10 Secrets Of The DMV

It’s no secret that every DMV office is like a relocated bit of Soviet Mother Russia on U.S. soil, or that the people who work there really do talk and act like Patty and Selma. SmartMoney lists 10 other things that may not be as well known, though. For the most part, the list is light on advice and heavy on anecdote and scandal—but there are still a few good lessons to be learned from it. They include: visit the nondenominational dmv.org before you go; don’t ever buy vanity plates (especially ones that announce you’re a female); and flood-damaged cars, which are dangerous to drive, are being fraudulently sold as “used” via unscrupulous dealers who take advantage of lax DMV title rules, so always “screen the car’s VIN through the free database at carfax.com/flood.”

“10 Things the DMV Won’t Tell You” [SmartMoney]
(Photo: Getty)


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  1. CumaeanSibyl says:

    Okay, I don’t usually do spelling flames, but this:


    is really, really cute.

  2. darkclawsofchaos says:

    Department of Morbid Villians

  3. ceejeemcbeegee is not here says:

    I cannot stress enough the value of scheduling an appointment online prior to your visit. It doesn’t even matter the time, just make it for that day you need and show up when you want. I’ve made appointments for 3pm and shown up at 11am and had a less than a one minute wait. And for some reason, people with appoinemtns get ‘cuts’ in all the departments, not just the one you made the appointment for. I had to renew my DL and my registration at the same time, so I got called immediately for my regisrtation, then as soon as I was done with that, I was send to the license renewal line and called immediately there too. I think I was at the DMV a total of 20 minutes.

    Seriously, if you value your time and/or sanity, book an appointment first.

  4. MercuryPDX says:

    Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but the WA State DMV is a total cakewalk in comparison to the NY State DMV. My last interaction required a change of plates (every seven years) and a DEQ test (every other year).

    The DEQ was at a drive-up center about 10 minutes away. They had three lanes open, the total wait was 10 minutes (which was longer than the actual test). I then went to the local hardware store that has a DMV Kiosk/Counter. Waited on line for about 15 minutes and walked out with my new plates in about 5. I haven’t been to an actual DMV office since renewing my license (every 5 years), which took 20 minutes total including the wait and the picture.

    It was a welcome change from what I’d been accustomed to.

  5. Jesse in Japan says:

    Compared to the DMV in Japan, the DMV in America is like going to Disney Land.

  6. Robobot says:

    Most of the DMV locations in Northern Virginia are absolute hell. I remember standing in huges lines with my mom as a kid. Getting something minor accomplished was an all-day affair. The one closest to my house also smelled like vomit inside; an added bonus.

    We moved to rural Virginia when I was in high school. I accompanied my mom to the DMV to change all the information so I keep her company in the line. No line. There was hardly even any waiting. The place was clean and smelled fine. And the staff? THEY WERE NICE! Good DMV locations do exist.

  7. Robobot says:

    I’m going to apologize for some of the grammar in the above post. I’m still 4/5 asleep, possibly more.

  8. BigNutty says:

    In California, the appointment is the only way to go. Like stated above, just show up at any time and you are automatically “next”.

    You don’t even need a computer, just call. But of course if everybody got smart and made an appointment I would wind up waiting for an eternity.


  9. djyox says:

    As I’ve always said, if the government was a business, it would be out of business. People only put up with this crap because we’re forced to. (not that you guys didn’t know that, just doing my part to fill up the comments area)

  10. bohemian says:

    Our local DMV had one guy that was in charge of the only location in the city for 20 years. He was an insane petty bureaucrat, just the few times I have had to go renew I have seen him make people cry or start to come over the counter at him. Even after he finally left the one DMV location in town was an adventure in torture. After sitting for 3 hours with twenty other people just trying to get an out of state transfer done I found a better trick. Our larger city straddles two counties. We can either go to the DMV in the main city or drive 30 min. to the other DMV for that southern county. I saved two hours and my sanity going there.

    I did that when I had to renew. I walked right in and there was NO LINE. Since it is a small town the ladies working the office were happy and nice. I had the same experience going back down there to get my new plates. Walk right in, no line out in 5 minutes.

