Illinois DMV doesn’t take Visa cards?

Hey guys running the DMV: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot. Make this an acceptable consumer experience.

I needed to renew my drivers’ license this week. Our DMV is normally only open until 5pm. Fortunately, it is open late on Wednesdays. Unfortunately, Wednesday’s closing time is….. 5:30. Given its inconvenient location, I thus found myself coming home on the 3:58 commuter train.

I got to the DMV in time, only to discover that this is the only place I have ever been that takes credit cards but doesn’t take Visa. And no, since you ask: Unlike my CVS, the local bar and grill, and many other facilities that want your cash money, this large facility serving hundreds or thousands of people every day did not have an ATM machine. While I was there, a stream of baffled drivers asked the cashier, “You don’t you take Visa? Why not?” She had no idea.

It’s no fun living in a badly-governed state, as Illinois certainly is. Of course, the crummy DMV is not as bad as the long waitlist for developmental disability services, the troubled Medicaid program, or Illinois’s worsening projected deficits and unfunded liabilities. It’s still bad, as Keith Humphreys has noted–not least because the DMV exemplifies these other governing failures.

I eventually took the eye test and re-upped my license. I paid my $30.65. I was not a happy camper. I believe in activist government to help the needy, to protect each other against life’s risks, and to tackle large common problems. This humane and necessary vision would be an easier sell if the mechanics of government actually worked the way they were supposed to do.

So guys running the DMV: Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?* Make this an acceptable consumer experience.

(* h/t Brian Cook on the declaratives here.)

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

35 thoughts on “Illinois DMV doesn’t take Visa cards?”

    1. This sounds like a very good reason for them not to accept Visa cards. Indeed, it seems to me that it would be a waste of taxpayers money to take Visa under these circumstances. This seems to be a case of good, responsible management.

      1. It sounds like total b.s. to me.

        My Visa card is my preferred credit card, because I get better rewards on it. I use it about a thousand times a year, at every type of store I can think of, as well as gas stations, hotels, etc., etc., etc.

        Except for Sams Club. They take Visa for on-line purchases, but NOT for in-store purchases. So I use my MasterCard there.

        Why is that? Who knows?

        But is sure as hell ain’t for that b.s. reason.

    2. Sounds like Visa is the culprit here. Saying they want to protect consumers from the surcharge is a bit disingenuous at best. They would rather shift the cost onto businesses than allow them the option to be upfront about the actual transaction cost. That’s good for Visa but nobody else. Gives the illusion of providing a better service and gets consumers hooked on using credit cards because “there’s no cost to it”. All the other major cards provide this option; there’s no reason Visa can’t other than it being the market giant.

    3. Well there you go. Thanks for the link. I’d have done the same thing, if I were in the Illinois DMV’s shoes.

      Also, while it doesn’t soothe the burn of… uh, inconvenience… it’s worth pointing out that not accepting one particular credit card is very different from not accepting any credit cards. If we need the DMV to accept card payments because most people find that more convenient than checks or cash, well, most people have cards for more than one financial company in their wallet.

      If you want to rail against an outrageous and infuriating debit card practice, you should complain about situations where it’s functionally impossible to buy something except with one particular card. For example, how you can only buy tickets to the Olympics with your Visa card.

      1. I don’t know if I’m normal or not, but both my cards have the same logo on them. And I don’t think it’s ever come up before — either places take credit cards/debits or they don’t, usually. I do recall there was one place that only took Amex but I forgot what place it was, since I stopped going there.

        They should put a notice on the DMV homepage that you can’t use your Visa. There’s probably a fee for pretty much anything you do here, and lots of people would expect to be able to pay that way. So I’m with Harold here.

  1. I’m going to do the unthinkable– actually two unthinkables– and stick up for both the Illinois DMV and governance in Illinois.

