Monday, January 31, 2011

Slaying the DMV Dragon

Moving to Israel involves dealing with bureaucracy. It’s unavoidable said our friends. Be prepared they told us. Be patient. So we braced ourselves and made a list of the Government offices we need to conquer: ministry of absorption (משרד הקליטה), social security (ביטוח לאומי), DMV (משרד הרישוי), Ministry of Interior (משרד הפנים), Customs (מכס) to name a few…

“Customs will likely to be your biggest hurdle” we were told. They ask for statements signed by an attorney, all your old passports, a certificate from the ministry of absorption, and tons of other documents. “You’ll need quite a bit of luck, and don’t expect to get it done in one visit” was the common wisdom.

The Ministry of interior was seamless – the lady at the information desk quickly printed all the information we needed and we were done without having to wait in line. The ministry of absorption was a breeze. We made an appointment, the clerk was very helpful and we got what we needed in half hour or so. Social security doesn’t even trouble you with a visit – they offer many of their services on the web.

That left us with the DMV and the dreaded Customs….

I got my Israeli driving license when I was 18yr old. Passed the driving test on my very first attempt. I got my California driver license almost 20 years ago. With over 30yrs of driving experience and clean record (never got a ticket!) I was confident that the Israeli DMV would be easy to deal with. I didn’t exactly expect a hero’s welcome, but neither did I expect what happened next.

The saga started last October, during a visit I made to Israel. In preparation for the upcoming move back, it seemed like a good idea to get my Israeli license renewed. During my stay in California I didn’t renew my Israeli license. There was no point in paying the Israeli registration fees while I was living in the US. Or so I thought…

The process of converting an American driver license to an Israeli one is described on the Israeli DMV website.  It is pretty “simple” – get an eye exam, a health exam, bring your Israeli passport, your Israeli ID card, a record of all your visits to Israel during the time you lived abroad and your US license. And you’re done…  Believe it or not, but my wife and I managed to collect all the necessary paperwork within a couple of days.

We cheerfully drove to the DMV office, stood in line for 45min and presented the stack of papers to the lady behind the window. She carefully examined the pile of papers, keyed data into her computer and said – “I see you had an Israeli driver license before”, “of course, I passed my very first driving test!” I said. “Well, that’s good, but there is a little problem”, the lady said. “Your California driver license has only been in effect since mid 2009 and I need to see at least 2 yrs of driving history in the US”. I patiently explained that our California driver license has been renewed every 5yrs, and that we actually had it for almost 20yrs, so there shouldn’t be any problem… “Well, I am afraid that’s not enough,” said the lady. “You need to bring a letter from the California DMV, and it must be printed on original letterhead. Please don’t just bring me a print-out off their website.”

Disappointed we wouldn’t get the Israeli driver license during the visit, we assured ourselves that we’ll get it done as soon as we move. The California DMV was quick to furnish the letter we needed and we even found our older driver license. We had all the evidence we needed. Israeli DMV – here we come!

As we prepared for our trip to the Israeli DMV, I wondered where the rest of the paperwork was. “I believe the Israeli DMV lady kept it” said my wife. “But I seem to recall she handed it back to us” said I. “If she handed it back to us, it should have been in the folder we are keeping for all the DMV paperwork” added my wife. “Since it is not in the folder, let’s assume it is with the DMV lady”. I figured we have no choice but to take our chances…

Our second visit to the Israeli DMV happened shortly after we arrived in Israel. We drove to the DMV office with ample proof of our California license and hoped to quickly get our Israeli license issued. Sure enough, we met the same lady. We handed over the California DMV letter, plus our old California driver licenses and waited. “Yes, I remember you guys!” the lady said. “Glad to see that you made it back and managed to obtain the missing docs”. Our hopes rose quite a bit – if she remembered us, it is surely in our favor.

“But where is the rest of the paperwork?” she suddenly asked. The alarm bells rang in the back of my head. “We were hoping you still have it,” I sheepishly said. “Me? Why would I have your papers? I gave them back to you!” said the lady. “We couldn’t find them back in the house”, I said. “Perhaps they were lost in the packing" I suggested. "But then you already examined them last time and loaded all our data into the DMV computer, didn’t you?” I tried to reason with her.  “I did,” said the lady, “but I am afraid I can’t issue your license without the original paperwork. You need to get a new set and come back again.”

