Digital Drivers License on Phone

Two examples of what a digital driver's license on phone looks like and the specific data is might query for.
Digital Driver’s License on Phone

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I was at the Sky Harbor airport (in Phoenix)  last week I saw something that surprised me. The person ahead of me in the security line showed his driver’s license through his phone. He did not have to fumble for his wallet, pull out the card, and put it away after TSA saw it, like the rest of us. Is a digital drivers license going to happen here in California?  My license comes up for renewal soon, can I request this? Austin, San Francisco

Dear Austin:  Glad you are so observant! Arizona became the first state earlier this year to get TSA approval for a digital license stored in the Apple Wallet. At least eight other states now have digital licenses but they cannot be used in airports yet. That said, Arizona still requires that you show a physical license to enter a bar, verify with the police, or get a document notarized! 

It doesn’t sound like the digital license in California will roll out too soon. Perhaps the state hopes to learn from Arizona, and is waiting for additional federal-level  protocol and standards, called the ISO. To answer your question about signing up, about 135,000 people, or 0.5% of the state’s licensed drivers will be recruited for a trial. It will presumably be open for non-drivers too, as the  California  REAL ID  will use the same protocol.


The Real ID Act in 2005 is the driving force behind this change to digital licenses. This law, passed after September 11th,  required a more secure form of personal identification.  Advanced cryptography is said to ensure that the license is valid.  Then, the ability to query the license makes this digital version distinct from the physical ones we carry today. TSA queries all of the information contained on the license (see image). But a merchant, say needing to verify your age to buy liquor or cigarettes, could only query your name and date-of-birth. Boundaries for the query would protect other information on the license like your home address, whether you are an organ donor, and thankfully, your weight! A query is initiated with an aptly named “identify reader.” 

Proponents of the new digital license argue that it will do a better job of protecting privacy, ….presumably fewer outsiders need to see your weight (or home address).  But you will have to trust that the “identify reader” only has access to the data it needs. Even today we might transmit more than we need too. The barcode on our licenses is sending information we cannot verify.

A different security breach could occur in the future  if the owner of a phone is requested to hand over their physical device, say to open the digital app. Then his/her phone contents and contacts might be unlawfully searched. The data for the digital license will be stored locally on the phone, not in the cloud or a motor vehicles (DMV) data base.


The roll out for the Real ID was postponed because of Covid, but Covid also gave it a boost because so many types of digital record keeping were piloted.   The public uploaded vaccination records to their phones and there were many versions of a “Covid Passsport.” Some connected to central data bases, others stored information only on the phone, and some relied on an uploaded jpeg of the vaccination card.

Several digital license programs rolled out during the pandemic and most states are making plans for it in the future. In Arizona, a state with 5.3 million licensed drivers, just 60,000 have put any mobile ID into an Apple wallet since March. About 320,000 downloaded an earlier app version, but we don’t know how many actually ended up using it too. Most apps that are downloaded are never opened or activated. 

Other Digital Opportunities:

If you are not able to sign up for the pilot in California, here’s a different digital opportunity you might consider. You could become an early adopter of a complementary product, the digital license plate. A company called Reviver collaborates with the California DMV to issue a digital R-license plate. The plate on the vehicle has the standard combination of letters and numbers but  in the border of the frame you are able to digitize a personal message or announcement.  You can change it on your whim. It would be a useful feature if your car got stolen. Then you could remotely send a message to the license plate frame that reads  “This Car is Stolen!”  This personal messaging has a monthly charge and does not come cheap. You might also incur an installation charge.

With your interest in mind,  remember that all of these digital innovations bring a two- way street. The new license will make it easy to change your address (or the reporting of your height and weight !) It will also be equally easy, should the occasion arise, for the DMV to suspend or revoke your license.

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