GPS Required to Navigate the Department of Transportation

Today we welcome back our Philly Phood Blogger, Derrick.    This post is more food for thought than food you’d eat, but an important story for those considering relocating to another State, or the USA from Canada.  There’s a lot to chew on we’ll say from our time at the Department of Transportation (DOT).  

Also with each post I include a song to heighten your emotional experience of reading said post (making it more like a real life musical).   The song & video are at the bottom of each post, or just click here to start today’s song!


When relocating, one of the first things you have to do is get a driver’s license from the State you’re living in so you can be properly insured and align with policy.   This seemed like a relatively straightforward process; more of a formality, since we had full licenses in Ontario.  No driving tests required.  Boy, was I ever wrong.

Our relocation specialist, Robyn, had sent me everything we needed to have prepared to get our local license: Social Security Number (SSN), original license from Ontario, completed Department of Transportation (DOT) form, I-94 (which shows our immigration visa status).   I got everything ready and organized in a neat file folder.

We booked an afternoon to go to the downtown Philly office.  I was discouraged as soon as I walked through the door.  It looked like there was a driver’s license emergency or something, as there must have been 300 people waiting ahead of us.  I got our numbers from a surely security guard (who I named Mr. Friendly), and found a seat.

IMG_0518The number was C734 & C736.  The digital counter said that they were serving C825.  That doesn’t make sense.  Mr. Friendly explains that the numbers roll over at C899 to C600 (what kind of numbering system is that?).  My energy sinks as I realize that approximately 200 people are ahead of us.  We found seats, and started counting down the clock.

When you spend your time waiting (2.5 hours to be exact), you notice the little but annoying things around you.  That guy that keeps tapping his leg, the middle aged woman who sings outloud to her iPhone much too loudly.   You come to wonder if you’re in some kind of social experiment.  But the most fascinating thing to me was Mr. Friendly. Every so often, Mr Friendly would disappear and the lineup would start going out the door.  I couldn’t understand why.  Where had Mr. Friendly gone? Did he have to go to the bathroom?  How many breaks does he get?  A flash sale at Stella’s pizza?

I made a game of it, and started timing and looking for Mr. Friendly.  Quickly, I saw the pattern and the cause: He was having a smoke break every 15 minutes for 5 minutes each time.

The clock reached 4pm and I was starting to get nervous since DOT closed at 4:30pm.  There was no way that they could get through everyone in time, let alone Mike and I.  As if reading my worried face, Mr. Friendly stands to address the crowd.  I panic thinking he’s going to say come back tomorrow.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, the doors are now closed, but don’t worry you: will all be served.  And thank you to each and every one of you for coming today…” Mr. Friendly pauses.  Relief washes across my face.  We’re almost at the finish line.  Mr. Friendly continues, “After 4:30 we get paid time and a half overtime!” and then walks away to have another break.
IMG_0517After what seems hours stuck in purgatory, our numbers get called.  Mike and I are at booths right beside each other.  Carl, who serves me, seems like a good guy.  I  give him all of my extensive paperwork.  I am prepared for this.  Carl starts typing away.  I do an eye test.  He types some more.  Things look positive.  I look over to Mike and see that he’s done, successfully with his temporary card.  Good, but Mike’s should have been more complicated since he didn’t have a SSN.  What’s taking so long?

It turns out that DOT checks immigration status with a system called SAVE, which is maintained by Homeland Security.  Mike, who is here based on my visa, is verified.  Me on the other had – I get an error and the system states “Does not Verify” with no reason as to why…  Okay, so what are the options?  a) I can chose to escalate up to Harrisburg (the capital of Pennsylvania) where it will take up to 4 weeks to hear back.  Or, b) I can come back in a week and see if the verification works at that point (just in case the SAVE system didn’t synchronize properly with immigration).   I chose to come back in a week.

Frustrated, we head back home, defeated by the bureaucratic juggernaut named the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. DOT 1.  Derrick 0.

