New Stuff I've learned for California DMV
Yesterday (12/31/2019) I visited DMV Santa Clara to renew my California driver license, as my first one is about to expire due to my H-1B status. Before and during my visit to the DMV office, I have learned some new stuff for H-1B/H-4 visa holders.
1. Real ID application:
Real ID application requirements are really simple in fact: (1) Identification document, (2) Social Security document, and (3) Resident documents. However, when it meets with your specific H-1B/H-4 situations, it would become complicated.
One of the most common situation is that you don't have your visa stamp as it's expired but you are authorized to stay in the US due to I-797A/I-94. Different from regular driver license which will allow you to go ahead get the license, the exact words for Real ID identification document requirement for H-1B/H-4 visa holder is actually Unexpired foreign passport with valid U.S. Visa and approved I-94 form. In this case, you are not eligible to apply California Real ID, as they explicitly require a valid visa stamp of H-1B/H4. (Even though some other states already allow this situation as Indiana) Thus, the only option for you is to apply a Federal Limits Apply driver license, which would stop letting you board a flight from October 1, 2020. Otherwise, the best bet is to get your H-1B/H-4 visa renewed with a valid visa stamp in Canada, Mexico, or your home country.
Of course, for Real ID application, social security document is another requirement, which means you have to present official documents showing your full social security number. This also means, if you are H-4 visa holder without an SSN, you are not eligible to apply for Real ID at this point.
2. Federal Limits Apply DL application:
Generally, Federal Limits Apply DL is much easier to apply, as it does not require any social security documents or a valid and unexpired visa stamp. However, another situation happens pretty often is to renew your driver license during your H-1B/H-4 extension. If your H-1B/H4 extension petition is not approved/granted with an original I-797A document on your hand, you are not eligible to apply either Real ID or FLA DL at all (confirmed with DMV officer).
Remember for identification document, you have to present the original document of I-797A (Notice of Approval), which shows your petition of I-129 (for H-1B visa) or I-539 (for H-4 visa). If your I-129/I-539 petition is still pending, I would highly suggest you just wait until you get the official approval notice. While I've heard I-797C (Notice of Action) for your petition would allow you get a temporary DL for 3 months in some other states, it's not possible here in California.
Of course, there always is a bottom-line option for you. If you really want to get a driver license somehow during the gap, you could check AB-60 driver license. It basically has the same functions as FLA driver license, but is specifically issued to California resident regardless of their immigration status. All you need to present is whatever you currently have as identification documents and your residency proofs.