An enhanced driver's license won't enhance your driving abilities, nor make your teenager careful and cautious behind the wheel. But it will allow you to board a domestic flight or cross a neighboring border without a passport. You may not be able to get an enhanced driver's license right away depending on where you live, since not all states are offering them yet. But it won't take very long once you apply.
Enhanced Driver's License
All states are moving toward offering enhanced driver's licences (EDL). It's part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a State Department plan to require travelers to prove their identity and citizenship before they enter the country. Non-citizens can get regular driver's licenses in some states, so those licenses don't prove citizenship. But to get an EDL, you have to prove both that you are a citizen and that you have a Social Security number.
Why would you want to jump through the extra hoops to get an EDL? You get more bang for the buck. You can still drive with the EDL and use it as a photo identification, but you can also use it instead of a passport in several situations. First, U.S. citizens returning from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda by land or sea need an identity document that complies with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requirements to reenter the country. An EDL fills the bill. It contains a chip that pulls up your biographic and biometric data for the customs officer as you approach the border inspection.
In addition, under the federal REAL ID Act, every U.S. citizen will require an identification card establishing citizenship to board domestic flights. You'll also need that type of identification if you want to enter certain federal facilities including military bases and nuclear power plants. The act, intended to beef up U.S. security, is being phased in over a number of years, with some states getting extensions for compliance. A passport will work, but an EDL also works and is cheaper to acquire.
Applying for an EDL
Getting an enhanced driver's license is a bit more of a hassle than an ordinary license. You still have to do the multiple choice test, driving exam and vision test, as well as give fingerprints and pay the fees to get an initial license. For a renewal, you can skip the driving test and usually the knowledge exam as well.
But for the EDL, you also need to bring a valid passport or original birth certificate to show citizenship. You'll also need a Social Security card, 1099 or W2 form to prove your Social Security number. In some cases you may have to consent to an interview with someone from Motor Vehicles, although this seems more the exception than the rule.
How long does it take to get your new, enhanced driver's license? That depends on where you live. Some states are already offering the EDLs, while others are still setting up the process. You'll have to wait to apply if your state is one of the latter.
The timing also depends on whether you already have a driver's license or not. If you are just starting to learn to drive, it may be months before you pass your knowledge and driving tests. But for those already in possession of a driver's license, it won't take that long. Different states give different estimates, ranging from two weeks (like Vermont) to three to four weeks (Minnesota). Others, like Washington, say you'll get the license in the mail in two to three weeks.
If you've already got a driver's license, it won't take very long to get your enhanced driver's license once you apply. Count on getting the license in the mail between two weeks and a month after your application is accepted.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.