Everything You Need To Know About Digital Driver’s Licenses [2021]

Colorado Digital Drivers License

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No one wants to get to the airport only to realize you’ve left your driver’s license at home. Well now, depending on what state you live in, you may be able to access your ID from your smartphone thanks to something called a digital driver’s license.

While the actual technology has been around for years, it’s only recently that the federal government and states are beginning to take steps to implement these for everyday use. That, along with the fact that major tech companies like Apple are providing the ability to store your ID on your phone, means that the use of digital driver’s licenses is on the rise!

What Is a Digital Driver’s License (DDL)?

A digital driver’s license (which we’ll reference as a DDL moving forward) is a secure​ version of your physical driver’s license or ID card that can be stored on your cell phone.

Both iPhone and Android users can already store things like credit cards, plane tickets, hotel keys, and event tickets in digital wallets. In the same way, a DDL grants you easy access to your license or ID on your device.

A DDL isn’t just a digital copy or screenshot of your driver’s license; the technology works with your state’s government to set up and verify your identity digitally through an app or your smartphone.

Apple Wallet State ID
Image Credit: Apple

Since you rarely leave home without your phone, with a DDL, you’ll be able to access your ID even if you leave your wallet or purse at home. Keep in mind, however, that a DDL is not a replacement for your license or ID, but rather a supplement to it.

The government supports the use of DDLs. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working to help create new standards for mobile driver’s licenses, known as ISO 18013-5 mDL, and the TSA is working in conjunction with Apple to accept a version of an iPhone-based digital ID to be used in airports.

At a state level, many states have already begun rolling out digital driver’s licenses that are compatible with Apple Wallet. Since states are generally responsible for issuing licenses and ID cards, whether or not you’ll have access and when will depend on where you live.

How Does a DDL Work with REAL ID?

As we noted above, the DHS is working to develop and adopt standards related to digital driver’s licenses (although they refer to them as mobile driver’s licenses or mDLs).

This is a work in progress, but the DHS is working to compile information in order to “enable federal agencies to accept mDLs as REAL ID-compliant identification for official purposes.”

DHS specifically notes that it realizes that the process to obtain a physical REAL ID is different from those to obtain a DDL, however, “DMVs will continue to be required to meet existing identity and lawful status documentation and verification requirements required under the REAL ID Act.”

Don’t expect the process to obtain a REAL ID to change much, if at all, as DDLs become more common.

How Do You Get a DDL?

While each state’s process will be slightly different, at a high level, when you go to apply for or renew your license, you’ll select the DDL option. Each state’s license-issuing authority (such as the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or similar) will have a process in place to pair your phone with your profile.

This will mean downloading an app on your smartphone and completing the pairing process. Your DDL will then be downloaded and stored securely on your phone. Once your DDL has been downloaded, the app will be secured with a PIN or fingerprint, ensuring that no one can access it but you.

How To Store/Access Your DDL

Once you have your DDL verified, you’ll need to be able to access it quickly in order for it to be useful to you.

Apple Wallet/Apple Watch

Similar to how you add new credit cards, event tickets, transit passes, etc. to Apple Wallet, you’ll just need to tap the “+” button at the top of the screen in Wallet on your iPhone to start the process to add your license or ID. According to a recent Apple press release, users should follow the prompts during the setup process, which include:

  1. Scanning your physical driver’s license or state ID card
  2. Taking a selfie
  3. Completing a series of facial and head movements

After you’ve completed these steps, it’s up to the issuing state to verify the ID before you can use it. Once it has been verified, your ID or driver’s license will be automatically added to your Apple Wallet.

If you also have an Apple Watch paired to your iPhone, you will automatically be prompted to also add your ID or driver’s license to your Wallet app on your Apple Watch.

State-Sponsored Apps

There are a few states that offer their own apps to store your digital ID, such as:

  • Arizona, Delaware, and Oklahoma — Idemia, a French security company, has launched the Mobile ID app in several U.S. states, including ArizonaDelaware, and Oklahoma.
  • ColoradomyColorado is a state-sponsored app that offers “proof of identification, age, and address within the state.” You can also store other important documents, such as your COVID-19 vaccination card.
  • Louisiana — The DDL in the LA Wallet app is 100% legal for driving purposes and accepted by state law enforcement.

