The DMV nightmare: Report and tips from the (long) lines

Tales from a three-hour wait: What you can do to avoid making it even worse.

By Reese Erlich, 48 Hills, April 16, 2019

The DMV nightmare: Report and tips from the (long) lines

Perhaps you’ve heard the horror stories of people waiting five hours to renew their driver licenses at the always friendly California Department of Motor Vehicles? Well, there’s some good news. It’s down to three.

I don’t intend to analyze the myriad ways the state government has screwed up the DMV. Nor will I explain why the agency is seemingly unprepared for the new federal requirements to obtain a Real ID, which will be one form of identification accepted when boarding domestic flights after Oct 1, 2020.

My intention is to walk you through the DMV maze, avoid my mistakes and help you get through with a minimum of homicidal intentions towards the otherwise hard-working employees at the DMV.

Getting to the right window

First, make an advance appointment if you possibly can. And do it many months before your license expires. Mine expired in July, but when I went online, I couldn’t get an appointment until one week before my renewal date!

So I decided to risk showing up at the DMV without an appointment. Reportedly, the best days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. (Hint #1: check to see if your DMV office is open on Saturdays.)

On Saturday I arrived at the Oakland DMV office on Claremont Ave. at 7:45 am, 15 minutes before the office opened. Seventy-five people stood ahead of me in line. A very nice DMV worker with a huge white mustache directed people seeking car registration to a shorter line. Everyone else just waited.

Once inside those with appointments or with disabilities went to the faster line. Those without appointments waited in another. When I finally got to see a clerk, she checked my documents. If you are applying for the Real ID version of the driver’s license, you need a slew of documents. If you don’t need the Real ID, you can just apply for or renew your regular driver’s license.

The clerk directed me to fill out an application on one of their computers. (Hint #2: with an advanced appointment, you can fill out the form at home.) These are the same computers used to take the driver’s license written test. When finished, I got a code number.

Haywire computers

Here’s where things went haywire. I was told to stand in one line when I should have stood in another. I finally found the right line, handed in my application code number and was given a waitlist number.

It’s like taking a number at a deli but without the pastrami sandwich at the end. I was prepared for a long wait. Numbers are constantly called out and posted on an electronic board, but there’s no logical order. “G003, G015, B012, F101.”

I waited and read the New York Times. My number wasn’t called. I read the Wall Street Journal. My number wasn’t called. I started reading my novel. Finally, I asked an employee what was happening. She came back to report that I had missed my number and would need a new one.

I may not be the brightest bulb in the DMV lighting system, but I can hear a number being called and read it on a board. “I003” was never called. I had just wasted over an hour. The clerk gave me another number. (Hint #3: ask how long the wait should be when you get the number, and ask them if it goes much longer than that.)

You’re really just starting

My new number was called, and when I arrived at Window 4, I realized that the process had really just begun. I took the eye test. (I passed with flying eyeballs except for that pesky last letter in line C4.) I presented all my documents. But the DMV bar code machine wouldn’t read any of my bar codes, including those on my passport and current driver’s license. Window 4 lady couldn’t even call up my file using my name.

Luckily, I had brought the notice requiring my license renewal, and it had a bar code that worked. (Hint #4: bring every conceivable document, notice and letter sent you by the DMV.) I paid $36 (Check or cash only. No credit cards or bitcoin.) The very nice Window 4 lady pointed me towards the camera lady.

There was no one at the camera line, and it turns out, the camera line was open further down. I had time to study the walls. The office is filled with signs saying “No cell phones.” But the young man in the hoodie standing in front of me talked on the phone for 15 minutes, providing a friend with a play-by-play account of standing in line at the DMV.

When he got to the camera lady, she suggested that he might want to hang up now, which he did.

I respected the woman’s attitude. She could have made a nasty reference to the no cell phone signs or even called security. Instead, the situation was resolved without rancor. (Hint #5: local police departments, please note that not all laws have to be enforced with a nasty attitude all the time.)

More computer problems

When I got my turn with the camera lady, my file didn’t show up on her computer. She walked over to Window 4 lady to get her to hand carry the missing information to the camera area. She then printed out a document and told me the license would be sent in 2-2 1/2 weeks. Next!

“Only one problem,” I explained, “I have to take the written driver’s license test.” Apparently, there was no mention of that in the cockamamie DMV computer system. I’m not sure what would have happened had I just skipped the test. But I wasn’t going to spend another half day at the DMV finding out.

Besides I had really crammed by taking practice tests at home. I knew about speed limits behind school buses and the legality of running down slow-moving pedestrians. (Hint #6: the practice tests contain some of the actual questions on the test. So take as many practice tests as you can stomach.)

You’re supposed to take the test standing by yourself in front of a computer. It’s like voting by machine, but with less privacy and greater consequences. I saw two people at two different computers answering questions together. Apparently, the DMV really wants you to pass the test.

I passed the test and, without anyone directing otherwise, was about to leave. Luckily the man at Window 29 noticed my confusion and informed me I had to get one final document before departure. It was my temporary license. I now had proof that I had applied. Thank you Window 29 man.

In retrospect, the procedures actually made sense. DMV workers were mostly patient and helpful. But in my experience the computer glitches doubled the wait time.

In addition, the Claremont Ave DMV in Oakland has one of the fastest response times in the state. The San Francisco office currently estimates a four-hour wait for people without appointments. The DMV has made progress in processing applications but still has a long way to go.

2 Responses to “The DMV nightmare: Report and tips from the (long) lines”
  1. eopton says:

    For the past 50 years of my residence in California, I’ve found the El Cerrito DMV office to be friendly, efficient, and with surprisingly short waits. I have not been there for the past three or four years. I hope it hasn’t changed. Even if it has deteriorated, the fact that it operated efficiently until recently shows that it can be done.

    Edward Opton


  2. Damian Cano says:

    I had about the same experience, but repeated 3 times because to get the new special ID license it took almost 5 months to arrive. I had to call, then go in again, and wait, and wait, to get my second 60-day extension, and then be told my papers were being held up in document presents, whatever that is. They checked by phone while I was at DMV and said they fixed everything and my license would be coming soon. 3 weeks later, it came. Whoopee. Everything sort of worked out, and fortunately I wasn’t hindered by the temporary license, which in some countries is not accepted by authorities and car rental agencies. So plan ahead. Count on 5 months delay.

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