Getting enhanced driver’s license takes patience

Like thousands of other Washington residents, I procrastinated when the time came to apply for new travel documents required since June 1 for land and sea travel between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.

I don’t have a passport or passport card, so I applied for an enhanced driver’s license and identification card issued by the state Department of Licensing.

Since the program began in January 2008, more than 65,600 state residents have forked over $15 for the new ID card that doubles as a driver’s license. That’s not counting the thousands of us flocking this month to the 14 state licensing offices that offer them.

With a trip to British Columbia in the works later this summer, I figured I had better not delay any longer.

The card, which confirms both your identity and your citizenship, requires an applicant to show the licensing agent proof of citizenship, identity and residence. In other words, bring your birth certificate and driver’s license and a utility bill or some other document to prove residency to the licensing office.

Here in Thurston County, the Lacey licensing office is my only option. Walk in the door, take a number and wait. The Parkland office at 2502 112th St. E. is nearest to Tacoma.

I arrived eight minutes after the office opened Wednesday and had 21 people in front of me waiting to apply.

I sat down next to Joe Garden, owner of Joe’s Cars & Trucks of Tenino. He had number 14.

“I came last week but got number 85, so I left,” Garden said. “Then I went to the state licensing office in Centralia, but they don’t do the enhanced driver license.”

For the record, neither does the Shelton office.

After two hours of waiting, Garden turned to me and said, “Guess I should have brought my lunch – lunch and a sleeping bag, maybe.”

Suddenly, the dozen or so of us applicants all were called to the counter to show our IDs in a bid to speed up the first step, which is verification of our documents. I was in for a rude awakening.

I had a certificate of birth from Mason General Hospital in Shelton, not a state-approved birth certificate. I was sent packing.

“The No. 1 reason people get rejected is because they arrive at the office without the right documents,” DOL spokeswoman Selena Davis said when I explained my plight. And mistaking a hospital certificate of birth for a real birth certificate is one of the most common mistakes.

Common mistake No. 2 is having documents with different names on them, which can happen easily to a woman who takes her husband’s last name and shows up at the office with no accompanying document to explain the discrepancy. A copy of a marriage certificate helps clear the way in those cases.

Still reeling from my rejection, I headed to the state Department of Health’s vital statistics office in Tumwater. I filled out a short form and paid $20, and within two minutes, I had a certified copy of my birth certificate.

“We try to be quick,” customer service specialist Chris Duncan said.

Mission accomplished.

I returned to the Lacey licensing office Thursday, one hour before the doors opened. The only other person waiting outside was Lynn Villella, an Olympia waitress and musician who showed up at the Lacey office at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, was 42nd in line and left rather than be late for lunch-hour work.

Just like me, Villella decided being at the front of the line was the way to go. By the time the door opened, there were 40 or so people queued up behind us for EDLs, regular driver’s licenses and driver’s license renewals.

Within minutes, a clerk called my number and took my driver’s license and birth certificate to check my citizenship and ID. About 20 minutes later, I was called back up for an eye exam, then ushered into an interview room to answer about a dozen questions such as: Where was my father born? What is my full name? When was I born?

I wrote a check for $40 to cover both the EDL and renewal of my driver’s license, which expires in October.

It’s all one document, and it will be good for five years.

Then it was back out to the main room for a new photo, and I was on my way, all within 50 minutes, which is about two or three hours quicker than the average wait of late for the EDL identification card.

“Last Saturday, we had 72 people show up for their EDL, and the office is only open six hours on Saturday,” office supervisor Jane Andrew said. “Some people were turned away.”

The statewide licensing offices equipped to issue enhanced driver’s licenses averaged about 2,000 visitors a month until May, when the number jumped to 10,000, Davis said. June looks like another busy month, she said.

“We expect it to slow down pretty soon,” she said.

The origin of the EDL program can be traced back to our nation’s attempt to beef up border security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which, in turn, led to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

The initiative requires citizens to carry standard documents to reliably prove their identity and citizenship at border crossings back into the U.S.

The enhanced driver’s license is enhanced in two ways:

 • A digital photo on the card uses facial biometric technology that focuses on facial features that are difficult to alter.

 • A wireless radio frequency technology is loaded into the card with a unique reference number that a border officer can read and verify.

The combined driver’s license and ID card should arrive in the mail in about three weeks. That’s cutting it close for Villella, who hopes to travel to Vancouver, B.C, in early July for the International Jazz Festival.

Me? My trip to British Columbia won’t be until late August or early September, long after I should have my new card in hand.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444