    I’m not going to make any excuses for the lack of ATMs nearby, but I’ll make one small excuse for the Visa situation. Visa and MasterCard have been gradually using their near-monopoly powers to exact growing and excessive fees from retailers. I don’t know the particulars of the Illinois DMV situation, but refusing to hand over an outrageous cut to Visa would be an acceptable excuse to me.

    Also, my few interactions with the Illinois DMV were outstanding. When I emailed them, I got replies in a matter of minutes and their ID requirements were very reasonable. Contrast that with the State of Texas which has started requiring social security cards– not just the number– to get a driver’s license. (I think this is a state issue, but I’ll welcome corrections.)

    Plus, the State of Illinois is a forerunner, a shining example to the rest of the nation on the important governance issue of dealing with our chief executives. Illinois incarcerates former governors as soon as possible– unlike Texas, which continues to inflict them on the rest of the nation.

    1. Texas did allow me to go back to the DMV with a confirmation from the Social Security Administration that I had applied to receive the card that I had mislaid more than 20 years previously. Silliness partially mitigated.

      On the other hand, the suburban Houston DMV that I went to was set up such that it was impossible to take the driving test on the same day you took the written test, thus guaranteeing at least a two-day DMV experience. Indeed, the line to get a driving test slot was already well established (30+ people, iirc) by 6:30 a.m., for what I think was an 8 a.m. opening time. That place in line got me an afternoon driving test (flying colors, thank you). Generally, you needed to budget a full day for the second day of the experience, in addition to the rather random nature of the first day (standing in line, taking written test, finding out it’s impossible to take the driving test on the same day, etc.)

      Even mid-90s DC, nobody’s idea of good governance, was much simpler and more responsive than that.

      On the other hand, I am told that online renewal is pretty straightforward. I’ll find out in a couple more years.

      1. doug: as a former Dallas resident, I usually found it more time-efficient–or at least less stressful–to drive to another county. It’s a bizarre in a way, having to drive so far, but much better than spending a a day waiting in line. Of course, this was several years ago, so YMMV, so to speak.

        My experience in Los Angeles has been, er, variable. Sometimes in and out in an hour; once a 6 hour ordeal that left by driving home dazed and exhausted. I do like that in California one can make an appointment.

  2. Here in Michigan you can use Visa, Mastercard, or Discover if you go into the office in person or renew by mail. Using the web? Scratch Visa. Who knows why?

    In Michigan, the Secretary of State evidently gets a feed from insurance companies saying you have valid insurance, so you can renew your car registration on the web. Worked fine last year. This year, although the renewal form said I could use the web, when I actually tried to do it I got an error message saying I couldn’t. I tried it twice with the same result, then gave up and mailed it in. I also sent a message using the “Contact Us” form on the SoS website. I got a reply stating essentially “Yeah, we’ve been having some problems with that this year. Here’s an alternate URL to try.” I guess SoS website users are the beta testers for this thing…

    1. Funny. I had the exact same experience with the Michigan DMV this year. In general, though, the DMV here seems more functional than in Maryland or New York. Or at least better staffed.

      1. Yes, I have no great beef with the SoS offices, but then ordinarily I only have to go to the office once every eight years (every other DL renewal, to have my picture taken). The lines move fairly quickly, and the employees are pleasant. I really have no basis for comparison, because I’ve lived in MI almost 34 years now. I mention the Web glitch because it was annoying, but really that’s all it was.

        1. Oh, and while it pains me to admit it, the MI SoS is one case in which replacement of a Dem incumbent with a Rep probably was a good thing. I noticed a real improvement in customer service after Candice Miller replaced Richard Austin (longtime – since sometime in the 60’s or 70’s? incumbent) in the ’94 Republican sweep. I suspect Mr Austin was too comfortable with the way things always were done. In Congress Ms Miller is just another Rep backbench drone, but as SoS she seems to have taken her responsibilities as an administrator seriously.

  3. it’s pretty simple actually, VISA is everywhere you want to be, but you don’t actually want to be at the DMV so VISA is not there.

