Clarence Fanto: Renewing a license? You're in good standing (around) with others

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LENOX — Have you tried renewing your driver's license lately? It can be a multi-hour ordeal, and there's a chance you'll be sent home when you get to the front of the line because you're missing the necessary documents.

I became interested in what many people have reported as a nightmarish experience, even though my own renewal deadline is still 14 months away.

Obvious basics: Licenses must be renewed every five years on your birthdate. The Massachusetts RMV will send a personalized postcard reminder a month ahead of time, letting you know if you're eligible to renew online. If you are, and you don't need one of those newfangled Real ID licenses, that's the way to go. In some cases, you'll start your renewal online (mass.gov/ID) and finish it at a Registry of Motor Vehicles-authorized facility.

Do not wait until the expiration date to take action. Plan ahead.

Maybe you all know this, but I didn't: You can renew your license up to one year before the date it expires. But you can only complete an online renewal once every 10 years, because the registry wants a current photo as well as a vision test, or a document signed by a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist.

A sheaf of documents is needed to renew, and none can be laminated. Current driver's license, one document proving citizenship (certified copy of a birth certificate, a currently valid passport or a certificate of citizenship) and one document proving Massachusetts residency (current license or registration, a mortgage or lease bill dated within 60 days, or a utility bill, credit card statement or medical statement). You also need a Social Security, card because the state requires a document showing all nine digits of your number.

If you're renewing in person, don't go Mondays, Fridays or near the end of the month, since wait times are longer.

If you need a Real ID (necessary to fly domestically or enter a federal building starting in October 2020, even more documents are needed, or you can use a valid passport, the simplest solution if you have one.

The registry urges customers to read the information at mass.gov/ID to help them decide what type of credential they want and what documents they need to bring to the RMV to get that credential.

Even if you'll need to go to a registry office, the advice is to complete what the state calls the Get Ready preparation online. Continue until you get a confirmation page with a QR code or barcode. This will be used in the RMV to populate all of your information instantly.

Here's what I consider the most useful tip of all: If you're with AAA, you can do most registry transactions at the AAA 660 Merrill Road office in Pittsfield, either for a standard renewal or a Real ID document. That alone is well worth the annual membership fee. The lines are shorter (at least, they have been up to now). In my experience, the customer service is friendly and they're even open Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

If you've been reading about half-day or all-day waits in registry lines, know that those backups have been mostly in Central and Rastern Massachusetts. The problem has been the complications involved in getting a Real ID. A practical solution would have been to create separate lines for those only needing standard license renewals.

Also, married women wanting a Real ID who took their husband's last name, obviously different from the maiden name on their birth certificate, need to bring their marriage certificate. Since four specific documents are needed to obtain the Real ID, much more advance prep is needed. It seems like a bureaucratic jungle.

State officials, prodded by Gov. Charlie Baker, contend that reports of humongous lines are either exaggerated or outdated. Statewide, they say, 21 percent of customers suffered in line for more than an hour in early June. By the last week of the month, they say, only 10 percent faced delays of more than 60 minutes. Without any way to verify those claims, I'll take the RMV at its word.

My final advice: Although it's hard to muster a smile after enduring such a long wait, be sure to do it when they take your picture. Otherwise, like me, you'll spend the next 10 years carrying around a photo that looks like a screenshot from a hostage video — you know, the time you were held for hours at the RMV.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter @BE_cfanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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