Unfun Times At The DMV: Things To Bring And Do Before Arriving In Hell!

DMV HellThere might be a new way to wean car addicts off their car buying behavior.  That way is to simply have them experience a day at the DMV.  Recently, I had the pleasure to go to the DMV and re-register my car because I never got the tags in the mail.  Apparently State documents cannot be forwarded to a new address.  Hence, if you ever move residences or offices, make sure that you contact the DMV and other state departments immediately to notify your change of address!

I only drive on weekends now since I take the bus to work (ladies love bus riders).  I drive so little that I had no idea the tags never came for 3 months!  Of course, the one day I do drive to work due to a dental appointment, a cop pulls me over for a “fix-it” ticket.  “You know why I stopped you right?” Mr. Officer asks.

Actually, I have no idea Officer,” I sincerely replied back.  He gave me a ticket for expired tags and told me that if I went to the DMV and got new tags within 30 days, I wouldn't have to pay the $276 fine, but only $25.


The first thing you notice at the DMV is gloom.  We're talking unhappy campers with frowns that droop down to their ankles!  Another thing you notice is that there's a lot more diversity at the DMV than if you were to walk around any neighborhood in San Francisco.  Hmmmm, what's up with that I wonder.

Today was day 30 of the fix-it ticket.  If I didn't get my tags today, I would have to pay another $250 in fines!  I took the bus from work to the DMV and was prepared for an all day battle.

1:00pm: Stand in line to get the form to get new tags.  15 minutes pass, and I get the form to fill out.  I have to get back in line to turn in the form to get a number!  By this time, the line had grown 15 people deep.

1:15pm: Sweet.  30 minutes later I hand in the form.  Tip: When you finally hand in the form, ask the clerk how long the average wait time is for walk-ins.  She told me 2.5 hours, so I immediately planned my time accordingly.

1:45pm: Walk around the block, pretending to get some exercise.  Spend 30 minutes on hold with the Traffic Department to ask whether I have to pay the bill today (since this is day 30 of the fix-it ticket grace period), or whether I can have a date-mark and mail it in, since it says “by X date”.  When it's my turn, the operator hangs up.  Then my Blackberry dies so I check some e-mails with my iPhone until it too dies!

2:45pm: Go to fancy grocery store and talked to the butcher on the process of dry aging.  Found a deli clerk who had an iPhone charger and juiced my phone up for 30 minutes.  Back in business!

3:45pm: Go back to the DMV and wait for B207 to get called.  The TV shows B203.  Exciting stuff!  Number gets called at 4:05pm and I'm there smiling, happy to pay my registration of $110, and late charge of $83 by check.

Then BOOM:So sorry sir, but you need a smog check for your vehicle as well,” the clerk snipes back.  Oh my goodness, I just spent 2.5 hours twiddling my thumbs when I could have gone home to get Moose and get a smog?  Nooooooo!  “Come back tomorrow, as the doors close at 5pm sharp and the guards won't let you in.  You won't have enough time to go home and get your car and come back lah!”

4:15pm: Holy shit, fuck, damn!  I was so depressed.  I couldn't believe I had to come back to the DMV the next day.  Why couldn't the first clerk in line tell me that I needed the smog in the first place, instead of brush me off?  Tip: Ask the first clerk if you need a smog check and anything else before waiting, no matter how bad you feel taking up more time for the line!  I was depressed, but for some reason still hopeful.  I took a $14 cab ride home and told myself on the way that maybe, just maybe I could pull this off.

4:32pm: I arrived home and decided to drive Moose BACK to the DMV area to get a smog check. I figured I had to get a smog check done anyway, so what the heck.  My afternoon was shot.

4:52pm: I ask the smog checker whether he could get it done in 10 minutes so I could rush back into the DMV before they locked their doors.  “No way homey!  A smog check takes at least 25 minutes, so you're fuckedThose guys at the DMV are like Nazis.  When the second hand strikes 5pm, buh bye!” he replied.

