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Ten ways to avoid spending your whole day at the DMV

A line is seen for already scheduled appointments at the DMV in San Francisco on Thursday. Wait times are much shorter with appointments, but those often cannot be scheduled for weeks out.

Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Those long lines at California Department of Motor Vehicle offices could get a little shorter when the DMV expands Saturday service early next month, but you could still spend the better part of a day there if you don’t plan ahead.

The average wait time has exploded since Jan. 22, when the DMV started issuing driver’s licenses and identity cards with enhanced security features, known as Real ID. Things got even worse in February when the DMV started rolling out a new computerized queuing system to direct customers to the technician best suited to their needs. “As with any new system, there were some bugs to work out,” DMV spokesman Marty Greenstein said.

Nicole Allen said it took her more than seven hours — from 7:20 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. — to get a replacement driver’s license at the San Francisco DMV a few weeks ago. Her wallet was stolen, and “the soonest I could get an appointment was two months. I wasn’t going to drive without a license for two months,” she said.

The average wait time without an appointment for all services at 27 Bay Area DMV offices was an hour and 43 minutes in the first half of June compared with 47 minutes the same time a year ago. But that’s only the time it takes from the moment a customer gets a numbered ticket until he or she is called to a window to begin the transaction, Greenstein said. People could be in line “for hours” before they get the numbered ticket. The DMV is not tracking that time.

Some states have text messaging systems that alert people when their number is coming up, so they don’t have to hang around the motor vehicle office for hours on end. California has considered such a system but has not implemented one, Greenstein said.

With an appointment, the average wait time is only 19 minutes, up from 8 minutes a year ago. But when I checked online Thursday morning, most Bay Area DMV offices didn’t have a Real ID appointment available until late August or September. The first one available in Redwood City was Oct. 23. Lots of Saturday appointments in August opened up on Friday after the DMV announced it would expand its Saturday service at 60 offices including 14 in the Bay Area starting Aug. 4.

Wait times are longer for driver’s licenses than for vehicle registration services, mainly because more people are coming into DMV offices to get a Real ID, and these take longer to process than regular licenses.

Under a federal law passed in 2005, starting in October 2020 you must have either a Real ID or other specified document, such as a U.S. or foreign passport, to board domestic flights and enter federal facilities that require ID — such as prisons, military bases and courthouses.

No one has to get a Real ID, and undocumented immigrants can’t get one. California will continue to issue regular licenses and ID cards that are not compliant with Real ID (they say Federal Limits Apply in the upper right hand corner) along with Real IDs (they have a golden bear with a star in that spot).

But many people are opting for Real IDs because they don’t have a passport or don’t want to carry one if they can avoid it. The state has issued about 800,000 Real IDs since Jan. 22 and about 3.2 million regular, non-compliant licenses and ID cards.

California driver’s licenses expire every five years and most people can renew them online or by mail twice before having to visit a DMV office. But to get your first Real ID, you must visit a DMV office and bring three types of documents that prove your identity, Social Security number and address.

Here are 10 tips for surviving a date with the DMV:

1. Don’t go if you don’t have to. If you don’t want a Real ID and can renew your license online or by mail, do it. The same goes for vehicle registration. You can also renew your vehicle registration using a self-service kiosk inside 60 DMV offices and 40 other locations including many Bay Area Safeway stores. These machines will print out your renewal certificate and the sticker that goes on your plate. For a list, see AAA offices also offer their members some vehicle-registration services.

2. Look at your license. You can make a DMV appointment (for any service) up to 90 days in advance. The DMV sends license renewal notices about 60 days before the expiration date, but if you wait until you get the notice, you might not get an appointment before it expires. Try to make an appointment 90 days, or at least 60 days, before the expiration date.

3. Take a DMVacation. If you can’t get an appointment in the Bay Area, consider combining a trip to the country with a trip to the DMV. When I checked last week, you could still get July license appointments in rural locations such as Willows, Weaverville and Yreka.

4. Check wait times. These can vary widely by office. In the first half of June, the average wait time without an appointment (after getting a numbered ticket) was only 14 minutes in Napa, 57 minutes in Santa Rosa and 59 minutes in Novato.

The longest wait time was at the San Jose Driver License Processing Center (2 hours, 51 minutes). That location (unlike the regular San Jose office) only handles licenses. It might be easier to get an appointment there but if you don’t, prepare for a long wait. Average wait times were over two hours at Oakland Coliseum, Concord, Daly City, El Cerrito, Los Gatos and Vacaville. You can find the current wait time, in real time, at any DMV office online. Go to and click on the office.

5. Consider going in late. Lines start forming outside many Bay Area DMV offices an hour or more before they open. (Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday except Wednesday, when they open at 9.) But lines may be shorter just before closing time and if you get in before the doors shut, the staff will stay late to serve you, Greenstein said. One exception: “We don’t administer knowledge tests after 4:30 p.m.” Behind-the-wheel tests are by appointment only.

6. Bring the proper paperwork. If you are applying for a Real ID, bring the right paperwork. For a list see For a vehicle registration checklist, see

7. Bring sustenance. The DMV doesn’t allow food, but Greenstein said some offices enforce this more than others. Pack something discreet like a power bar and water bottle.

8. Bring backup. Also bring a backup battery or charger for your mobile device, or a book or newspaper to keep yourself entertained.

9. Don’t rely on credit cards. DMV offices accept cash, check, money order and ATM/debit cards for payment of fees. They do not accept credit cards. (Self-service kiosks will accept cash, credit card, debit card or check.)

10. Keep calm. Allen said that after waiting more than seven hours and completing her paperwork for a Real ID, the technician told her to go stand in another line to get her photo taken. Allen looked at the technician and said, “I’ve been here since 7:20. I’m missing a day of work and I can’t stay any longer.” The clerk took pity on Allen and snapped her picture with a digital camera.

“She could tell I was pretty frustrated,” Allen said. “I tried to appeal to her. I think it helped that I was being calm.”