  11. crashman2600 says:

    I think Maryland has it down pat. Unless you need title work (which the dealer usually handles) or are an idiot (insurance violations, ect) you only need to go the the MVA every 10 years. License renewal is handled every 5 years by mail, you get a notice, send in your $30 and get a new license in the mail with your old picture on it. No new eye exam unless you are over a certain age, and your eye doc can handle that. Tag renewal can be accomplished in the mail or online. Waited to the last day? No problem, pay online and print out a temp. registration until your stickers arrive. Almost everything can be done online or by mail, its great!

  12. @ceejeemcbeegee: That’s neat, we don’t have appointments.

    The DMV in the Chicago metro area is a nightmare. On Saturdays people start lining up three hours before they open. Takes forever.

    Then I moved downstate. Longest I have ever waited at the Peoria DMV is 10 minutes (on the last plate renewal day of the month when it was me and the entire population of the tri-county area whose plates expired in August and forgot to renew them until the last possible second). Longest I’ve ever been there is 30 minutes to get an entirely new license and I never WAITED more than 5 minutes together when I did that.

    What cracks me up is that native Peorians insist the lines at the local DMV are TERRIBLE. And they will drive FORTY-FIVE MINUTES EACH WAY to the next nearest DMV so instead of taking half an hour, the process can take 15 minutes. I keep pointing out that this then takes them an hour a 45 minutes, whereas the local DMV (including drive time) takes 45 tops, but they look at me like I’m either crazy or a very slow child, and explain again how there is LESS WAITING at the other DMV. I suspect their heads would explode if they tried to go to a Cook County DMV.

    Oh well. Less waiting for me, I guess!

  13. Starfury says:

    Here in CA the DMV is pretty bad. You can make an appointment but they tend to be 2-3 weeks out. If you have to walk in…it sucks.

    I did have to renew my license (new picture required) a few years back. I made an appointment and went at my scheduled time. In the parking lot is the security guard..telling everyone the computers are down and there is no ETA on when they’ll be fixed. Grumbling I drive back to work having wasted a good chunk of my lunch break. I go back the next day after work and the parking lot is empty again. I ask the guard if the computers are down and he says they just started working again. I park and I’m done in 15 min.

    I still hate the DMV.

  14. Shadowman615 says:

    From the article: “For example, emission checks are required for registration in 13 states and in parts of another 17 states, but not at all in 20 states.”


  15. Shadowman615 says:

    @Shadowman615: Gah, nevermind. I wasn’t reading that right. I’ll just go sit in the corner now.

  16. Jesse in Japan says:

    Allow me to elaborate on why the DMV in Japan makes the DMV in America seem like Disney Land.

    For starters, in Chiba Prefecture, there are only two DMVs in the entire prefecture (population, over six million) and only one of those is outfitted to handle the actual driving test (the other is just for documents). If you want to take the driving test, you have to make an appointment four to six weeks in advance.

    When you take the test, you will fail. The slightest mistake is grounds for failure. If you didn’t look over your shoulder when making a turn, you fail. If you were too close, or too far, from the center line when making a turn, you fail. If you don’t put on your turn signal fast enough, you fail. If you just don’t appear cautious enough, you fail. Plus, you have to take the test in one of their cars, you can’t use your own. Once you fail, you can make an appointment to take the test again sometime next month. It costs 2,400 yen each time you take the test and it’s a day-long ordeal.

    The test is so difficult that the vast majority of Japanese people prefer to spend 300,000+ yen going to a driving school. If you have a certificate of graduation from an accredited driving school, you’re exempted from the driving test (do graduate from driving school, you do have to pass the school’s driving test, though I imagine it’s not as strict).

    If, somehow, you actually pass the test, you have to wait another four or five hours for them to actually issue you your license. And it costs another 1,600 yen.

  17. Chairman-Meow says:

    Here in good ole’ Massachusetts, the DMV was legendary for its creative ways of making your life a living hell. It would take hours to perform the simplest of tasks. God help you if your paperwork was not in order because it was “go correct this and back to the end of the line with you”! All I could ever think of when visiting there is the afterlife waiting room scene from the movie “Bettlejuice”.

    It became so bad that the government was forced to change the entire system from the ground-up. First, they god rid of the “Registry Police” which had to be the most useless job on the face of the earth. Then they overhauled the line systems to something that actually works well.

    Now, when you go to the DMV, you first go to the helpdesk where they tell you what you need to do and give you a ticket. You go sit in the waiting area and watch the tote that shows where you are in the queue. When you number is called, it is verbally announced and the appropriate window lights-up showing you exactly where to go.