Before returning to DOT the following Friday, I call Customs and Border protection, who say that they can’t help me because my I-94 is correct and matches my passport.  I call immigration, and they can’t help me either because my paperwork is correct.  All looks good.  I call SAVE to speak to an agent.  They say they can’t help me directly because they can only connect with agencies using the system (like DOT).  What they do tell me is to have Carl call them and SAVE will be able to explain what the issue is.  Finally, a hopeful sign.

It’s now the following Friday, and I’m back at DOT.  I say hi to Mr. Friendly and gives me my number without looking up.  Today, there’s only 100 people ahead of me, but I have an ace up my sleeve: Carl said I can bypass the line and go directly to him. I head to Carl’s counter and… No Carl.  It turns out he’s on vacation today.  I have to sit it out in line.

1.5 hours pass by.  Mr. Friendly continues to take his breaks every 15 minutes.   I’m hoping I can get called by the person who helped Mike out, Jane, but instead I get someone who wasn’t there last Friday: Doug.

I explain everything to Doug and give him my paperwork.  He doesn’t seem to know what to do as he hasn’t worked with someone who’s on my type of VISA before.  He pulls out a job aid to explain what he needs to do.  I may be in luck here.  Let’s see if SAVE works… Doug tries it while I wait without breathing and hoping that I never have to see this office ever again…

Another “Does not verify”.  I tell him to call the SAVE office and hand him the number.  Doug refuses to call saying that only people in Harrisburg can call SAVE.  He converses with his supervisor and they come up with the same options as last week: a) Escalate to Harrisburg and wait 4 weeks or b) come back in a while.  I decide to escalate to Harrisburg as I don’t think that SAVE will save me at this point.  Doug starts the additional paperwork, and says “Where’s your employment verification?”  I hand him my offer letter.  Doug tells me “This letter is too old, you need current verification.”  I told Doug that Carl didn’t need it, but I have it in electronic format.  I ask if I can I email it, since he would scan it anyway.   I get a prompt “No.  come back in the morning with the letter.”

Defeated, I cower back, and leave.  The bureaucracy has won again.  DOT 2, Derrick 0.

Saturday morning, 14 hours later: I’m up early and eager to get to DOT before they open to avoid a line.  When I get there, it turns out 30 people had the same idea.  I say hello to Mr. Friendly who hands me a number (and within 10 minutes is on a break again).  My number is called and I get helped by the same person who did Mike’s application, Jane.  I feel hopeful that today is my day.

She remembers me, and says that employment verification is not required.  Doug could have processed everything the day before, but he was looking at an out of date policy job aid (…Great).  SAVE of course doesn’t work but I resigned myself to escalate to Harrisburg (whatever that means). Jane processes everything swiftly.  Only 1 hour in the DOT office today.  I have to come back once I get a letter back from Harrisburg, as it simply gives me approval to have a PA license.  Ugg – one more visit.  This battle is not a complete win for me, but it’s looking up.  DOT 2.  Derrick 0.5.

Three weeks go by, and the letter finally comes in.  I’ve been verified! The next morning, I stroll into DOT.  Jane’s there, and she lets me bypass the line (which otherwise would have taken another hour).  I’ve never been so happy to see a government employee in my life!  I’m holding my breath as she processes the paperwork.  She rescans everything again, and… it all goes through!

I thank Jane, take my photo, and  elation rushes through me.  I’ve won the war with DOT and the deeply entrenched bureaucracy.  After 4 visits and 7 hours, I have my license.

With my brand new shiny temporary license in hand, it’s time to refocus for the next battle at hand: Getting my vehicle registered in Pennsylvania.

Lessons Learned: If you’re moving to Pennsylvania from out of state, I recommend that you don’t visit the Philadelphia DOT Office as it’s always packed.  Go to a suburb as we hear it’s much swifter.  Be prepared for a delay (or 4) even if you have all your paperwork.   Lastly: Just escalate to Harrisburg.


Song of the Day: I Drove All Night (Celine Dion)

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