California DMV: Survival Tips

Everyone knows that you should always make an appointment when you visit the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).  But what happens when you absolutely have to go to the California DMV and there are no appointments available in the near future?  This happened to me.

California DMV- Waiting for help at the DMV
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Is this post a joke?  Sadly, no, no it is not.

Before you ask: Yes! I renewed my license online but I never received it due to both postal service and California DMV red tape.  I had to visit the California DMV twice before I finally received my license.  The California DMV worker apologetically told me over the phone that I had to show up in person…without an appointment.

I am a traumatized SoCal driver that wants to protect her readers from experiencing a similar fate when going to the California DMV.

Here is what I learned about visiting the California DMV without an appointment:

  1. Look up the DMV wait times for offices near you. You can do this by visiting the CA DMV website.  Based upon this, figure out which location seems to be the least busy.
  2. Do NOT go on a Monday! Guess what.  EVERYBODY wants to go first thing on Monday morning.  You will be waiting forever if you are at a busy location.

    California DMV Line
    CA DMV line that wrapped around the building.
  3. Go in the afternoon if you are at a busy location! I know that this sounds counterintuitive, however, it works.  I stood in line at the California DMV at 8am, yet didn’t get any help until nearly 4:30pm.  Everyone was in the same boat.   Guess what I learned…the California DMV at this particular location had a rule that you would be assisted only if you were in the door by 4:30pm.  If you were in line and standing outside the building?  Too bad, you had to come back again another day.

Yet, the people that didn’t come until 1 or 2pm were still being assisted.  How?  Why?

The California DMV closes at 5pm and the workers can’t leave until everyone that is inside has been serviced!  This            means that at 4:30pm, the workers made it their mission to start getting people assisted and out the door.

California DMV lines

Lines at the California DMV look and feel a little like this…Photo by Davide Ragusa on Unsplash

  1. Before you stand in line, ask the California DMV personnel standing outside which line you need to stand in, and whether or not you have to fill out a form, etc. I learned this on my first trip.  I had to return a month later when my driver’s license never came.  Just by asking before standing in the long line, I found out that the DMV computer system was down and they did not know when it would restart.  I opted to come back another day.  I am thankful I didn’t stand in that huge line before finding out.  Another time, I got to the window and she said I had to fill this form out and then get back in line.

    California DMV Form
    FYI: This form…does not help expedite the process. But you’ll have to get back in line if you don’t fill it out.
  2. If you are getting a Real ID, make sure you have all of the paperwork before going to the California DMV. You will need all kinds of important paperwork.  This includes the California DMV form, your birth certificate, marriage license and name change paperwork if applicable, etc.  This alone takes some time to compile.
  3. Some ridiculous, yet helpful tips.
  • Don’t wear perfume. There was a bush with bees buzzing around when I was standing outside for hours.  Oh, the joy for the ladies wearing perfume.  It was kind of scary, but entertaining to watch at the same time.

    California DMV-Bees
    Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash
  • Wear comfortable shoes. I had to stand for hours, then sit for hours.  Be prepared for every possible situation.
  • Bring sunblock. Since part of the time in line was spent outside in very direct harsh sunlight, I got a nice sunburn.
  • Bring a portable power bank. My phone kept me sane while I waited.  Thankfully, I had a power bank as back up that day.
  • Bring a book, magazine, or laptop to do work.
  • Bring lunch or snacks. Not joking here.  Nobody that came alone was willing to leave in case they were not aloud back in again or missed their name being called.  There were a lot of hangry people at the California DMV that afternoon.

    California DMV-hungry
    Candid photo of me entering my car after waiting 9 hours at the California DMV.
    Photo by Alfred Quartey on Unsplash
  • Be extremely polite to the California DMV personnel. Not only is it just common courtesy, but they won’t want to help you if you scream like a disgruntled person.  Yeah, I saw that about 10 times that day.  I can’t say I blame the people that were upset, but the workers certainly were not more inclined to help them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Heed this cautionary tale.  If an online renewal or appointment are just not in the cards, follow the tips I set out        above.  You will be happy that you did!
California DMV-leaving the DMV
Me leaving the DMV after a 9-hour wait…
Photo by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

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