    What used to be a gut-wrenching 3 hour experience has now turned into maybe 15 minute experience.

  18. TWinter says:

    Hmmmm. I’ve lived in VA, IA, and MI and never had a horror story or a huge wait at a DMV. I have met a few unfriendly employees, but nothing too bad.

  19. timmus says:

    I never go to DMVs in the city… always the ones in rural counties. Anytime I had DMV business I’d postpone it to coincide with a road trip, and go in a little town. Quite often I was the only customer in the building.

  20. ColdNorth says:

    In Minnesota, once you actually get your license, renewals are a snap. License tabs can be handled via mail or, if you like people, at any one of about a thousand locations (pretty much any municipal government office or major county library will do).

    As for driver’s license renewals, again, it’s a snap. There is one desk where you get a number, all the paperwork to fill out AND a nice person to explain HOW to fill out the form correctly. Then, you sit in a waiting room with lots of chairs, a coffee shop, and a tote board letting you know about how long you have left to wait. On a busy day, that might be around twenty minutes or so.

    When it’s your turn, lights direct you to the correct window where they take your money (cash, check or credit card are fine), process your form (making any necessary corrections without booting you to the back of the line), take your photo (letting you retake it if you don’t like the way you look), and hand you a temporary affidavit until your new license shows up in the mail.

    I guess our high taxes and pseudo-socialist system have _some_ advantages… If only our Department of Transportation were run as competently!

  21. Sytteg says:

    Here in Oklahoma getting you license is a chore requiring at least two visits to a testing location to take the eye/written for your learners permit and then once of age to take the test. After you get your first license we have many places available for paperwork. We only have 3 testing locations for a metro area of ~1 million but hundreds of tag agencies available for new tags and renewals. I currently favor a gentleman who works out of a model airplane shop.

  22. Snakeophelia says:

    I moved to a small rural town in NC in 1992 and got a new driver’s license. If you didn’t have a birth certificate, no problem – the center had a list of acceptable proofs of identity that included the family bible. Can you imagine the poor soul who moved from the sticks into a more urban environment and showed up lugging their family bible to prove who they were?

  23. MollyNYC says:

    Did you people know that if you die and go to Purgatory, the hours you spent waiting in line at the DMV count as time served?

  24. SoCalGNX says:

    NEVER rely on Carfax. They do not always provide the truth on the cars they “report” about. And their alleged “guarantee” is worthless. I found this out on the last Corvette I bought using their “service”.

    I had a CA drivers license for more than 20 years. I moved out of state to return after 7 yrs. The DMV I applied to gave me the run around, said I needed a certified copy of my birth certificate. Apparently the original one I had issued by the Department of the Navy was not good enough. The supervisor of that DMV showed signs of being a racist as well. I went to another DMV in another town and they “renewed” my old license using the same number I had used before with NO hassle.

  25. Gargoyle_A2 says:

    I’ll never forget the time I moved to Michigan and went to get a MI drivers license. To prove who I was I brought along my old license and my passport. Both had my photo on them. For some unknown reason they would not take my passport as a form of ID. They wanted me to return home and come back with my birth certificate. I tried to explain to them that I had to send in my birth certificate in order to get a passport, so that verified it, plus it was good enought for me to get in and out of the country. No sell. So I came back with my birth certificate (no picture) and got my drivers license. Man, was that a frustrating day.

  26. Balisong says:

    @crashman2600: But have you ever actually had to go to the DMV in Maryland? I had to when I moved here and had to switch everything over. Unbelievable! Took 3 to 4 hours, some lady gave me hell because my name was spelled wrong on some state document and acted for a minute like she wouldn’t give me a MD doc because of it. At the end of the whole ordeal, the camera malfunctioned right after taking my picture and instead of actually telling me to go to the other camera to get my ID, I had to sit there for another half an hour while they fixed it, wondering why everyone that had come after me was getting their IDs and I wasn’t.

    I do love my ID picture though…I look like I’m going to kill someone…maybe that’s why the camera broke…

    And Jesse in Japan – that’s how a DMV should be run! Thinking back on my driving test, I should never by any stretch of the imagination have passed! I can’t believe the $%&* drivers we have to put up with on the road.

