Tips to Survive the DMV and Real ID

By Carl Lachman, CFP®, MBA

It Gives You A Headache Just Thinking About It

Most people get a headache and start sweating just thinking about a visit to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Maybe you are one of them. Maybe you had a harrowing behind-the-wheel driver’s test on your 16th birthday. Maybe you have spent some time in the lines. I have visited the DMV twice in the last year, and I have tips to share with you.

Pulled Over for Going Too Slow

During a recent vacation with my family, I was pulled over outside of Cody, Wyoming, for going 55 mph on the highway, unaware the speed limit was 70 mph. The reason I was driving exactly 55 mph was because a Wyoming state trooper had been following me closely for a couple of miles.

The trooper didn’t give me a citation, and I didn’t need to pay a fine. But he did give me an official, written warning for impeding traffic. He explained I did not enter the highway quickly and come up to the posted speed as fast as I should, which caused him to have to slow down and use his brakes. He suggested I really floor it the next time I merge onto a highway and promptly drive the posted speed limit. I said, “Yes, sir.”

(As an aside, Wyoming is about two-thirds the size of California but has only about 1/70th of the population. The problems of Wyoming seem to be a little different than California’s problems. I wish our California state troopers—the California Highway Patrol—had the time to give out tickets to people impeding traffic!)

Then the Other Shoe Dropped

But, the Wyoming state trooper was not done. As he handed me my official warning, he said, “Happy birthday!” My birthday is, of course, on my driver’s license, and it had been a couple of weeks earlier. I said, “Thank you,” a little warily.

He then proceeded to point out that my license had expired on my birthday. Uh, oh. I was clearly caught off guard, and I squeaked out a “Now what?” He said he was not going to cite me for my expired license, either, and warned me that if I was stopped again driving back to California, I should tell any law enforcement officer immediately that I knew my license was expired and that I had plans to get a new one.

What Happened with My License Renewal?

As soon as I had internet access later in the day, I started trying to figure out what happened. The California DMV usually sends out license renewals about two months before a license is going to expire. I never received one.

When I called, the DMV’s 800 number, the agent seemed to think I was dull and probably was not watching my mail very closely. But, I did find a news article reporting that thousands of people did not get their license renewals in the mail a few months ago in 2019. Hmm.

I Need to Get This Fixed

Over the next couple days of my vacation, I drove the speed limit exactly and used Apple Maps to tell me what the speed limit was, even if there were no signs. We were out on less-traveled roads in Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah before returning to California.

The other thing I did was try to figure out how to get my license renewed as quickly as possible. I have now discovered that this can sometimes be done without spending an entire day at the DMV.

I Was at The DMV Just A Few Months Ago

At the end of 2018, I was at the DMV to get a Real ID version of my license. You probably know this, but if you want to be able to travel by airplane within the U.S.A. after October 1, 2020, you will need either a passport or a Real ID driver’s license.

Although I got a Real ID driver’s license in 2018, that did not change the renewal date of my license in 2019. Maybe bear this in mind if your license needs to be renewed in the next 12 months. Just go once.

The DMV Didn’t Plan Very Well   

Unfortunately, the DMV didn’t plan very well for the implementation of the Real ID version of the California driver’s license. The agency has been playing catch-up for the last year and has dealt with immense lines of people wanting to get their Real ID. The normally long waits at the DMV have easily doubled. It can be a real mess, but I have now figured out a few tips that might help you out.

Check the Document Requirements Closely

The first problem most people have when they go to the DMV is that they don’t have the right documents with them. This is especially true if you are getting a Real ID. First, you will need an identity document, like a passport or certified birth certificate. Your current driver’s license won’t work.

Next, you will need proof of your Social Security number, such as your Social Security card, your W-2, or a Social Security Administration 1099 form. Check the DMV website for more options.

Finally, you will need proof of your California residency, so bring recent utility bills or medical documents or your car registration or your tax return! Again, there are more options if you check the DMV website.

The first step when you get through the line that goes around the DMV building is a record check, and if you don’t have the right things with you, they will send you home. By the way, you have to wait in that big, long, outside line even if you have an appointment.

Get an Appointment!

Yes, of course, try to get an appointment on the DMV website. When I started checking around August 1, the appointments were available starting around October 1! If you have the time, get an appointment, since it will help.

If you need to go the DMV sooner, keep checking online for different DMV locations and times for an appointment. After trying about 30 times, I was able to get an appointment just six days later at a DMV location about one hour away from my home. It wasn’t a convenient time, and I was going to have to change another appointment. But by checking again and again on the DMV website, I eventually found an appointment just a few days later.

