The beauty of bureaucracy — Or how to get a driver’s license in 7 minutes

If it works it can be beautiful: bureaucracy. In one of the most enjoyable, painless, and smooth encounters with a U.S. state office, I finally obtained a U.S. driver’s license. Having had a German* one for years it just seemed to be a matter of hitting the right state to get it recognized without much ado.

I remember in Ohio fellow German students reported they had to take a driving test and a written theory test. Somehow that didn’t appeal to me. I put it off. I tried biking (too hilly), ended up walking a lot, and hopped onto the free university shuttles. Plus, J. had a car if we needed to leave town.

In Maryland an alcohol knowledge test was needed in a far way obscure office. Plus, the website explaining the process suggested I would have to give up my German license while holding the Maryland one. No way. You might know that in Germany it takes months of mandatory practical and theoretical driving classes and a couple of thousand dollars to get the precious little card. It is often given as a gift from parents or grandparents for a kid’s 18th birthday. And it’s good for life. But an early application for the Maryland license never solicited a response from officials. So be it, I thought. I continued walking; I biked a lot and loved it; and I was lucky and always very thankful to enjoy the generosity of fellow students to give me rides whenever needed. (For instance, one needs a person with a car waiting outside the dental surgery office to be allowed to have wisdom teeth pulled.)

Finally, in Washington I couldn’t believe my luck: the website suggested I just needed my German driver’s license and other “sources of identification.” Well, as any international student knows, we are peppered with identification documents. I have an entire folder labelled “immigration history.” To confirm the too-good-to-be-true information I called their office. Yep, even being German, the identifications was all I needed. Oh, and $80, in cash preferably. Well…

Ten minutes before closing I made it to the office (again thanks to a ride by J.) I stood in line to be assigned a waiting number for about two minutes. One more minute until my number was called. I was a bit nervous if my fine plan would truly work out. Watching too many Simpsons episodes with the grumpy and mean Patty and Selma working at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) has media-socialized me to think that ALL DMV officers just want to NOT give you licenses.

But a very friendly lady looked over my German driver’s license and passport, pulled up some other data, and administered a quick eye-sight test. I handed her $80 and got a receipt. It took three minutes. With another little paper pile I shuffled a few feet further down the line for a photo. Another minute and I held my first U.S. driver’s license in my very own hand: a black-and-white paper card with a temporary license number. And the promise that the hard plastic card will arrive in the mail in the coming weeks. It was over in a flash after years of pondering and postponing.

To cite Hannibal: I love it when a plan comes together!


*It just works with “privileged” driver’s licenses from certain countries such as Germany, France, and South Korea. I’m very mindful of the fact that my — often cited — friend from Bangladesh has a very different experience as do many other international students or people from abroad, let alone undocumented persons.

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2 responses to “The beauty of bureaucracy — Or how to get a driver’s license in 7 minutes

  1. Hey there,
    thanks for sharing. I’m a German citizen, but doing my PhD in Maryland and am running into just that exact problem. I am not going to give up my license.. Quick question: when you say “Washington”, are you talking DC or Wash State? Also, did you get it there once you moved away from MD, or did you just get it in Washington and continued living in MD? I”m trying to figure out what to do..

    Thanks for the help and thanks for sharing. It’s good to know others have similar problems. I enjoyed reading your blog!

    • Hi Ela, yes, I mean Washington state, i.e. not Washington D.C. I don’t know how the rules are for D.C. since I have never tried there. It might be worth checking that out if you are living in the D.C. city limits. Perhaps they make it a bit easier than Maryland? I am glad if some of my writings can be of help to others. Good luck on your license!

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