    But seriously, being a 17 year resident of Chicago, my experiences at the DMV are consistently some of the better interactions with government that i have here. Perhaps things are so totally awful in this state, that when things aren’t totally awful, they seem okay.

    1. Agreed. I moved to Chicago from Tennessee in 2003, and was blown away by the efficiency of the DMV there. I don’t live there anymore, but I went to the one in the loop at the bottom of a federal building (I think) probably three or four times, and it remains the most efficient DMV I’ve ever been to in the US.

  4. Because we vote and therefore believe that the government should serve us, bad behavior by government agencies that are meant to serve the public grate. Of course, one should always ask, has the legislature appropriated enough money to allow the agency to behave reasonably? Sometimes the answer is “no.” As to DMV offices, I’d say my experience in Oregon is that this is one of the better-run agencies I ever deal with. My federal Social Security experiences are more variable–sometimes great, sometimes ridiculous. If I persevere, though, I can straighten them out. But no government agency compares, for incompetence, obfuscation, and sheer nastiness, with private-sector health-insurance companies. No government agency could survive behaving like these companies, who, as is well known, make their money by denying claims, however vital.

  5. The average interchange fee in the EU for a €100 debit card purchase is 0.47% <source: ECB,2011, page 20). Visa and Mastercard continue to operate, grumbling the while, everywhere in Europe. The additional 1.5% paid by US merchants and their customers is pure rent-seeking. A universal private sales tax in a way. It’s a lot of money.

  6. This thread is a fine commentary on the state of antitrust law in the United States.

    1. The “state” of anti-trust law?

      Given the topic of this thread, there surely must be a great pun lurking in there, waiting to be set free.

  7. I lived in Texas twice. The DMV was so backed up that I never got a Texas Driver’s license nor car registration.

    The only state that I know of that had an efficient DMV (as of 1989) is Oregon. A single issue campaign for the state legislature by one man changed the laws. No new hires, period. Attrition by retirement not to be replaced. Pay frozen except for meeting performance goals. Result?

    Result was that the time that I registered my car, got a drivers license and changed the title to Oregon, it took me a little over 25 minutes.

    Meet it or cry about something that is totally fixable. Simply adopt the Oregon law in effect in 1989.

    1. What does it mean to change the title to Oregon? I am not familiar with this. Isn’t it your car, so you have the title?

      1. I had to sell the vehicle. The buyers would not accept an out of state title. I had to move the title from somewhere else to Oregon to sell the car.
        I had an out of state title.

  8. Get one of those Square credit card readers that attach to your smartphone, a stack of cash, go hang out at the DMV and make some money off the Visa holders.

      1. With all that cash, you better be packing heat. So you’d need another permit. Its Illinois…There’s a reason Obama stopped saying; “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

  9. Here in Pennsylvania the PennDOT license facilities don’t take cash. Never tried to use a credit card so I don’t know about that. But even though it says it is “legal tender for all debts public and private”, your money is not good there.

    1. Not that it makes your experience less annoying, but the significance of that phrase is that if you owe someone a monetary debt, they can’t force you to pay (offer “tender”) in something other than cash money. You can mutually agree to settle it by check, or gold doubloons, etc., but cash always counts.

      However, it doesn’t mean that you can force someone to sell you something for cash. You don’t have a debt to PennDOT if they don’t agree in the first place to exchange their license services for your cash.

  10. Here in Ohio, it’s cash, check, or the door. They do have an ATM on hand, though.

  11. AFAIK the California DMV takes only checks and cash. I always carry a VISA, a MasterCard, and an American Express, but I leave my Discover at home. I believe they named it that because as soon as you try to use it, you “discover” that no one takes it.

    1. I set up and helped operate for a few months a pretty good sized e-commerce web site. Overall fraud rate was around 5%. Fraud rate on Discover transactions was 100% Every single one. We would locate the cardholder’s phone number and call them and they would check their statement and find dozens of fraudulent transactions. The Discover organization refused to even discuss it with us. We had to stop taking it.


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