As a US Citizen, Is it possible to re-enter California from Mexico using only a California drivers license? Or is passport always needed now?

I've heard that this wasn't the case before, but I would like some solid clarification on this.

2 Answers 2


Why not just ask the government?

US Citizens - Documents needed for entry into the U.S.

What documents, identification, and paperwork does a U.S. citizen need to travel internationally?

If you are traveling in the Western Hemisphere (Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Central and South America):

Air Travel: All U.S. citizens departing from or entering the United States from within the Western Hemisphere by air are required to present a valid passport or NEXUS card (if utilizing a NEXUS kiosk when departing from a designated Canadian airport). Merchant Mariner Document (for U.S. citizens on official maritime business.) U.S. Military identification card when traveling on official orders; Note that children are also required to present their own passport when traveling by air.

Land or Sea Travel: U.S. citizens entering the United States by land or sea are required to present a valid WHTI-compliant document, which include:

  • U.S. Passports
  • U.S. Passport Cards
  • Enhanced Driver's Licenses
  • Trusted Traveler Cards (Global Entry1, NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST)
  • Military Identification Cards (for members of the U.S. armed forces on official orders)
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner Document (for U.S. citizens on official maritime business)

    1 The Global Entry (GE) card is only an ENTRY document and may not be used to enter Canada, Mexico or Adjacent Island.

As per Nate's comment, from the non-government US Passport Card and Enhanced Drivers License (and I'd take this list with a grain of salt or two. It's not official and I have seen other lists describing Real ID compliance which differ from this list. However California is mentioned all the time has having an extension until Oct 2016)

Much of the spirit behind the PASS Card also applies to the Enhanced Driver License (EDL). Convenience, portability, and cost are the big selling points here. If you are a licensed driver, check to see if your state has developed an enhanced driver's license Ohio program in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security. Currently, only Washington State, Vermont, New York, and Michigan are fully up and running with EDLs. However, Arizona, Texas, and California are making progress with their programs, too.

Thanks to phoog's comment I realize that I was conflating two different types of licenses: Enhanced and Read ID compliant.

From the government What is an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL)?

The Enhanced Driver's License (EDL) is a driver's license that is issued to U.S. Citizens or Canadian citizens in the U.S. State or Province in which you reside.

This driver's license is a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant document for travels by land or sea only. It denotes both identity and citizenship and is a Radio Frequency Identity card (RFID).

From that other great source of information REAL ID Act Driver's license data requirements

A Real ID-compliant form of identification requires the following pieces of data:

  • Full legal name
  • Signature
  • Date of birth
  • Gender
  • Unique identifying number
  • Principal residence address
  • Front-facing photograph of the applicant

Said cards must also feature specific security features intended to prevent tampering, counterfeiting, or duplication of the document for fraudulent purposes. These cards must also present data in a common, machine-readable format (bar codes, smart card technology, etc.). Although the use of wireless RFID chips was offered for consideration in the proposed rulemaking process, it was not included in the latest rulemaking process. DHS could consider additional technological requirements to be incorporated into the licenses after consulting with the states. In addition, DHS has required the use of RFID chips in its Enhanced Driver's License program, which the Department is proposing as an alternative to REAL ID.

My take on this is that the two classes of license (Enhanced and REAL ID) are very close in the features that they require and that the key difference seems to be the RFID component that is in an Enhanced license. Without knowing anything my gut feeling is that the features of the Enhanced license are a superset of those in the REAL ID compliant licenses.

  • 4
    You have bolded "Enhanced Driver's Licenses", but the key word there is "Enhanced". California doesn't currently offer enhanced driver's licenses, so the OP's California license is certainly not valid for entering the US. Jun 29, 2016 at 1:55
  • @NateEldredge A negative answer is still a valid one
    – Peter M
    Jun 29, 2016 at 1:57
  • 2
    Indeed. But without clarification, it may be misleading if the OP is not familiar with the distinction between enhanced and non-enhanced licenses. Jun 29, 2016 at 1:57
  • 1
    Technically, this answer is wrong. A US citizen can not be denied entry to the US. The catch becomes proving your US Citizenship, which can be difficult - but having a state-issued drivers license will be a start. Expect to be detailed at the border, but eventually - presuming they can confirm citizenship - you will be admitted. Leaving Mexico, on the other hand, could be more difficult, but that's not what was actually asked...
    – Doc
    Jun 29, 2016 at 7:20
  • @Doc it rather depends on the meaning of "can," as you no doubt know. The answer is not wrong in the context of documentary requirements laid out in law and/or regulation. It just happens that the US still has to grant entry to its citizens even if they don't comply with these requirements. As you note, though, such a person's entry is likely to be rather delayed.
    – phoog
    Jun 29, 2016 at 9:09

I have done it about 3 times in 2014 with just a California Drivers licence with NO issues at all. Not sure how it is now though I heard they became a little more strict about it.

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