Millions of Californians will soon have to visit the DMV. Here’s why

What is REAL ID?

Starting Jan. 22, Californians need to apply for a new, federally-approved driver's license or ID before the old ones become invalid for air travel.
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Starting Jan. 22, Californians need to apply for a new, federally-approved driver's license or ID before the old ones become invalid for air travel.

As the deadline to meet new federal standards for state licenses and ID cards approaches, Department of Motor Vehicles offices in Sacramento and around the state are preparing for a rush.

The new standards mean California fliers who rely on their driver’s license to board domestic flights will no longer be able to do so beginning Oct. 1, 2020, unless they come equipped with the federally approved IDs and licenses or a different form of acceptable identification, such as a valid U.S. passport or military ID, the DMV said.

California DMV offices will begin accepting applications for the new licenses and identification cards, called REAL IDs, on Jan. 22, said Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman.

Judging from a visit to the Tahoe Park DMV office in Sacramento on Thursday, most Californians have little awareness of the coming change.

Acquiring the new cards means a significant share of California’s 26.4 million licensed drivers will have to pay an in-person visit to the California Department of Motor Vehicles before the federal standards take effect, Gonzalez said. More than 7 million people also carried DMV-issued ID cards last year, according to department statistics.

“We wanted people to be aware,” Gonzalez said. “The challenge is that we don’t know how many people are going to come in.”

Sitting on the back of a sky blue sedan parked at Sacramento’s Tahoe Park DMV office, Matt Henderson, 26, held a crumpled ticket that read “158B” as he waited his turn in line Thursday. He was there to register the car he had just bought a few days earlier, an excursion that had lasted more than two hours by 2 p.m., he said.

Henderson had not heard of the REAL ID cards prior to his visit, and said he will likely have to return to the Sacramento office sooner than he anticipated to apply for one because he likes to travel as often as possible. Henderson said his passport was stolen years ago and a U.S. passport card that was also issued to him has expired.

“I would have to do it,” he said. “It’s going to be crazy.”

Jeff Largent, 45, said he was reminded about the REAL ID cards during his visit to the DMV on Thursday afternoon, after he logged into the office’s Wi-Fi and saw information about the cards posted on the DMV website that appeared on his phone. While he had heard about the cards, Largent didn’t understand why the new application process was necessary when state agencies could already confirm most of the information needed for the new IDs.

Largent will likely apply for the new license even though he received a new passport last year, he said.

“I think it’s necessary. I wouldn’t think to take my passport on a domestic flight,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve made it very clear what this all means.”

Congress approved the requirement for REAL ID cards in 2005 after finding security flaws in many states’ driver’s licenses in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. More than two dozen states have complied with the licensing and ID standards so far, but California and some other states have been slow to adhere to the new standards and have asked for extensions.

The Trump administration signaled an end to the extensions earlier this year, saying all domestic fliers will either need the federally approved IDs and licenses, or will need to carry a passport or other acceptable form of identification by the Oct. 1, 2020 deadline, The Sacramento Bee previously reported.

The California DMV expects to hire a total of 332 additional employees in its field offices statewide next year as a response to the REAL ID standards, a process it has already started, Gonzalez said. That number is expected to climb to 715 new hires in subsequent years, she said.

The DMV also anticipates opening some offices for modified hours on Saturdays, and will keep a close eye on the number of appointments for the REAL IDs they receive, she said.

“We’ll adjust,” Gonzalez said. “If we’re seeing that stuff is filling up, we’ll definitely have to make some adjustments.”

Not everyone will need to apply for the new licenses, such as people who don’t fly or people who can use a U.S. passport or different document instead of their license. People who choose to forgo the REAL IDs can still use their regular license for things like driving, voting or receiving federal benefits, Gonzalez said. Undocumented immigrants will not be allowed to apply for a REAL ID, she added.

Applicants will need to provide physical copies of more documents than currently required for a regular California driver’s license. That includes proof of identity, such as a U.S. birth certificate, a U.S. passport or permanent resident card and proof of California residency. Gonzalez said that instead of writing down their Social Security number, applicants will need to show a physical copy of their Social Security card or pay stubs displaying a full Social Security number.

People who have changed their name must provide documents proving the name change, such as a marriage certificate or divorce decree, the DMV said.

People who are seeking the REAL IDs are urged to make an appointment at their local DMV office to avoid long waits, Gonzalez said. Once the application is completed, the DMV will issue temporary IDs and driver’s licenses until the new cards are sent in the mail.

The REAL ID cards will be marked with a star and bear on the upper right corner, distinguishing them from non-compliant IDs, she said. Cardholders can use them when entering other federal facilities, such as military bases or federal jails, the DMV said.

These applications for personalized license plates were reviewed by the California DMV. Can you guess which ones they approved or denied?

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets

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