Off we went to obtain a new set of documents – another eye exam, and another health exam. We drove back to the Israeli DMV office a few days later, triple checking we have everything we need this time. “The third time is the charm,” I told my wife. “I am sure we’ll get it done this time!”

Stood in the line again, and got to meet the same DMV lady. By now we were old acquaintances… She examined all the paperwork and said, “Yep, you’ve got it all this time”. My wife and I smiled at each other. But our celebration proved to be premature...

“What should we do about the lost paperwork?” asked the lady. “What do you mean? It’s gone. Wasn’t that the whole point about issuing a new set of paperwork?” I firmly said, sensing trouble brewing. “Yes, but I need a proof that you didn’t do anything with the other set of papers”. “Like what?” I asked with astonishment. “Well, some people try to take a driving test and when they fail they claim they lost the paperwork, you know” said the lady. “Why on earth would we do such a thing? Didn’t we tell you the papers were lost during our house packing?” I said with impatience. 

“Well, perhaps you could wait until your household container arrives. You can then look for the missing papers and bring them over as a proof you didn’t do anything with them," she suggested. “We can’t wait that long,” I said. “We need the Israeli driver license so that we can buy a car. We need it now, not in 6-8 weeks!” I was starting to sound desperate.

“Well, then perhaps you can write a request to my department manager," suggested the lady. "He will evaluate it and respond within two weeks,” she was trying to sound helpful.  “We can’t wait two weeks!” I almost yelled. “What can we do to get the license today?” I begged. “Well, if you provide a statement signed by an attorney that you indeed lost the previous paperwork and haven’t taken any other action with it that might suffice,” suggested the lady.

“What time does the DMV close today?" I asked. “We close at 12:30pm sharp” she replied.  My wife and I looked at each other and at the watch. We had 1hr and 45min to get this done. We sprang out of the DMV office, hopped into the rental car and sped back to our house. I quickly typed and printed a declaration whereby we solemnly swear we lost the previous DMV paperwork and have done nothing with it…

Within another 15 min we were at the office of a local attorney we know. He quickly signed the declaration and put his seal on it. Not before warning us we could spend up to 7yrs in prison if our statement is proven to be false. We hopped into the car again and raced back to the DMV office. We made it back shortly after 12pm.

“Oh you’re back” said the lady smiling at us. “Wait a few minutes and I will take a look”. “She’d better not come up with anything else,” I whispered to my wife. Ten minutes later we were done. The coveted Israeli license was printed and in our hands. I almost wanted to hug and kiss the DMV lady. “Wait, before you go…” she said. “Oh no” I thought, what now?  “The license is not valid till you pay the registration fees,” she said. “You can do it at a near by Post Office, or use the self-service station if you have a credit card. It’s cheaper with a credit card,” she added.

I swiped my credit card through the self-service kiosk, punched my ID number and my date of birth – and a shiny, valid driver license receipt came out. I was never so happy to have my credit card charged. Registration fees were ~$100 for 10 years. I quickly calculated I saved about $200 by not renewing my Israeli driver license all these years. Did anyone say “Penny wise and Pound foolish”?

Oh yes,  we made it to the "dreaded" Customs office just before they closed at 2pm. It took us about 10min to get all the documents we needed. I suppose with bureaucracy you should always expect surprises... 


  1. "ministry of absorption"? Seriously? Like they're the Borg.

  2. More like they are helping with the complex and often challenging process of immigrating from another country. Immigration is a national priority for Israel, you know...

  3. אוי ואבוי. אני מקווה שלא נעבור משהו כזה עם הרישיון שלנו בקליפורניה... אתה כותב נהדר. אגב, גם אצלנו המכס היה עניין פשוט ביותר. יש לי סיפור אחר על המכס ביציאה מן הארץ, אבל אני צריך לפתוח בלוג בשביל זה :-)