Jeez, thanks mate I thought to myself.  Then a moment of kindness emitted from the clerk,But I tell you what.  Give me your number.  You go and get in the door before 5pm and lock yourself in.  I'll then call you when the smog is done, provided you pass, and tell you the pass code to tell the clerk!”

4:57pm: Genius!  I did what I was told and ran like mad three blocks away to get in before the doors closed.  I prayed that the 5% battery juice I had left in my iPhone was enough.  Sure enough, at 5pm doors started slamming shut and one man started arguing with a guard to let him in.  The guard pushed back and a shouting match ensued of “Don't touch me motherfucker!” and other nice pleasantries.

At 5:18pm, the iPhone rang and I cut into the front of the line and smiled at the clerk.  “Wow, it's a miracle you're here!” she said.  I told her the number, she nodded in approval as it went through the system, and I was saved!!!

NIGHTMARE AT DMV OVERJeep Grand Cherokee 2012

I think I lost at least a few months of my life with this ordeal.  I was calm on the outside, but cursing my bad fortune which ultimately turned into so-so fortune on the inside.  Overall, I spent 5 hours, $305 dollars ($195 registration + late fee, $85 smog fee, $25 fix-it ticket) to get my damn tags!  If I waited one more day, I would have had to pay another $250 due to the grace period of the fix-it ticket expiring.

Before this day, I was seriously thinking of getting another car.  The SF auto show opened up my eyes to the sweet new Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited by Daimler pictured to the right.  But since I went through such an ordeal, and I've got a nice 9 months left before I've got to pay for registration again (remember I was 3 months late), I want to “get my money's worth” and never buy another used car again!

Things To Bring And Do Before Arriving At The DMV

* Necessities: Two blank checks, $200 in cash, license, registration, proof of insurance, VIN #, license plate number.  Many DMVs don't take credit cards, which is why you need the checks and cash.  Also bring a utilities bill, and three picture IDs such as passport, work ID, driver's license.

* Time killers: Mobile device charger(s) and mobile devices (s), work, book, magazines, scarf, laptop and an inquisitive mind.  The greatest time killer on earth is a smartphone.  I can literally destroy 2 hours of time without even knowing it on my iPhone due to my addiction to this one tower defense game called Sentinel 3.  Of course, there's all the online writing and social media as well.

* Ask, Ask, Ask: When you get to see the first clerk after standing in line, always ask the clerk what else you need, be it a smog certificate or any other type of certificate so you don't have to go back in the line!  Take your time and explain your situation.

* Schedule Beforehand if you don't have a deadline ticket! If you are not in a rush, consider scheduling your appointment.  You will save on average 2.5-3.5 hours of your life.  You can book and cancel as many appointments as you want with no penalty.


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Updated for 2020 and beyond.

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66 thoughts on “Unfun Times At The DMV: Things To Bring And Do Before Arriving In Hell!”

  1. What exactly do you mean by, “there’s a lot more diversity at the DMV than if you were to walk around any neighborhood in San Francisco”?

  2. Alexandria Martinez

    I haven’t had to renew my registration yet and I am worried about the whole ordeal at the DMV. From what I read I feel a little more relaxed about the whole situation. If all I have to worry about is waiting in line I think I will be okay.

  3. Haha, the situation is no better up here. I’m glad that I rarely have to go down there, but last time, the wait was insane. It was to transfer my leased vehicle to my own name. I had to go there twice (the first time, after waiting 2 hours, they didn’t accept the documents I had on hand and I had to ask the company to send me more documents), and kill a couple of hours each time. I remember that much about that visit!

  4. savvysavingbytes

    Sam, Turns out I jumped the gun on NY DMV privatization. While they have hired a company to streamline their internet support and provide online renewals (saving us all time and them a ton of money) their initial improvement in services came from a simple labor-management initiative: A take-a-number policy (like bakeries), clerks trained in basic problem solving and sprucing up all their offices with new furniture and paint.

