It was something I had been dreading for months: my driver’s license expires in November and I had to renew it.

But, Oklahoma has gone to the REAL ID system, a nationwide system that federal officials say is designed to ensure uniformity and safety among the country’s driver’s licenses, probably the most common form of ID for the average citizen. So, instead of simply popping into the tag agency and getting a new picture for a new license while ensuring my address hadn’t changed, I was going to have to provide a pile of documentation so I could get a REAL driver’s license. And, I had been hearing stories.

I could have opted out; the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety allows you to get a traditional license rather than a REAL ID, and Mary McKinzie, who runs the Comanche County Tag Agency, said about half of her customers have taken that route. But, my sister (and most of my other relatives) live on the East Coast, and if I didn’t want to have drive halfway across the country every time I wanted to see my sister, I was going to need a REAL ID or spend extra money on a passport so I can get on an airplane.

I chose REAL ID. And, I got my first piece of good advice from someone who already had been through the process: make an appointment. McKinzie and her office manager Irene Cardona confirmed that advice: those with appointments go to the front of the line; those without must wait for an opening, and that wait could be two hours or more.

With an appointment set, I went to the Department of Public Safety’s website (oklahoma.gov/dps.html) and pulled up a copy of the three categories of ID that I would have to provide when I arrived for my appointment. That’s when I started grinding my teeth. Secondary ID is easy: it can be a copy of last year’s income tax return, a current utility bill in my name, documentation from the Social Security Administration (my yearly confirmation of benefits, for example), the deed to my house, a W-2 form with my Social Security Number, or even my Social Security Card (the staff was amazed by the simplicity of my 50-year-old card).

What set my teeth on edge was requirement number one: proof that I was lawfully in the U.S. For me — an American born of American parents in an American state — that is a birth certificate. I have birth certificate. It’s the one my parents were given when I was born. It’s the one my father, a member of the U.S. Air Force, used to prove I was his dependent for more than 20 years. It’s the one I used to apply for other documentation I needed throughout my life. But in Oklahoma, it’s not a “real” birth certificate because it was issued by the Michigan county where I was born, not the state. I found out the hard way Oklahoma doesn’t consider it “real” when I stupidly allowed my driver’s license to expire several years ago, and the young lady at the tag agency I was using looked at it, then tossed it back at me after telling me it wasn’t real and I couldn’t use it to renew my license.

I now have a copy of a birth certificate issued by State of Michigan to ensure that never happens again. I took both of my birth certificates (new and old) to the tag agency, along with more documentation than I knew I needed. If something got tossed out, I’d have backup because I wasn’t going through this process more than one time.

I arrived seven minutes early and got my first surprise: I had to wait only a minute or two before being summoned back because I had an appointment. And, the ladies who helped me with the process seemed to be impressed with my organizational skills for my documentation. The knot that I had carried in my stomach for most of the week eased.

Irene Cardona explained to me more clearly than the young girl had years before what the problem was with my original birth certificate.

“For REAL ID, it has to be state-issued,” she said, explaining Oklahoma law sets that specification and I wasn’t the only resident who has run into problems: the older you are, the more likely you have a birth certificate that doesn’t meet the state definition (for example, they are issued by the hospital, the county or even the doctor if you were born at home).

After sorting though my documents and selecting three others, the ladies scanned them into their machine while they explained the new licensing process to me. The longer time associated with the new licensing process is directly linked to that scanning: it all goes to a central data base in Oklahoma City and with everyone in the state sending to the same location, you have to wait your turn. The delay can be minor or long, depending on whether there is a problem with your documents, or a glitch in the state’s system. Neither happened to me and in between questions, I had my new ID photo and my left index fingerprint taken — both familiar processes from past renewals.

My next surprise: Cardona handed me back my old driver’s license and a paper copy of my new REAL ID. Where’s my new license? Turns out, it won’t be leaving Oklahoma City for a while. Those of us with REAL ID must wait two to four weeks for our new license to arrive in the mail. In the meantime, you can flash your paper license (I have mine carefully folded up in my wallet, in case a police officer needs to see it, but Cardona assured me my information already is in the state system).

I had been warned the process would take at least 30 minutes and could take up to an hour. McKinzie’s staff was done in less than 30 minutes. I didn’t have any of the problems I had been fearing. But, I prepared for the appointment by going on DPS site and reading up on the documentation I would need. McKinzie and Cardona recommend that other applicants do the same.

Other tips:

If you are military, bring your military ID. If you have a passport, bring it. Both are documents that will greatly ease the process.

Make an appointment. McKinzie said while her tag agency will take walk-ins, your wait could be hours. But, there is a $4 fee, payable in advance, associated with making that appointment to ensure you show up for your appointment. Trust me: it’s worth it.

If you’re not sure whether your documents meet the criteria, bring them into the tag agency before your appointment day and the staff will review them and tell you whether they will work. That way you won’t waste your appointment.

Above all: “Be patient. We’re doing our best,” said Nancy Davison, owner of the Lawton-Fort Sill Tag Agency.

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