If you absolutely have to visit the DMV, here’s what to expect

An illustration of a clock.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

For most people who have been through the experience, setting foot in a bricks-and-mortar California DMV field office is not unlike a trip to the dentist — something to be done only when absolutely necessary and only after all other options have been exhausted. That desire for avoidance is stronger right now, with the Golden State recently setting a new one-day record for coronavirus cases.

Visiting the DMV wasn’t an option for a while. In late March, all field offices statewide shuttered in response to COVID-19 concerns. It wasn’t until six weeks later that 25 offices opened back up to appointment-holding customers, and it wasn’t until June 11 that the rest of the field offices were back open for transactions that needed to be completed in person, including behind-the-wheel driving tests (which resumed June 26), applying for a Real ID and reinstating a suspended license.
Now that the DMV field offices are open and rescheduling closure-canceled appointments, what can you expect to find if you’re notified that you’re back on the calendar?

According to a DMV representative, all the previously canceled appointments have been rescheduled, and new appointments are not being offered at this time. But thanks to my scheduled-for-May, rescheduled-for-July appointment to apply for a Real ID, I found those answers — and more — at the Hollywood DMV field office last week. (The Real ID license requirement to board a domestic airline flight, which had been set to go into effect this October — a month after my driver’s license expires — has been pushed to 2021.)

There will be a lot of people

People wait in line outside the DMV field office in Hollywood.
A look at the line along Waring Avenue at the Hollywood DMV field office at 7:45 a.m. on July 16, 15 minutes before the office opened.
(Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times)

7:45 a.m.: I arrived 15 minutes early for my 8 a.m. appointment thinking there wouldn’t be many people at such an early hour. I thought wrong. At 7:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the office was scheduled to open, the line of approximately 140 somewhat-socially-distanced people stretched from just outside the front door at 803 Cole Ave. south to Waring Avenue and then turned north up Wilcox Avenue halfway to Willoughby Avenue. Some people were sitting in lawn chairs. Others were wrapped in sleeping bags. Most of them clutched various DMV forms, and all seemed to have been there for a while. (A visibly pregnant woman, about a dozen spots from the front, let it be known — and loudly — that she’d been there since 4:30 a.m.)
This line, it turns out, was for people who had not made an appointment online in advance. Those who had scheduled an appointment — and had their appointment confirmation number in hand (either on paper or screen) — could queue up in one of the half-dozen taped-off, six-feet-apart spots on the sidewalk near the front door of the DMV.

Here’s helpful hint No. 1: Bring proof of your appointment with you — and if you don’t have one, bring comfortable shoes and perhaps a book to read. (Another piece of advice: Wear a mask; the security guard out front isn’t interested in your treatise on personal liberty.)

You will carry one piece of yellow paper everywhere

8:00 a.m.: Properly masked and having provided my appointment confirmation number, I was ushered from my taped-off spot on the sidewalk through the front door at the click of 8 a.m. I was met by an employee in full protective gear (including a face shield and gloves) who found my name on an appointment list and asked for my eight-digit electronic confirmation number. This number, which is not the same as the appointment number at the top of my email from the DMV, was what I should have received after completing my driver’s license renewal application online. Because I was unable to furnish said eight-digit confirmation number, I was directed to a small room in the back to complete one online, a piece of highlighter-yellow paper in hand.

This room, where written tests are usually administered, had five available kiosks (not unlike voting booths) with caution tape cordoning off the rest to ensure social distancing. I was pointed to one where I filled out an application on a computer and jotted the resulting code on the yellow piece of paper. I handed the piece of paper to a masked employee who wrote a service number on it (this was the number I’d wait to hear called and assigned to a window in the larger room), while another masked (and gloved) employee sprayed and wiped down the keyboard and computer mouse I’d been using. The downside of not having that confirmation code was a 10-minute detour.

Helpful hint No. 2: If you can fill out any DMV forms online in advance, do so — and make note of the eight-digit confirmation code.

A COVID-era dentist’s appointment means fewer people, more layers and possibly a new tool or two.


(In full disclosure, I might have shaved a few minutes off this time had I not dithered around trying to decide what color option best described the hair I no longer have — brown or gray — only to realize that “bald” was the very last choice. How long has that been an option?)

There is nonstop cleaning in progress

8:10 a.m.: I took a seat in one of the dozen chairs lining the perimeter of the room at six-foot intervals. Tape on the floors marked the direction of traffic flow as well as where and how far apart to stand. A roving security guard cautioned those who strayed too far or stood too close, and an employee wearing a face mask, gloves and black mini-apron (embroidered with the DMV logo, which was a nice touch) would spray and wipe down each chair the moment it was vacated. This happened about seven or eight times in the 14 minutes before I was called to window 7.

People inside the Hollywood DMV field office.
Masked customers wait in line at the Hollywood DMV office, left, with a security guard, center, and a DMV employee spraying and wiping down chairs.
(Adam Tschorn / Los Angeles Times)

8:24 a.m.: I handed the woman on the other side of the counter my yellow piece of paper and the supporting documents for my Real ID driver’s license application. (In an effort to speed this process, copies of these documents can be uploaded to the DMV in advance, although hard copies still must be presented at the time of your appointment.) The attendant at window 7 told me that since the office reopened, she interacted with 20 to 25 customers a day — about half the number that appeared at her window each day before the field offices shut down in late March.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says salons and barbershops can offer personal cares services, as long as they do it outdoors.

After she processed my application, she asked me to place my right thumb on a fingerprint scanner and read several lines from an eye chart above her head. She jotted something on the yellow piece of paper, handed it back to me, and sent me to have my photograph taken while she photocopied my passport, Social Security card and the two utility bills I brought as supporting proof-of-address documents.

You might be maskless for all of five seconds, tops

8:29 a.m.: I was standing behind two other people — the longest line so far — waiting to have my photograph taken. Within five minutes, I stepped up to the desk and handed my yellow slip of paper to the fellow on the other side of the counter as he finished wiping down a thumbprint reader, a signature-recording touchscreen and a stylus. At his request, I pressed my right thumb on the reader, signed my name on the touchpad with the stylus, and then stepped off to my right and in front of the camera.

He asked me to doff my mask and stare straight ahead. I did both. The camera clicked, and less than five seconds later, my mask was back in place. The yellow slip of paper was back in my hand, and I headed back to window 7.

It’ll go faster than you might expect

8:35 a.m.: Back at my original window, I handed off that yellow piece of paper one more time. In exchange for that — and a check covering the cost of the driver’s license renewal — I received my supporting documents and a computer-printed interim driver’s license, which is valid for two months. (I was told I should expect my Real ID driver’s license to arrive by mail within about two weeks.) I made a beeline for the front door.

Outside, the line snaking around the corner and down the street seemed to have barely moved. A food truck had pulled into a parking spot across from the front door. I got in my car and drove around the block. The line of waiting people had extended farther up Wilcox Avenue toward Willoughby Avenue. I glanced at my watch. It was 8:38 a.m. on a Thursday morning in mid-July, and I felt like I had just set a land speed record at the Hollywood DMV field office.