Other Companies Developing Digital Driver’s Licenses

While it’s the biggest in terms of rollout at the moment, Apple isn’t the only company offering digital IDs that are available on your smartphone.

Google has also been working on a way to store digital driver’s licenses, and last fall, the company detailed a program called the Android Ready SE Alliance that sets privacy and security standards for third-party developers to deal with IDs on mobile devices. This program includes digital driver’s licenses, as well as digital car keys, and will be rolled out in the near future.

IBM has been researching digital driver’s licenses for many years and expressed enthusiasm for how they might rely on blockchain technology. IBM had a lot of traction in this space initially, with the push to modernize California’s DMV website back in 2016, but hasn’t been as active in the space lately.

How To Use a DDL

In order to use your digital license, you’d go into the digital wallet app on the device where you stored your information and pull up your electronic ID. This will bring out a scannable QR code which will be scanned as needed. Confirmation of your credentials will appear on the device that did the scanning.

Hot Tip: Since this DDL information is all presented digitally through encrypted communication directly between the device and the identity reader, you won’t need to unlock, show, or hand over your device.

The good news is that none of your personal information is stored in the QR code for privacy reasons, and you might even show a restricted version that just shows your name, face, and confirmation that you’re of drinking age, for example.

A digital driver’s license is just a supplement to your physical driver’s license and may not be accepted everywhere you go. Since not all states currently accept digital driver’s licenses, it’s still a good idea to bring your license if you’ll be traveling between states. In addition, you’ll still need your passport to travel internationally.

How To Use a DDL at TSA Security Checkpoints

When going through security at the airport, you can now present your DDL on your smartphone. This process will the same as scanning a mobile boarding pass.

Apple Wallet Present Digital Drivers License to TSA
Image Credit: Apple

You will be able to tap on your iPhone or Apple Watch at the TSA identity reader. Follow the prompts on your device that show the specific information being requested by the TSA.

Apple notes that “only after authorizing with Face ID or Touch ID is the requested identity information released from their device, which ensures that just the required information is shared and only the person who added the driver’s license or state ID to the device can present it.”

Bottom Line: This automated method of verification means that you won’t need to unlock, show, or even hand over your device to TSA.

How To Present Your DDL to Law Enforcement

Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy to determine how this process will work, since it will be up to each state and local law enforcement agency to determine what procedure and methods work best for them.

You might be required to pull up your state-sponsored app, or even you may be able to open the Apple Wallet or the upcoming comparable Google app.

The idea is that you will be able to present your DDL to law enforcement, and law enforcement will have access to all of the same information that is present on the physical card.

How To Present for Age Verification

To buy age-restricted goods like alcohol, or to enter certain establishments, like bars, someone will ask to see your ID. They are trying to accomplish a few things:

  • You have a valid ID
  • You are the valid owner of the ID
  • You are of legal age

They don’t necessarily need to see other information, like your full name, address, etc. With a DDL, the cashier can scan your DDL within Apple Wallet or your state’s driver’s license app and receive confirmation of the items above without getting access to other personal information that they don’t need.

Which States Allow DDLs

There are other states that already offer, or are in the testing phase to offer, a digital driver’s license. Those states include:

