Just when we thought it was safe to stop writing about Real ID, along comes a bump in the road.

How big a bump? Depends on your perspective. 

Otherwise, pay attention, because if you read about what’s happened without a full consumer-friendly explanation, you are apt to panic.

QUESTION: OK, so what happened? Should I panic?

ANSWER: The Department of Homeland Security has said that California’s Real ID licenses do not meet the standards for licenses that are supposed to be more secure. And no, you should not panic.

Q: How did this happen?

A: The short answer is miscommunication between DHS and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Q: Why should I care about this?

A: Because California has issued 2.3 million of these licenses.

Q: But I don’t need a Real ID to drive, do I?

Q: No, you do not. If you choose not to get one, your license will say, “Federal limits apply.” You need one only if you want to use that form of identification to board a domestic flight beginning Oct. 1, 2020, or to enter a federal facility.

Q: Does that mean the Real ID I just got is invalid?

A: No. And your Real ID license does not have to be reissued if it is good for five years. If you were an early adopter, as I was, and your license expires before that 2020 date, you probably will need to show a second form of ID verifying your identity when you renew.

Q: What if I haven’t applied yet?

A: If you haven’t applied yet and you’re doing so beginning or after April 1, you will need two kinds of residence verification. Here is what the DMV says constitutes verification (lat.ms/RealIDChecklist), but please check back before applying because the DMV is scrambling to make this fix. Right now, its online information requiring one form of residence verification applies to anyone applying before April 1.

Q: What is Real ID anyway? And why the big deal?

A: The 9/11 Commission issued recommendations to make identification more secure, which became law in 2005. You’ll need a Real ID — a federally compliant driver’s license — or another acceptable form of ID (lat.ms/OtherFormsofID) — to present to airport security to board an airplane beginning Oct. 1, 2020. It is a big deal, because if you show up on Oct. 1, 2020, expecting to use your noncompliant driver’s license to board a domestic flight, you won’t be getting on.

Q: Does Real ID replace a passport?

A: No. If you are traveling internationally, you will still need a passport.

Q: Why not just use a passport for all security needs?

A: You may, and there are other forms of identification that also will work. You can see them at lat.ms/OtherFormsofID. I don’t like carrying my passport when I’m traveling domestically. (When I am traveling internationally, I keep it on my person, thanks to a tank-top undergarment with a zippered compartment. It’s not the most convenient way to carry ID, but it is pretty secure.)

Q: Doesn’t this latest misstep speak volumes about the DMV?

A: That debate is better left for the dinner table or wherever you argue or place blame for the current state of affairs.

But you should know that California is not the only one that’s having this problem. Wisconsin, which has issued 2.1 million licenses, is too and will need a solution as well.

Q: What’s important for travelers is that changes are coming, and there are changes to the changes.

A: When are you going to stop writing about Real ID?

No time soon. Certainly not before Oct. 1, 2020. How will I know when to stop? I promise to stop when a month goes by and I don’t get an email that says, “I’m flying to Paris. So with this Real ID I don’t need a passport, right?” (Answer: wrong. You do need a passport, and if you knew that, you can stop reading now.)

Catharine Hamm writes for the Los Angeles Times. Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com


Recommended for you