How to Get a California State ID Card

By Teo Spengler - Updated July 26, 2018
Credit cards in leather wallet on wooden background

What document proves your age and identity in California but doesn't require a driving test? A California state ID card does that and more. It's an easy choice if you need an ID document but don't drive, or you need a second government identification document. Travelers can opt for the California state ID that is also a REAL ID and can get you on domestic flights. Getting the card is not a time-consuming process as long as you make a California ID appointment at the local DMV before you go in.

Basic Facts About California State ID

If you are a California resident and need to prove you are over 21 years old or that you qualify for a senior citizen discount, the California Department of Motor Vehicles can help you out. The California State Identification Card is the size of a driver's license so it fits nicely in your wallet. The card includes your photograph, just like a driver's license, as well as your name, date of birth and physical description like color of hair, height and weight.

A California state ID is a handy government identification card to have for those who don't need a driver's license. And the card is easy to get, since no knowledge or driving tests are required. In addition, any California resident can apply for an ID card, no matter their age. That means kids can get them, adults can get them and seniors can get them, too.

Application Requirements for State IDs

If you are wondering how to get a state ID in California, the first thing to do is make an appointment at your local DMV. Although this is not mandatory, you'll be glad you called ahead once you see the long line of people at the door who don't have appointments. In many areas in California, you can make an appointment online. With a DMV appointment, you'll walk right past that long line to the much shorter appointment line and quickly get assigned to a kiosk.

At the counter, the DMV agent will give you the application to fill out. It is called the Driver License or Identification Card Application. You can also fill out this form online before you go to save time. Agent can access a copy of your application at the DMV office. The document just asks for your basic information like name, date of birth, residence address and similar data. You must sign it, too.

To get your ID, you must also give a fingerprint scan, have your photo taken and pay the application fee. In addition, in order to get your first California ID card, you will need to show proof of your identity and your residency in California, as well as provide your Social Security number.

The type of proof that is acceptable depends on whether you are looking for an ID card that complies with the federal requirements for REAL ID. For a regular state ID card, you can use any of a range of documents to verify your identity and establish residency, from medical documents to employment documents to school records. You can use tax documents or documents from a church or homeless shelter. The DMV accepts photocopies, informational copies or computer-generated documents to prove identity or residency. The residency documents have to include the person's first and last name, as well as a mailing address.

For a regular state ID, you'll need to give your SSN, which will be verified at the DMV. If you are not eligible for an SSN, you are exempt from the requirement. But if you are applying for a REAL ID card, the evidence requirements are tougher. You'll have to provide proof of your identity, your Social Security number and residency from the list of acceptable REAL ID document options.

REAL ID Identification Cards

Starting on October 1, 2020, the federal government will require that your state identification card be REAL ID compliant if you intend to use it as identification when boarding a domestic flight or entering a military bases or other specific federal facilities. You are not obligated to get a REAL ID – it's optional. And a U.S. passport or a passport card works fine to board domestic flights. Keep in mind that you don't need a federal compliant REAL ID identification card to apply for federal benefits like VA or SSA benefits, enter a post office, visit a hospital or participate in law enforcement investigations.

Note that the DMV also offers a REAL ID California driver's license, but you'll have to choose. You can either get a REAL ID driver's license or a REAL ID California identification card, not both.

Difference Between Regular and REAL ID Cards

The DMV in California lets you get a regular ID card – called a federal noncompliant card – or a REAL ID Compliant ID card. Compliant cards have pictures of bears on them, while noncompliant cards have "Federal Limits Apply" written on them.The noncompliant cards cannot be used to get on a domestic flight or enter military bases.

The primary difference between applying for a federal compliant ID card in California and a federal noncompliant card is the level of proof required for establishing identity, residency and SSN. If you want a REAL ID, you can prove identity with a certified U.S. birth certificate, valid U.S. passport, employment authorization document, permanent resident card or a foreign passport with an approved form I-94. You must establish California residence with a document that includes your physical residence address, not just a P.O. box. And, you must prove your SSN with a SSN card, a W-2 tax form or a pay stub with your name and full Social Security number.

If the name on your identity document, like a passport, is different than the name you currently use, you will also have to provide name change documents. This could be a marriage certificate, adoption papers, a name change order or a divorce document. For the REAL ID card in California, you'll need certified copies of these documents. If your name has changed several times, you will need multiple documents, and all of them must be certified.

Timing of Identity Card

It's human nature: You postpone going in for a California ID card for months until you really cannot put it off any longer. Then you go in and want it immediately. Can you get a California ID card on the same day as you apply? Well, not quite. Your original California ID card should arrive in the mail about two months after you submit the application. If you don't see it, call 800-777-0133 to ask about the status.

Regular Vs. Senior Identification Cards

If you are at least 62 years old, you may qualify for a senior California ID card. This looks and acts just like a nonsenior ID card, but it comes with an automatic California ID fee waiver. Senior identification cards in California are free, while you'll have to pay a fee for a regular card. Reduced fee ID cards are also available for those who meet low-income requirements. Ask at the DMV.

California ID fee waivers are also available for those in vulnerable situations.The cards are free for homeless people, as this term is defined by the McKinney-Vento Act. This includes homeless youth, homeless adults and people fleeing domestic violence or other dangerous life-threatening circumstances. The California DMV will also exchange a valid California driver license for a California ID card free to applicants who can't drive safely any more because of a physical or mental condition.

California ID Card Renewals

We all know that time ticks away. In the blink of an eye, your California ID card will expire, and it'll be time to renew. Note that the card will expire on your sixth birthday after you apply for the card if you are not yet 62 years old, or on your eighth birthday after you apply for the card if you get a senior ID card.

What do you do when it expires? Do you have to start all over? You do not have to start from scratch to renew a California ID card. Many Californians are eligible to renew by mail or online. If you have changed your name or your card expired over a year ago, you are not eligible. If you don't have a SSN, you are not eligible to renew by mail either.

Otherwise you can renew by mail or online rather than going into the DMV office again and filling out forms. You renew a California identification card twice by mail or online, then the next time you must renew in person again. That is, you get your card in year 1, you can renew it by mail in year 6, then renew again by mail in year 12. But in year 18, you'll have to go in and renew in person to get a new photo and fingerprints taken.

If you are a senior, you can only renew by mail once before you have to go into the DMV in person. However, keep in mind the senior card is not valid for six years, but rather for eight years. Taking the above example, a senior would have to go into the DMV in year 16 to renew it in person.

If you have to go into the DMV to renew your card, it may be inconvenient but it won't be very difficult. You fill out the renewal application, get your prints taken again, get a new photo and, unless you are a senior, pay a new fee. The best thing about renewal is that you won't have to bring in all those documents as evidence. That is, you don't need to reestablish identity, residence or Social Security number information. One thing you want to take care not to forget: Call ahead and make an appointment to renew your state identification card at the DMV to avoid those long lines.

Renewal Card Timing

How long will it take to get your card after renewal? Well, even a renewal isn't delivered the same day. Your new California ID card will be sent to you by mail, like the original card was, within 60 days from the day you submit the renewal.

It's everyone's nightmare that the card gets lost in the system somewhere. If 60 days come and go, and your card doesn't show up in the mailbox, it's time to call and check on it. The DMV provides a number to call to check on the status of your ID card if two months pass and you don't see the letter in the mail. That number is 800-777-0133, and the agents check on the status for you immediately. Just in case, be sure to keep your DMV receipt, as well as the former ID card. The information on those documents may be required to track down your new card.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. 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 M.A. and an M.F.A in creative 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.

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