    I may have equated the major improvement at NY DMV with the privatization of the NJ DMV around that time, which has apparently turned into DISASTERVILLE. Pat

  5. Bryan at Pinch that Penny!

    Ugh. I just got something in the mail stating that I need to go into the DMV this time around to renew. I am not looking forward to the experience. I’m going to try calling for an appointment to see how that works.

  6. Oh, man…DMVs suck. The people that work there are always in a horrific mood. That was a pretty good idea, walking around the neighborhood while you waited. I would be too nervous that they would somehow magically move fast and I’d miss my turn. Oh, and not a car person…what is a smog check? Is that like an emissions test?

    Wish I lived in an area where I didn’t need a car. But our public transport in Pittsburgh is limited, and currently getting cut more. So I’m doomed to the DMV. Sigh.

    1. Yeah, Smog check is an emissions test to comply with the emissions standards of California, which I think could be the highest in the country. Moose is a 12 year old V8 SUV and passed… so maybe it’s not crazy strict.

      Good luck at the DMV!

  7. Wow those lines remember me of last week here in NY when I went to renew my license. I forgot to renew (really i was lazy) it online when I got the forms and it was too close to the deadline so I had to actually go in to renew. Ughhh I sat with the most unpleasant of people for close to 2 hours. I dont know how they do it there but they have all kinds of random letter and numbers and it seems like they never call them in any particular order. BA256 next CT464 next BB260 wooo hooo bingo…Im up. Then you get to the window and the speak a mile a minute you feel intimidated. I speak in a soft tone, “im here just to renew my license” fill here here here and sign at the X and how are you going to pay for that today. Ahhhh i was almost envious when I read that article….no not really…. The new grand cherokees are sharp.

      1. Ya it sure does. I have an 06 cherokee, it has the tv in the back so it keeps the kids occupied. Sadly that was probably one of the reasons we purchased it. I hope everyone in the pf blog world doesn’t cane me for saying this.

  8. Still haven’t changed my license to my new state because I hate the DMV. When I am forced to go, I ALWAYS make sure I get there at least 5-10 minutes before they open. This ensures that I am one of the first 3 people in the door and out within 15 minutes max. I can’t believe they let you just give her a number to verify the smog – amazing!

  9. Either you used creative license to tweak your timeline for full dramatic effect, or you are the luckiest man alive. Either way, kudos to you! I’m due for a DMV visit in a couple months to renew my license. My biggest fear is the stupid eye test… I swear their machine has weird glares that make it impossible to see anything. I don’t have 20/20 vision, but I am hardly as blind as that machine always makes me feel! Still, at least ours is not as crowded as yours… I can normally be in and out in a half hour – tops.

    1. Hahaha, I swear I am not making that time line up! I ran like crazy to make it in 3 minutes before 5pm and the smog guy called my iphone like in Mission Impossible to say “it’s a go!”

      Good luck on your visit! Always say E F C G A B if you can’t read it!

  10. BusyExecutiveMoneyBlog

    I do everything in my power to stay away from the DMV. The next time I plan to walk in one is when it’s time for a license for my oldest kid. Horrible experience by and large.

  11. This article makes me laugh. I go to the DMV almost everyday because it’s so much fun (oh and I work there). I hate it almost as equally as everyone else, but at least they pay me to go to hell :) Is a smog check required every year?

    Good tips at the end and can I add one to the list? Do not wait until the very last day to come. Sometimes things come up.

    In FL we are under the REAL ID act which means you need certified birth cert, marriage cert, ss card, and two proofs of address to renew your license. We have been doing this since Jan 2010 and people still show up the day their license expires without documents and are sent into a frenzy when they don’t have them. I don’t understand because you can renew 18 months in advance. Surely, you would have some time to do it before the last day?