  27. Uh oh... Cleveland says:

    @Quietly: Northern Virginia went to the Massachusetts-style system described by Front_Towards_Enemy. Nice person at the help desk who looks at your docs and gives you a number. Still took 1.5 hours for a license, title, and plates, but I was able to sit down most of the time.

    @Eyebrows McGee: The DMV’s in Chicago blow, but I used to go to the one by my folks house, 30 miles south but still in Cook County, and get in and out in 20 min.

  28. Uh oh... Cleveland says:

    Oh yeah, and Cleveland blows.

  29. Trae says:

    When I first went into the DOT office (what we call our DMVs) in Wisconsin in the mid-nineties to get my learner’s permit, it was line ridden hell – but when I went in again in like 99 they had switched to a “Take a number” system, and while I had to wait, the entire process was fairly efficient.

    Heck, I just had to go in last Wednesday to get a new license at the Eau Claire DMV, and got instant service and friendly help. I guess other states need to get their friggin’ acts together, huh.

  30. rosy501 says:

    @SoCalGNX: Seconded. I sold my car via Craigslist, and got the Carfax to go with it. I figured I was sort of screwed since my car had been in a pretty extensive (but 100% fixed) wreck a year before. To my surprise, absolutely NOTHING unusual showed up on the report.

    When I talked to potential buyers, I showed them the Carfax and told them the whole truth about the wreck, and went with the final buyer to a mechanic where we split the cost for a full inspection, inside and out. Incidentally, the mechanic reported everything that I stated about the car. My honesty paid off, and she ended up buying the car at the full price I requested. Both of us went away from the deal very happy.

    The lesson here? Never trust Carfax, and ALWAYS, ALWAYS take a used car to a mechanic to get it checked out before final purchase.

  31. Major-General says:

    @BigNutty: Funny, the last time I was at the DMV in California, I still had to weight 40 minutes with my appointment.

    Or you could live in Oklahoma, which doesn’t have a DMV per se. Just visit your local tag agency, and 90% of your driving related needs can be taken care of. The biggest difference was getting a license in Oklahoma versus California. In Oklahoma I filed out my paperwork, was photographed, and had the license in 10 minutes. Two weeks in California. Of course, this was before Oklahoma went to their new licenses.

  32. Major-General says:

    @Sytteg: Chore? Hardly. Plus I counted about seven each for Tulsa and OKC.

  33. Major-General says:

    @Gargoyle_A2: A passport can’t be denied as ID provided it is current.

  34. crashman2600 says:

    @Balisong: I have always gone in Frederick or Washington county. I used to work across from the one in Gaithersburg (Montgomery County) and it is hell on earth. I recommend a drive out the the burbs. And no, I have been there for about 8 years, will probably have to go in 2010 when my license expires.

  35. kellyd says:

    @Starfury: Not sure where you are in CA, Starfury, but in the San Francisco city limits, I can make an appointment for the next day, show up and am out of there in about twenty minutes.

    Also, my mom works for the DPS in Texas. I have come to believe that people WANT to have a bad time at the DMV. It’s like going to jury duty or trying to return something in a store, having ANY interaction with someone in customer service. Basically, we’ve all heard it’s terrible, so we go there hoping to have a good story. She gets harassed all the time by people who simply want to be jerks. Try going in there optimistically and see what you get.

    Plus, if you go to DPS in San Antonio, TX and get my mom, you’ll probably be among the many people who come BACK later or the next day to bring her flowers, candy, jewelry…

  36. youwantedahero says:

    @Sytteg: Um, are you from OKC? ‘Cause I am and I’ve NEVER had a problem. There are lots of places to take tests – and I didn’t have to wait long for either one (I think I went to Edmond to take the written and Yukon to take the driving). BTW, the test in Yukon was so easy and fast, when the instructor told me go back, I thought I failed! Literally, around the block once, left turn, right turn, then “parallel park” (with one car in front of you, no one in back, no curb) and back to the testing place. And no DMV here either, just tag agencies, of which there are a TON.

    However, I did just move back to OKC from Spokane, WA, and the DMV in Spokane was a NIGHTMARE. Full of bureaucrats with nothing better to do, two and a half hour waits on a Tuesday morning, things like that.

  37. youwantedahero says:

    @Major-General: You still get your license in about five minutes in Oklahoma, even with electronic ones.

    Oh, and did I mention that you have to wait two to three weeks to get your license in the mail in Washington? One more thing that sucks about the DMV there!