DMV is unveiling a new ‘secure’ license for California drivers. Here’s how to get one

Starting Monday, many of California’s 26 million drivers can make a special trip to a place no one really likes to go: the local DMV office.

The reason: In October 2020, federal security officials will no longer accept the current California driver’s license as valid identification for domestic air travel.

In its place, California this month will unveil a new driver’s license, called REAL ID, that complies with a federal mandate that all states create licenses and licensing procedures deemed more secure by officials at the Transportation Security Administration.

To get the new card, though, California drivers must bring documents that prove their identity to Department of Motor Vehicles field offices. That news has caused confusion and some consternation.

Here are answers to common questions about the new cards:

Q: What exactly is REAL ID?

A: In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the REAL ID Act as part of a national effort to safeguard airline travel. The act requires all states to meet tougher identification standards for issuing driver’s licenses and other ID cards in order for those cards to be accepted as valid personal identification at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints in airports.

Q: When will the new cards start showing up?

A: In California, DMV made the new cards available starting Monday, Jan. 22. Anyone can apply, even if that person’s current driver’s license is not up for renewal.

To get one, you will have to go to a DMV field office. DMV officials are urging people to make a reservation for a date and time to avoid long waits. DMV is increasing staff at most field offices in expectation of a surge of applicants in the first few weeks.

Q: Can you just get the new license automatically when your existing license is up for renewal?

A: Yes and no. When your license is up for regular renewal (usually every five years), you will have the option of applying for a REAL ID driver’s license or simply renewing your existing California license.

If you want to stick with your existing license, you still may have to go to the field office, but you won’t have to bring as much paperwork.

Some drivers with good driving records are eligible to renew online, phone or mail when renewal time comes around instead of going to a field office. They will not, however, be able to get a REAL ID using those renewal methods.

Q: If REAL ID is not mandatory, how do I know if I want one?

A: For most people, it comes down to whether you fly. If you fly, you will need a REAL ID unless you have a valid passport. Passports are considered a valid form of identification at TSA checkpoints. Many people will consider it an inconvenience, though, to have to bring their passport for domestic travel.

Q: What additional paperwork do you need to get a REAL ID?

A: The DMV has published a checklist of documents on its website. Check the links here and here. Among the documents:

▪ Some proof of identity, such as a U.S. birth certificate, valid U.S. passport, employment authorization document, permanent resident card or foreign passport with approved form I-94.

▪ Social Security card or a federal W-2 form with your full Social Security number on it.

▪ Some evidence of your residence, such as a rental agreement or a mortgage statement.

Q: Does the REAL ID driver’s license look different from the regular one?

A: The two are almost identical. The only difference is that REAL ID cards will have a small emblem of a gold bear and a star in the upper right corner. Both cards, by the way, have hidden security elements that make them difficult to counterfeit.

Q: Should I get one now?

A: You can still use your regular license at airport security until October 2020, when the federal government says it will begin requiring REAL ID.

The DMV suggests people wait a bit. “We don’t want everyone rushing in on Jan. 22,” DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said. “We’d like (them) to space out the applications.”

A warning, though: DMV officials say they expect a big rush of applicants in the final months before October 2020. So if your regular renewal date falls around then, it might be wise to set up an appointment a month or so early.

Q: What if my next renewal date comes after October 2020?

A: If you plan to fly after that date, you should make an appointment and get a REAL ID before then. Or you can use your passport after October 2020, then apply for a REAL ID when your regular renewal date comes around.

Q: Will it cost money?

A: Yes. The DMV will charge a $35 fee for your REAL ID. It’s the same fee you pay during your regular driver’s license renewal. If you just renewed your driver’s license and want to get a REAL ID, you will pay the fee again.

Q: I don’t have a driver’s license. I have a state ID card. Can I get a REAL ID card?

A: Yes, the state also will issue REAL ID cards that are simply identification cards, not driver’s licenses. Same rules apply.

Q: Are there other uses, besides flying, for a REAL ID card?

A: You will need one to enter a military base. But REAL ID cards are not needed to drive, vote, receive federal benefits such as Social Security or enter other federal facilities that don’t require ID, such as a post office.

Q: Is it true California has to meet an October 2018 federal deadline for issuing these cards?

A: The feds gave California until that date to produce an acceptable REAL ID card and begin distributing it. DMV officials say that once they begin distributing the cards, they believe they will have satisfied the federal requirements.

Q: So, to be clear, I can still use my current CA driver’s license to get on a plane for now?

A: Yes. Your existing license will be accepted at TSA airport checkpoints for nearly three more years, until Oct. 1, 2020.

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