How to Tell If a Drivers License Is Valid

By Laura Reynolds - Updated June 20, 2017
Driving a car

While most people never have to decide whether a driver's license is valid, some workers have a responsibility to check ID's as a part of the job. If you need to check, look at the document, verify the security information on the license and match the personal information to the owner. New REAL ID driver's licenses are changing the landscape, as they are already rolling out in states like New Hampshire. Here are some specifics on how to start finding out if a license is valid.

Look at the Document

It should state its purpose as a driver's or operator's license, the state that issued it and identify the person, or bearer, to whom it applies. States laminate licenses and include photographs to limit counterfeiting. Most states have different "classes" of licenses, so a license should state a classification such as "motor vehicle", "motorcycle" or "commercial vehicles", often designated with letters or initials. Beyond that, driver's license formats vary from state to state. The federal government has set license and identification card requirements (REAL ID act) for each state to adapt when licensing motorists.

Verify Security Formatting on the License

Check with your state to find out what sort of format is used. States have begun using digital photography on licenses and most have an easily identifiable logo or seal, in addition to the printed state name, to help identify it. Many states use special paper with biometric information (fingerprints, retinal scans) or kinegraphs (pictures that show a picture of a state or seal from one angle and its name from another). Maryland, for example, uses a polycarbonate card, a changeable laser image, tactile text and a number and bar code unique to the holder. Some states use digital watermarks and some embed social security numbers. A valid license will have the particular security format mandated by the state in which it is issued.

Find the Descriptive Personal Information and Term

A valid license will have specific identifying information like height, hair and eye color and weight on the face of the license. This information should match the bearer. States issue licenses for different terms. The license should be current with a proper term. Regardless of state license formats, REAL ID requires that licenses issued to all persons born after December 1, 1964 have digital photos, full name, date of birth, gender and a unique license number.

Check for Other Problems

Make sure no other issues invalidate the license. A license is not valid if its owner has been found guilty of a traffic violation that resulted in the suspension or revocation of the license, regardless of the expiration date on the license. If the term has been completed, the driver can reinstate or apply for a new license. Your state's driver licensing agency can tell you if a license is valid. You'll need the driver's name, date of birth and license number.

Tip

Anyone who checks licenses as part of their job should visit a local department of motor vehicles licensing facility for a tutorial. A staff member will probably be happy to explain features of REAL ID and the effect it will have on licenses in your state. Information on licenses and REAL ID compliance should be available from your state's department of transportation. Call or search on the Internet using "department of transportation," "drivers licenses" as well as the name of your state.

Warning

Digital watermarks and coded data may not be noticeable to the naked eye but they are very difficult to counterfeit. Never drive on a license that is either expired or suspended. It can be an expensive gamble.

About the Author

An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.

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