Try Saturday Afternoon for a Walk-In

I did notice a footnote on a DMV website page that helpfully suggested that the best time to try to visit the DMV without an appointment was a Saturday afternoon at those locations that had Saturday hours.

Since I was driving back into California on a Saturday, I started checking all of the DMVs that I could conceivably visit between the state line at Primm, Nevada, and Orange County. In the end, I dropped off my wife and kids at the Victoria Gardens shopping center in Rancho Cucamonga at the bottom of the El Cajon Pass for a couple of hours to have lunch and shop, while I ran over to the DMV office in San Bernardino.

Check the DMV Location’s Webpage

I was considering going to the Fontana DMV but eventually chose San Bernardino. The reason for this was that the Fontana DMV webpage said they had a 48-minute wait, but the San Bernardino DMV webpage indicated only a seven-minute wait.

These wait times are for the first check-in/reception station at the DMV. If it is updated regularly, the time is essentially telling you how long the line is around the building. When I got to the San Bernardino DMV, my wait for the Step 1 check-in was only five minutes. In my case, the website’s current wait time was accurate.

Do the Application Online

Before you get to the DMV, you should go online and complete whatever forms will be required. The DMV website usually refers to this paperwork as your “application.” Once you are finished online, you will be given a confirmation code, which you need with when you check in at the office.

If you don’t complete your application in advance, the DMV office is going to have you wait for a computer in a separate room, and you will do it online at the DMV office on one of their computers. You will then need to write down the application number and go back to the Step 1 check-in. You might as well do this step at home.

Make Sure You Study!

If you are getting your license renewed, there is a chance you will need to pass a written driver’s test. It depends. The DMV does not fully disclose their algorithms that determine if you will need to take the test. I suppose it has something to do with the number of tickets you have had, how long you have been driving, how long since you last took the test, etc.

Sure, if you are a good driver and know the laws pretty well, you probably will pass whatever written test you are given, but why take the risk of having to go back to the DMV a second time?

You can view the Drivers Handbook online or download a PDF to read in advance. If you have been driving for some time, you probably just need to read through it once, and it probably won’t take you more than two hours to do so. It worked for me: I got 100% on my written test.

The Renewal Steps

After Step 1, check-in, you will wait for your number to be called, and you will be directed to a numbered counter. At Step 2, you will explain what you need, give them your confirmation code, sign paperwork, and pay whatever fees are required. Take your checkbook or cash! They don’t take credit cards!

I waited only about 20 minutes for my number to be called for Step 2 because the San Bernardino DMV was not very busy. You might easily wait more than an hour without an appointment. I think Step 2 is the step where having an appointment matters.

For my license renewal, Step 3 was getting my picture taken. It took maybe five minutes since just a couple of people were in front of me at that line.

The next line was for Step 4, which was the written test. I waited for about 10 minutes before getting my test. These days, they print out a list of questions just for you. Every printout is different, so there is no reason to sneak a peek at the other people in the testing area. Doing so will get you sent home, and you’ll have to start over.

Depending on why you are at the DMV, you might have a longer or shorter test. I think people getting new licenses answer 36 questions, but for my renewal, I had to answer only 18 questions. Taking my time, I think I took only about 10 minutes to complete the test.

Step 5 was getting my test graded and hearing the results. After turning in my finished test, I had to wait about 15 minutes to hear the results and get my temporary license. I was called up and told my results, and then the agent printed me a temporary license to keep with my expired card.

I should receive my new driver’s license in the mail in 30–40 days. I am going to watch the mail closely!

I Was Pleasantly Surprised

Not only was I able to take care of my expired license renewal in only about 1 hour and 15 minutes, the DMV agents at the San Bernardino location were the happiest, most helpful, most knowledgeable people I have ever worked with at a DMV. This was not the ending that flashed through my mind when the state trooper said, “Your license is expired!”

Why Did A Financial Advisor Write About the DMV?

Our fee-only financial planning and investment management firm in Fullerton, California, helps our clients with just about anything that involves a dollar sign. We are a full-service firm when it comes to financial strategy, investments, and planning. So, although we don’t get asked about DMV strategy very often, we know that our clients deal with the DMV all the time with new cars and licenses, and we want to help them out if we can.

We are always on the lookout to remove financial administrative hassles for our clients. Give us a call for a free meeting, and we will explain more of the ways we help our clients before they even ask.

Schedule a 15-minute discovery call with a fee-only financial advisor to discuss your personal situation.

Carl Lachman, CFP®, MBA