Which one is right for me — a State ID Card or a Driver License? What’s the difference?

Both a California state ID and a California driver license serve as an official government-issued, photo identification that can be used to prove your identity, age, and legal presence in the United States (unless you have an “undocumented person” California driver license). Either one will allow you to prove your identity, for example, when you open a bank account, register to vote, or apply for jobs, housing, or public benefits.

If you eventually want to drive, you will need to get a driver license, but because that process requires testing, we recommend that you get a California state ID first, since ID is needed right away after release. Once you get a state ID, you can go back later for a driver license.

THIS CHART COMPARES two TYPES OF IDENTIFICATION: CALIFORNIA STATE ID VS. DRIVER LICENSE.

CALIFORNIA STATE ID vs. DRIVER LICENSE

CALIFORNIA STATE ID

CALIFORNIA DRIVER LICENSE

Government-issued ID; can be used to prove age, identity, and legal presence.

Government-issued ID; can be used to prove age, identity, and legal presence.***

Some people can obtain while incarcerated through CAL-ID program.

Cannot apply while incarcerated; you must apply in person upon release.

Requires only birth certificate and SSN.

Requires birth certificate and SSN; plus, you must take and pass a written test and a road test.

Does not authorize you to drive a car.

Authorizes you to drive a car.

There are no restrictions in getting a CA state ID based on your criminal history.

There could be some restrictions in getting a CA Driver License, depending on your criminal history.

*** A NOTE IF YOU ARE UNDOCUMENTED:As of January 1, 2015, if you cannot provide proof of legal presence in the United States, but otherwise qualify for a California driver license, you can apply for a “non-ID” driver license. If you hold this license, you can legally drive a motor vehicle in California; but it does not prove legal presence in the United States for any purpose.[62] Read more about other forms of ID in California for undocumented people on PG. 58.

Pre-release Planning — Getting a California State ID or Driver License While Incarcerated

  1. 62

    Cal. Veh. Code §§ 12800-12801, 12801.9.