24, 2021 at 9:39 AM PDT
A previous version of this story provided incorrect fee amounts for state driver's licenses and ID cards. The current costs are $38 and $33, respectively, per the DMV website. LAist regrets the error.
Updated June 23, 2021 at 11:08 AM PDT
The Q&A portion of this story was originally published on Jan. 22, 2018, the first day the licenses became available on our sister website KPCC.org. It has been updated with current information.