A sampling of documents needed to obtain the REAL ID card.

While many of us are just becoming aware of the REAL ID, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website, the law enacting it was actually passed in 2005. Based on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation, the act set minimum federal security standards for the issuance of identification, such as driver’s licenses. It also prohibits federal agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees air travel, from accepting licenses and identification cards from states that do not meet these standards for “official purposes,” such as taking a commercial airline flight.

Editor's note: The following paragraph has been edited for clarification:

Many states are already compliant, so the IDs issued to their residents will continue to be accepted for things like flying after October 1, 2020. California offers two different driver license and identification card options: a federal compliant REAL ID and a federal non-compliant card. Anyone who needs to do anything that requires a federally-compliant ID and doesn’t have a current passport or other federally approved document should look into getting a REAL ID before October of next year. Don’t know if your card is a REAL ID? Look for a bear and star in the upper right corner. If it's there, it’s a REAL ID. If not, you’ll need to visit a DMV field office and apply if you want to get one.

Until full enforcement of REAL ID begins on October 1, 2020, DHS and its component agencies, including TSA, will continue to accept all state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards, regardless of whether the issuing state is compliant.

The REAL adventure

So, I let my drivers license lapse. Not wise, of course. The DMV even sent me a notice several months ahead, warning that it would be wise to schedule an appointment to renew it early, as a written test would be required. With faint annoyance at the insult, I made a mental note to “get to it.” (Which turned out to be hubris -- I barely passed.)

When that mental note resurfaced from some far corner of my brain, it was just a few days short of too late. And of course, no appointments were available in time, but that turned out not to matter all that much.

What was important was the choice between a “Federal Non-compliant Driver License or ID Card” or a “REAL ID.” As of October 1, 2020, only a REAL ID will allow the holder to get into federal facilities such as military bases, enter nuclear power plants – or board commercial aircraft.

As a journalist, there might be a slightly higher likelihood that I might, say, visit a nuclear power plant, than the general population, but not much. Getting on an airplane, on the other hand, isn’t an impossibility. So the logical choice was the REAL ID.

Which turned out to be wise, since my passport had also, well, expired. If you have a valid passport and aren’t interested in a REAL ID, you’ll still be able to get into a government facility, visit a nuclear power plant or, more likely of interest to most of us, get on a plane.

National database?

Among the concerns in the FAQs on the website is one that, admittedly, had crossed my own mind: Is the DHS making a database of all our information? According to the DHS website, no. “REAL ID is a national set of standards, not a national identification card. REAL ID does not create a federal database of driver license information. Each jurisdiction continues to issue its own unique license, maintains its own records, and controls who gets access to those records and under what circumstances. The purpose of REAL ID is to make our identity documents more consistent and secure.”

Effect on DACA

The REAL ID Act allows states to issue temporary, REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses and ID cards to applicants who provide proof that they have “approved deferred action status,” the website says. More info available at

Requirements for REAL ID

One of the challenges of getting a REAL ID is the amount of documentation required: Applicants must provide two forms of identification, two items that establish residency, proof of Social Security number, a DNA sample… Of course, no DNA sample is required, although it almost seems like it.

Things to know

The process is pretty straightforward - as long as you’ve never used a different name and have all of the required paperwork. If you have used a different first or last name, documentation of all previous names will be required. One of the DMV staff said she’d had to go to the county for proof of a previous marriage and divorce – the latter of which occurred 18 years ago. So if you’ve kept paperwork from any major life changes, you should be OK. If not, you may need to contact the records office of the county where the change(s) occurred.

Getting your mail at a PO box can also create a wrinkle when your residency documents are examined – the clerk almost rejected the homeowner’s insurance policy I’d brought, because she couldn’t immediately find the property address on the paperwork.

Strongly recommend making an appointment at the DMV – it’s the only way to go, no matter what you need to do during your visit.

Be sure to fill out the application online ahead of time. It only takes a few minutes, and will make things go more quickly once you get to the DMV office.

Below is a list of documents that are acceptable for proof of identity, proof of Social security number and proof of residency. Note: To be on the safe side, I took old drivers licenses (don’t ask me why I kept them, but it turned out to be a good thing that I have), my expired passport, certified copies of my birth and marriage certificates, a TID bill, and the aforementioned homeowner’s insurance policy. Didn’t want to get to the DMV in Los Banos and be sent away because something was missing. (A colleague was unable to complete the process, even after spending several hours at the DMV, because she didn’t happen to have a copy of paperwork related to a previous marriage with her.)

Acceptable documents for each category are listed below:

Note: In the interest of brevity, only those most likely to be used are listed. More info on the DMV website:

Identity (two of the items below):

Valid, unexpired U.S. passport or passport card

Certified copy of U.S birth certificate (issued by a city, county, or state vital statistics office)

Unexpired foreign passport with valid U.S. Visa and approved I-94 form

Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of U.S. Citizenship

Valid, unexpired Permanent Resident Card

Valid/unexpired Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Card (I-766) or valid/expired EAD Card with Notice of Action (I-797 C)

Social Security number (one of the items below):

Social security card

W-2 form

Social Security Administration (SSA) 1099 form

If you are ineligible for an SSN, you may still apply for a REAL ID Compliant DL/ID.

Proof of residency: (two of the below required)

The documents must list the applicant’s first and last name and match the residence address as listed on the driver license or ID card application.

If you use a P.O. Box, proof of a physical address is required. Your residency documents must display the P.O. Box and physical address.

If the residency documents reflect a name that differs from the tracing document due to a name change (for example, marriage, divorce, or court order), additional documentation will be required as evidence of the name change.

Rental or lease agreement with the signature of the owner/landlord and the tenant/resident

Deed or title to residential real property

Mortgage bill

Home utility bills, including cellular phone

Medical documents

Employment documents

Insurance documents, including medical, dental, vision, life, home, rental and vehicle

Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) tax return

Change of Address Confirmation by the U.S. Postal Service

Property tax bill or statement

Faith-based documents, that includes name and address of organization

Records from a financial institution, means any state or national banks, state or federal savings associations, trust companies, industrial loan companies, state or federal credit unions, and any institution or entity that has issued a credit card

Voter registration confirmation letter or postcard issued by the California Secretary of State or a local California county elections officer

Proof of payment of resident tuition at a public institution of higher education in California

An original copy of an approved Claim for Homeowners’ Property Tax Exemption (BOE-266) form filed with a local California County Assessor

Court documents that list the applicant as a resident of California

A letter on letterhead from a homeless shelter, shelter for abused women, nonprofit entity, faith-based organization, employer or government agency within the United States attesting that the applicant resides in California

A document issued a U.S. government agency, meaning the entity, office, or authority governing over a country, state, county, city, municipality, district, agency, department, or any other political subdivision of a country or state

California Certificate of Vehicle or Vessel Titles or registration

A DMV No Fee Identification Card Eligibility Verification (DL 933) form, completed and signed

The DMV’s website has much more information:

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