  12. I’m so glad I don’t have to go often. I pay online using their on-line registration code that is on the renewal. Last year was the first year I had to get a smog check, but it was all electronic – the smog place automatically updated the DMV records for me. It was so easy! And, yes, when I moved I made sure to contact DMV and update my address since I didn’t want the hassle of having to go in! Yuck. :(

  13. Matt @ RamblingFever Money

    This post cracked me up! I sure hope there is an upside to living in California, as I hear nothing but horror stories. Stupid smog tests?! You’ve gotta be kidding.

    I actually delivered a load of riding lawn tractor’s to a store last week. Great big letters on the boxes declared, “Not for re-sale in the state of California.” Apparently these brand new tractors don’t pass California’s exhaust regulations or something. Unreal!

    Not that it was or ever would be an option for me, but thanks for the reminder to NEVER move to California!

    Oh, and just like CFM’s first comment above, I am always in and out of Michigan’s (we call it Secretary of State) DMV office in less than 15 minutes. I drive about 10 minutes out of town and visit a branch in one of Grand Rapids neighboring small towns. Never a wait!

  14. Oh man, sorry about that. The last time I went to the DMV was for a new driver license. I got in and out in 15 minutes flat. I don’t know why, but this DMV is not busy at all. I’ve done the 2 hours wait in another DMV and it sucks big time.

  15. We had to register both our cars when we moved. Fortunately, we made appointments. Unfortunately, for car #1 we didn’t know that you had to tell the clerk that you had an appointment, so we waited an extra 45 minutes until we realized we have to tell the clerk about the appt. We learned our lesson the next time.

  16. Darwin's Money

    What you just described is the utter stupidity and bureaucracy that is government at work (and government workers). For people who love the European model and want to grow government, spend some time at the DMV. Tell me private industry would run an operation like that and I’ll show you a company that’s no longer in business.

  17. Julie @ Freedom 48

    Oh boy! I think you deserve a drink after that one…
    Our Ministry of Transportation is open in the evening. I don’t think many people are aware of it – because the time I had to go it was literally a 5min wait. I couldn’t believe it!

  18. Although I avoid going to the DMV like the plague, I thought you can make an appointment. It is no fun going there. Last time I went was because my wallet was stolen and I needed a new license.

  19. I have a good tip for everyone that needs to go to the DMV. Get there an hour early before it opens! There will be a few people in line outside starting about an hour before, but you will be one of the first to be served. Don’t go 30 minutes early, go at least an hour early! Trust me!

  20. savvysavingbytes

    When I first moved to NYC, renewing a driver’s license was an all day proposition with endless lines — one line for this, another for that and so on. No one was there to answer any questions. You had to pray that you had picked out the right form and filled it out correctly before (hopefully) getting in the correct line. There were of course no seats for this process so people shuffled along and fainted left and right.

    When the city handed over the DMV to a private company, the change was stunning. Pleasant employees to actually answer questions, seats for god sake and unbelievable organization – in and out of the place one two three. Which from then on, killed a whole category of DMV war stories in NYc.

  21. Is it still un-fun at the DMV? I try to make them laugh so they are on my side. I asked a worker where the bathroom was and she pointed behind her in some weird direction so I said please forgive me but I am blonde could you be more specific because it’s hard for me to think for too long. After laughing she said thanks for making my day.

  22. Our DMV allows to make appointments in advance on-line. I did that a few months ago. It took me literary 30 minutes to go in out. Did you check into yours to see if they do the same thing? Actually not many people know that our DMV allows pre-scheduled appointments. Your days was AWFUL. I can relate as I had days like this in my life.

  23. That sounds miserable. I hate dealing with bloated organizations like the DMV. Lucky for me, I was there 15 minutes before open the last time I had to visit and was 3rd in line for the day. Still took over 30 minutes, but it was painless enough.

    I have to change my car registration from the parent’s house to the condo (last address change I have to make), but have been dreading visiting the Denver DMV to take care of it.

  24. All that Government spending, and none of it goes to the DMV. The staff also look to be tortured as they grudginly “assist” each person. Maybe under the counter they’re shackled to their work stations? One things for sure, they’ve all been sent to a communist country for customer service training. I feel your pain and hope you can claim those months back on your life.

