I had to visit the DMV today to replace a lost driver’s license. Due to the short notice, I was not able to visit with a planned appointment. Here’s my guide for navigating the DMV.

How it works

The DMV is a two-phase system. It goes as follows:

  1. Triage
  2. Processing

When you arrive, the line out the door is for people waiting for the triage desk. The people sitting inside sitting have been triaged and are waiting for processing. There are a couple of triage attendants and over a dozen more for processing. Some desks appear to specialize in certain types of work.

Triage will confirm the purpose of your visit and make sure you have the appropriate documents. When you arrive, you will have to go through triage, and based on your need, they’ll add you to a certain queue. Appointments go through an expedited line and might also have a priority queue. Servicing each guest at the triage desk takes under a minute.

Processing is what you go to the DMV for. In my case today, the attendant confirmed my identity and filed the paperwork to issue a new ID. Servicing each guest at a servicing desk takes between 5 and 15 minutes.

How to be efficient at the DMV

The golden rule: make an appointment for when the DMV opens

If you have an appointment:

The DMV is a two-phase system and each part can become a bottleneck. The DMV is staffed so that once at capacity, each phase can process people at the same rate. For example, let’s process 100 people:

Once at capacity, the throughput of each part is the same. This is where the trick to an efficient DMV appointment lies.

Processing is downstream of triage, and it takes longer for processing to be at capacity. Fifteen people will make a line at triage, but processing can do them all at once. The trick is to get through triage early enough so that processing has not reached capacity. Once it does, the arrival rate is usually too high throughout the day for another opportunity to open up.

When the DMV opens, there’s a line around the building - but most of these people will not have appointments. If you have an appointment for the opening time, you will skip this line via the expedited triage queue and go straight to the processing desk. Then, because you are one of the first guests in the office, processing is not at capacity yet. You will get called up immediately! Your visit will now only be the time for humans to do the work you need done. This is as efficient as it’s going to get!

If you don’t have an appointment:
If you show up when the DMV opens, you will have a long wait in the triage queue. By the time you complete that, processing will be at capacity and you will have to wait. I’m guessing that the line forms so early that it isn’t worth it.

With that, I don’t think there’s a great trick if you don’t have an appointment. You will have to go through the system at capacity as it’s designed. Your best bet is to try to show up during the lowest arrival rate. If I were to guess, I would say that’s late afternoon.