StateStatus of Digital Driver’s License
ArizonaArizona is currently using the Mobile ID app, developed by Idemia. Arizona will also be among the first states in the country to introduce compatibility with Apple Wallet, per Apple.
ColoradoColorado has been accepting digital licenses using the myColorado app since 2019. In 2020, the Colorado State Patrol also started accepting them as well.
ConnecticutIt is working with Apple to develop virtual IDs that work with Apple Wallet, per Apple
DelawareDelaware is currently using the Mobile ID app, developed by Idemia.
FloridaFlorida has launched a pilot for the Florida Smart ID in 2021.
GeorgiaGeorgia will be among the first states in the country to introduce compatibility with Apple Wallet, per Apple.
IowaIt is working with Apple to develop virtual IDs that work with Apple Wallet, per Apple.  The Iowa Mobile ID is also “coming soon,” per IowaDOT.
KentuckyIt is working with Apple to develop virtual IDs that work with Apple Wallet, per Apple.  
LouisianaLouisiana’s LA Wallet app launched in 2018 and providers a digital driver’s license that is accepted by state police.
MarylandIt is working with Apple to develop virtual IDs that work with Apple Wallet, per Apple.  
New YorkIt is working with IBM on the possibility of expanding its Excelsior Pass COVID-19 vaccine passport system to include driver’s licenses, according to a New York Times report.
OklahomaOklahoma is currently using the Mobile ID app, developed by Idemia. It is also working with Apple to develop virtual IDs that work with Apple Wallet.
UtahUtah is starting a pilot program soon with 100 people testing out the digital ID system. It is also working with Apple to develop virtual IDs that work with Apple Wallet, per Apple.  

This list is sure to expand in the future as many states, such as California and New Jersey, have pending bills to create digital versions of IDs and driver’s licenses.

Security and Privacy Concerns Related to DDLs

Specific to Apple, it notes that “driver’s licenses and state IDs in Wallet take full advantage of the privacy and security built into iPhone and Apple Watch. Customers’ identity data is encrypted and protected against tampering and theft. Biometric authentication using Face ID and Touch ID ensures that only the person who added the ID to the device can view or present their ID or license in Wallet.”

In addition, if you misplace your iPhone or Apple Watch, you can always use the Find My app to lock your device until you locate it, or even remotely erase your device. This is more secure than you losing your physical driver’s license or ID card.

Bottom Line: You might argue that your phone’s wallet is more secure than your physical wallet, as we noted many of the security measures in place above.

The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, has highlighted concerns with digital licenses, including:

  • Concerns that hackers could exploit the adoption of digital driver’s licenses
  • Law enforcement “could use digital driver’s license verification as a pretext to search people’s devices”
  • The consolidation and tracking of large amounts of users and their data without our knowledge or consent
  • Decreased control over the data that ID holders release

The full ACLU report is available here.

These are valid concerns, but some states, such as California, are already introducing legislation to ensure that law enforcement is not able to search your phone without your consent.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to digital driver’s licenses, you’ll be able to access your ID simply by using your smartphone. These DDLs are a secure way to store your information, without the necessity to have access to your physical ID card.

Some states, such as Colorado and Louisana, already have apps that allow you to store your license on your phones and Apple has plans to roll out digital licenses that are compatible with TSA to a large number of states soon. If you don’t see your state on this initial list of participants, be sure to keep an eye on this space because the list is sure to expand!


Frequently asked questions

What is a digital driver's license?

Both iPhone and Android users can already store things like credit cards, plane tickets, hotel keys, and event tickets in digital wallets. In the same way, a DDL grants you easy access to your license or ID on your device.

It is a secure​ version of your physical driver’s license or ID card that can be stored on your smartphone.

How do I get a digital driver's license?

If your state offers a digital driver’s license, you must apply at your local DMV or license-issuing agency. From there, you’ll need to download the state-sponsored app and follow the verification process in order to access your digital driver’s license.

Which states have a digital driver's license?

Many states offer digital driver’s licenses, such as Arizona, Delaware, and Oklahoma. More states are testing programs and plan to roll out digital driver’s licenses to the general public in the near future. Check out our table above for a full list.

Is a digital license legal?

States must first pass legislation making digital driver’s licenses legal. Once this is done, you are able to use your digital license to provide to law enforcement, to provide age verification, vote, and even travel through TSA security checkpoints.

Can I keep my driver's license in Apple Wallet?

In the near future, Apple will allow people from participating states to store their digital driver’s licenses in their Apple Wallet. These initial states include Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah.

Christy Rodriguez

About Christy Rodriguez

Christy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but lived in Texas the majority of her life. Now, work has her living in the Bay Area with her husband and yellow lab. Her first international travel experience was for a summer study abroad program in Italy. After that, she knew that she was destined to travel as much as possible. Luckily, her husband worked at Southwest Airlines, so they were introduced to the exciting world of “non-rev” travel.

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