  25. I have had a nightmare time at the California DMV recently too – I bought a small boat with a trailer. I got the boat pink slip, but the previous owner had lost the trailer title. At the DMV, we told them as much, they registered the boat in my name (having me pay tax on the purchase price) and told me to have the previous owner fill out a particular title transfer form. A week later, I came back in with that form signed by the previous owner, but this time they gave me grief for not having a purchase price on the trailer so they could charge me tax. I told them I’d already paid tax the week before, on the boat+trailer. They asked why in the world would I not have separated out the values of the boat and trailer? (I was just doing what they told me to do). Anyway they had me write out a full statement on what had been done to that point and allowed me to register the trailer. Two weeks later I got ALL of the paperwork from that day back in the mail, saying that I’d submitted the wrong form from the previous owner, please get a different form signed by him and bring that in. I haven’t been back, as I fear that would be bad for my health.

  26. Oh man the DMV in SF is horrrrrrible. That picture brings back a lot of bad memories! Fortunately I haven’t had to go in for several years but I won’t be able to renew by mail the next time my license expires so I’ll be going through DMV hell all over again myself. I’ve heard that making appointments over the phone is better than their online system and gets you in faster because I’ve heard stories about people not being able to get appointments for 2-3 months!

  27. I feel ya man!

    Just went to the DMV to renew my tabs, come to find out that my personal property tax payment for 2010 had my Jeep listed as a 2003 instead of a 2005. They said “oh sorry, you have to go to the county offices and get that changed!”.

    Luckily the lines weren’t long anywhere I went, it was just a pain to have to run to a bunch of places to get all of the correct documents.

  28. Andrea @SoOverDebt

    We don’t have DMVs in Kentucky, and after reading this post, I’m glad we don’t! When I need to renew my registration (which I actually need to do), I just go to the county clerk’s office inside the courthouse and say, “Hey Janet, I need to write you a check.” She looks up, sees me, and responds, “Girl, you never come down here unless you want something! Let me see how much we’re ripping you off this time.” She pulls me up in the computer while hitting me up for the latest gossip, I pay her and promise to tell my parents she said hi, and I’m back home within about 15 minutes. The joys of small town living!

    1. What? NO DMV in Kentucky?! I am sure there are cars where you live!

      That is a joy of small town living. Low home prices, less population, easier to do things. Sign me up, 3 months of the year!

  29. Haha, good story Sam and sorry you had to waste your afternoon, but you did get to learn about dry aging beef so it wasn’t completely bust. I’ve only been to the DMV here in Bangkok once and while I thought it was going to be like the nightmare you explained it was actually a quick and painless 15 minute process. Even though there has to be like 20 million cars in Bangkok there were no more than 15 people at the DMV that day. I think it’s because most Thais just drive with or without a license :)

    I do get to have my fun at immigration every 90 days though. I think they try, but communication is difficult and like the DMV people they will not volunteer information so sometimes you end up waiting only to be sent back to the beginning of the queue because you are missing a form or stamp.

    1. Your comment about immigration brought a big smile to my face. I was in Laos a few years ago and wanted to extend my 30 day visa by 5 days. I filled out the form and dropped off my passport and they said to come back in 2 hours. I came back in 2 hours and when I got to the front of the line – the person picked up my passport and form – did whatever he needed to do – and gave me back my passport with the extension. What I’m saying is nothing happened during the 2 hours my passport sat with the clerk!

        1. No I do not think so, I think they probably never do anything until you return. Once he picked when we returned it only took 2 minutes so I have no complaints.

          When you leave Laos they always get a few dollars and a few extra if you happen to be leaving on a weekend day – I think the border people in Laos “earn” some of the highest salaries in the country.

  30. Must just be the way it is in California. The last time I was at the DMV (we call it BMV here in Indiana), I was in and out in 7 minutes. Got license and registration for my vehicles. I got there earlier in the day about 9:30 and there were 6 people waiting to help customers. There were only 2 of us.

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