Motor vehicle offices are a particular sort of urban hell where people spend hour after hour waiting — waiting to take a number, waiting to have a photograph snapped, waiting to take a vision test, waiting to be called to a clerk’s window.
All to get or renew a driver’s license.
Now, as many unhappy applicants are finding out, it’s even worse. A new federal security requirement is forcing drivers who want to use their license to board a commercial flight to apply for renewals or new licenses in person at a motor vehicle office.
The new so-called Real ID license has sent “unprecedented crowds” to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles office in Midtown Manhattan, one of the busiest in the state, according to a top agency official.
“It was agonizing and extremely frustrating,” said Tony Monteleone, an executive with a business-to-business website who spent seven hours at a motor vehicle office in Manhattan to obtain a Real ID license. “I was on vacation. At one point I said to myself, ‘How long could it take?’ Who knew that it was going to take all day?”
While acknowledging that wait times at motor vehicle offices have increased as a result of the new licenses, state officials were unable to provide precise figures. But many applicants have complained of hours long waits with some having left offices exasperated and with no license.
Across New York, motor vehicle offices issued 87,605 Real ID licenses in January. Before the new rule was put in place, the vast majority probably could have been processed without a trip to a motor vehicle office.
The new licenses, intended to make air travel safer, threaten to undercut efforts to shorten lines at motor vehicle agencies nationwide. In recent years, more states have streamlined the driver’s license process, allowing renewals by mail and online.
The requirement means that starting Oct. 1, only people with Real ID compliant drivers’ licenses — which require far more stringent proof of identity than standard licenses — can use them as identification on domestic airline flights and at certain federal facilities.
Passengers who do not have Real ID licenses will be turned away unless they have a passport. The same rule applies at military bases and some federal office buildings.
The Real ID law, passed by Congress in 2005, made state motor vehicle employees responsible for verifying applicants’ residences through utility bills or bank statements, their Social Security numbers and U.S. citizenship or other legal residency status.
Most Americans are confused about the Real ID requirements, according to a survey conducted for the U.S. Travel Association last summer.
Since then, awareness and the sense of urgency about obtaining a Real ID has increased, in part because many motor vehicle agencies have promoted the Real ID designation — and the need to visit a motor vehicle office in person — on social media.
In California, where waiting times at motor vehicle offices jumped as much as 46 percent from 2017 to 2018, Real ID was a focus of a “D.M.V. reinvention strike force” ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom after he took office in January 2019.
In Maryland, which began issuing Real ID licenses in 2016, more than a million motorists who already had them had to return to their motor vehicle offices because of administrative errors — their identification documents had not been copied the first time around.
In New York, Real ID transactions have increased nearly 575 percent since November 2017, when the agency first began issuing the licenses.
Undocumented immigrants, who under a New York State law that went into effect late last year are now eligible for driver’s licenses, cannot get Real ID licenses.
The Department of Motor Vehicles has tried to manage the verification process by offering appointments. But between now and the end of May, appointments are available on only a few days at three of the agency’s biggest offices — in Midtown Manhattan, Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. The agency’s website has not yet offered appointments for after May 31.
In New Jersey, the scheduling system has drawn complaints. Drivers who want an appointment must first send an email to the Motor Vehicle Commission, which replies with links to dates.
But by the time applicants open the email, the time slots are often no longer available.
“Appointments fill up fast,” said William Connolly, the press secretary for the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. More than 200,000 New Jerseyans have made appointments online.
New Jersey recently began a test program to issue Real ID licenses without appointments, but only to drivers whose licenses are set to expire within three months.
“It is clear to us that right now, demand outstrips the number of available Real ID appointments,” Sue Fulton, the motor vehicle commission’s chief administrator, said in a statement.
In New York, Lisa Koumjian, an assistant commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles, said the agency had moved to “manage crowds created by these new, more onerous requirements.” She said some offices had been reconfigured to maximize the number of customers they can handle.
She also said the agency had hired 400 additional employees and assigned them to offices downstate. In addition, some offices are adding Saturday hours and lengthening weekday hours. She also said the agency was working on an online document verification system to make the process “as efficient and painless as possible.”
In New York, many applicants said the time it took for agency employees to complete the initial steps, including taking a photograph and conducting a vision test, was usually tolerable. But afterward, the wait became painfully long, often lasting several hours, before they were called to a clerk’s window.
Harry Lustgarten, who is 20 and a junior at Adelphi University, arrived at the Midtown Manhattan office at 8:15 a.m. on a Tuesday. At 10:45 a.m., he gave up and left.
“I’ve had enough,” he said. “Frustration. That’s how I’d describe the feeling.”
Fortunately, he said, he has a passport.
The Real ID law was apparently the first to set nationwide rules for drivers’ licenses. For generations, each state had set its own rules for granting a license.
The requirement was one of many moves by the federal government to strengthen identification procedures after Sept. 11, 2001, in part because some of the 9/11 hijackers had obtained drivers’ licenses based on bogus documentation. But the rollout was delayed several times after some states complained about the difficulty in meeting the original implementation deadline of 2008.
As hard as states are trying to ease the inconvenience, lines persist at many motor vehicle offices.
“I was livid,” said Kelly Yu, who spent five hours at the Midtown Manhattan motor vehicle office on a recent weekday before giving up on trading her New Jersey license, which was about to expire, for a New York license with the Real ID feature. “The people around me were livid. It was chaos the entire time.”
Ms. Yu spent part of her waiting time trying to arrange an appointment for a Real ID designation on her cellphone. When she could not schedule an appointment in Manhattan for months, she booked one on Staten Island in two weeks.
She said her father, Eric, who had renewed his license a few months ago, would drive her there.
“Even considering the time it takes to get to Staten Island,” she said, “it will probably be quicker than standing in line at the D.M.V.”