How to tell if a drivers license is valid

Written by laura reynolds
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How to tell if a drivers license is valid
(wallet and car key image by Richard Seeney from

Can you look at a license and tell if it's valid? Most of us never have to decide whether a driver's license is valid. Some of us have a responsibility to check ID's as part of a job. New REAL ID federal laws will affect what licenses look like in the coming years. Occasionally, we need to find out whether a suspension or revocation has been cleared or a court judgment that might render a license invalid has been vacated. Here's how to start finding out if a license is valid.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Driver license
  • Telephone
  • Court judgments, receipts

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  1. 1

    Look at the document. It should state its purpose as a driver's or operator's license, the state that issued it and identify the person, or bearer, to whom it applies. States laminate licenses and include photographs to limit counterfeiting. Most states have different "classes" of licenses, so a license should state a classification such as "motor vehicle", "motorcycle" or "commercial vehicles", often designated with letters or initials. Beyond that, driver's license formats vary from state to state. The federal government has set license and identification card requirements (REAL ID act) for each state to adapt when licensing motorists.

  2. 2

    Verify security formatting on the license. Check with your state to find out what sort of format is used. States have begun using digital photography on licenses and most have an easily identifiable logo or seal, in addition to the printed state name, to help identify it. Many states use special paper with biometric information (fingerprints, retinal scans) or kinegraphs (pictures that show a picture of a state or seal from one angle and its name from another). Some states use digital watermarks and some embed social security numbers. A valid license will have the particular security format mandated by the state in which it is issued.

  3. 3

    Find the descriptive personal information and term. A valid license will have specific identifying information like height, hair and eye colour and weight on the face of the license. This information should match the bearer. States issue licenses for different terms. The license should be current with a proper term. Regardless of state license formats, REAL ID requires that licenses issued to all persons born after December 1, 1964 have digital photos, full name, date of birth, gender and a unique license number.

  4. 4

    Check for other problems that may make the license invalid. A license is not valid if its owner has been found guilty of a traffic violation that resulted in the suspension or revocation of the license, regardless of the expiration date on the license. If the term has been completed, the driver can reinstate or apply for a new license. Your state's driver licensing agency can tell you if a license is valid. You'll need the driver's name, date of birth and license number.

Tips and warnings

  • Anyone who checks licenses as part of their job should visit a local department of motor vehicles licensing facility for a tutorial. A staff member will probably be happy to explain features of REAL ID and the effect it will have on licenses in your state.
  • Information on licenses and REAL ID compliance should be available from your state's department of transportation. Call or search on the Internet using "department of transportation", "drivers licenses" as well as the name of your state.
  • Digital watermarks and coded data may not be noticeable to the naked eye but they are very difficult to counterfeit.
  • Never drive on a license that is either expired or suspended. It can be an expensive gamble.

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