What is Real ID and why are DMV lines so long?

Lincoln Park Field Office. Photo by Natalie Rinn

Have you been to a DMV office in California recently? Did it seem like wait times were not just bad, but much worse than usual? Well, you’re not wrong.. This summer, lines at DMV offices got longer: Customers without appointments waited 5, 6, 7, even 8 unfathomable hours just to get to a window.

So, what’s behind the longer wait times? It’s something called Real ID. Californians started applying for Real IDs in January and since then, the DMV has been inundated with traffic it was not ready for. To combat the problem, they’ve hired hundreds of new employees and started offering services like self service terminals and expedite windows, to keep people out of line. But issues remain—including outdated computer systems that have crashed repeatedly. Governor Jerry Brown has ordered a full DMV audit to be completed by the spring.  

What is Real ID?

Real ID stems from the Real ID Act, a security measure passed by Congress in 2005. Following the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, the act set federal standards for issuing IDs—most relevantly, drivers licenses. Real IDs will replace your previous license.   

Why do you need it?

By October 1, 2020, every US citizen and resident will need a Real ID to fly on an airplane or to enter a federal building (or power plant, should the need arise). If you don’t have a Real ID, you’ll have to use your passport to do these things. You can still keep a federally “non-compliant” license, but you’ll only be able to use it to drive—not to fly.

How do you get a Real ID?

First and foremost, you have to visit a DMV to get a Real ID. So the very first thing you should do—before anything else—is go to dmv.ca.gov to make an appointment. You will thank us later. Making an appointment is the only way to avoid those punishing lines.

Then, you’ll need a bunch of paper documents. The newly-updated DMV website lays out in detail which sources (and various options thereof) of proof of identification you will need. In an increasingly electronic world, this is a good reminder to keep tabs on all of your documents, and to keep them organized.

First, you’ll need a paper copy of a proof of identity (a passport, a birth certificate, an unexpired foreign passport, or an unexpired Permanent Resident Card).

Second, if your name has changed, and is different than the one on your previous source of identity, you need a certified legal document that traces that change, like a marriage certificate.

Third, proof of social security number. This could be your social security card itself, a tax form, or a pay stub.

Fourth, proof of California residency. This can come from a utility bill, bank documents, employment documents (or several others listed on the site). Retrieving this document can be tricky because, increasingly, people get e-bills. If you do, the DMV will accept a printed copy of your e-bill, but you must print it ahead of time; most DMV offices will not print it for you.

What’s the deal with those wait times?

Unlike previous licenses, which could be renewed online or by mail for up to ten years, Real IDs require every applicant to visit the DMV in person. And in California, that’s a lot of people in one place. Plus, every Real ID application, with all of its required paperwork, takes five minutes longer to process (on average) than previous licenses. Additionally, outdated computer systems have crashed periodically, and piled hours on to already long wait times.     

Don’t be (too) afraid, here are some tips:

First and foremost (this cannot be stressed enough): Make an appointment. If you have a time crunch (because your license is expiring tomorrow, and appointments at field offices book out months in advance), these tips will at least make the time you do spend at the DMV a little less painful.

  1. Go near the end of the day. The lines will have gone down and, as long as you make it inside the building before it closes, they have to process your application.
  2. Go to one of the 62 offices with new Saturday hours. No one wants to spend weekend hours at the DMV, but that means a quicker trip for you.
  3. Make sure to bring a debit card, check, or cash to pay for your Real ID. It costs $35 and the DMV does not accept credit cards.
  4. Go to an office slightly outside the greater metropolitan area to avoid the most congested field offices. For example, the license processing center in Granada Hills. It’s a short drive outside of LA, and, double whammy, it also has Saturday hours.
  5. Double check that you have all of your documents before you make your visit. If you’re unsure that one of them will work, bring a backup option. You do not want to wait in that line twice.
  6. Bring little line helpers: water, snacks, a book, a podcast. If you don’t (not that I know from experience) you’ll have a hard time keeping it together once you actually get to the window. And, entertaining yourself or learning something means those hours were not completely wasted.