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Damn It – District of Columbia Driver’s License (and plates) Going back to Washington DC

by Prince Of Petworth April 20, 2017 at 1:15 pm 105 Comments


Thanks to textdoc for passing on the story from WAMU:

“In June, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles will revert to using “Washington, D.C.” on all new driver’s licenses, a change aimed in part at addressing uncertainty in some quarters over what exactly the “District of Columbia” is.

“The administration determined ‘Washington, D.C.’ better represents the city and will reduce confusion in other jurisdictions,” said DMV director Lucinda Babers in an email.”

I mean I get it but I don’t like it.

  • bruno

    That means, people in far away places don’t know what District of Columbia means when they card us…. but they are more likely to recognize Washington, DC.

    • Truxtoner

      I do not understand this comment. Why did you feel like repeating what was said in the post?

      • bruno

        It’s a variation on the theme, but just reiterating it from my own experience…. also true for “click on state” drop down options….. sometimes it’s Washington DC. Sometimes, D of C.

    • PetworthGuy

      Yup -Boston/NH Native and I’ve almost been turned down at multiple bars because “Columbia is a country not a state”….some bouncers aren’t the brightest, and yet they are the gatekeeper.

      • Joffrey

        Never thought of this but I had that issue when carded at a dispensary (I tagged along with some connoisseurs) while on vacation in Denver. Guy said I needed to display a passport with the ID. Took an awkward 1-2 minutes before he realized it was for the capital of the US of A. We laughed about it afterward.

  • BostonToShaw

    This really irks me! I hate when I’m filing out an online form or buying something, that is lists the state as ‘Washington, DC’. I don’t live in Washington, Washington DC. It is factually incorrect.

    If folks in the US don’t know what the District of Columbia is, then shame on our education system. If your overseas, aren’t you just using your passport for everything anyways?

    • Formerly ParkViewRes

      Until I got my Ontario license I used my DC license for alcohol and carding stuff. I never really had any issues, but people ALWAYS refer to it as Washington up here and it bugs me because I think of Washington as the state.

    • Something Like Anonanon

      Online forms like that Kill. Me.

      • anoNE

        Verizon’s drop down menu for its customer service chat didn’t have D.C. as an option last year when I needed assistance. It’s a required field, so I asked on social which to choose. Hey told me to pick either VA or MD. I ended up getting punted from a VA rep to one from the state of Washington. They had the nerve to call to poll me about my service after, and I said if the rep could tell me where the Verizon Center was I would call it even. He couldn’t.

    • yourthirdgradeteacher

      *”you’re”…shame on our education system.

    • ooops

      “…then shame on our education system. If your overseas, aren’t you just using…..”

      The education system has failed you again…

      Sorry, had to.

    • HaileUnlikely

      Did you have a license in Boston? Did it say “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” on it? (I honestly don’t know if they ever did but I know that they don’t now.)

      • Duponter

        Virginia’s definitely used to say that.

    • bruno

      “factually incorrect”?

      • Washington is nowhere in the name, we are just the District of Columbia. Washington is actually a colloquialism.

        My theory is that this explains the old google maps problem that had addresses showing up as XXXX YSt NW, DC, DC

    • AnonV2

      What’s even worse is when the form doesn’t even HAVE DC AS AN OPTION in the state drop down. A couple year’s ago I was trying to order something from a small, specialty supplier that had an admittedly pretty dinky web form. I couldn’t even complete it because DC wasn’t an option. It took a week of back and forth with them to get the order placed because their order tracking system obviously used the same set of State abbreviations. At least they were apologetic and understood that, yes, I was a US citizen living in the continental United States. In the two decades I’ve been a resident I’ve been refused service or had to complain up to management three separate times by somebody who didn’t know where our Federal government resides.
      If you are a frequent flyer and have an older license you might want to get a new one soon anyway since until the redesign DC didn’t comply with the ReadID guidelines which will make your life hell at the airport some time next year.

  • Ben

    Boo. “District of Columbia” is listed in the Home Rule Charter and is used by city agencies and the change on the license was to reflect what the city is legally called. Washington, D.C., comes up exactly zero times in the city’s Home Rule Charter.

    There is no Washington (according to the home rule charter) – Washington reflects more on the political side and political staff typically don’t get D.C. drivers licenses.

    • Duponter


      Washington is the city inside the District of Columbia. It is not made up, whether it is in the home rule charter or not.

      • Ben

        Licenses don’t state city names except in your listed address

        • Duponter

          Is there some rule book somewhere I’m missing about how a jurisdiction can decide what is or is not on their license? Geez.

          Larger point is you said there is no Washington. There is obviously a Washington. It’s the city we live in that has nothing to do “with politics” — it’s the name of the city.

          • Josh

            Is it the Washington city council, or the Council of the District of Columbia?

          • Duponter

            What is your argument here? That Washington as the name of the city is not a thing? Does not exist?

          • anon

            There is no government, therefore there isn’t, legally speaking, a city. Culturally, sure. But does that justify putting on the license? No. There are so many reasons not to label our licenses this way:
            -There is no Washington, D.C. government (anymore; as of Home Rule)
            -If there were, and Washington and DC split tasks, DC would definitely be the one issuing licenses and plates
            -Abbreviations in the title of licenses and license plates make no sense
            -Washington, DC will be confused with Washington state; there’s no winning when people are that ignorant

          • Duponter

            1. I think as seen here in the comments, there is a great deal more confusion outside of Washington, DC about what “District of Columbia” means than what “Washington, DC” means.

            2. I wasn’t making a legal argument. I was pointing out that the person above (and you now) are arguing the city of Washington doesn’t exist despite the fact that is factually incorrect. This is a city as well as a district — it is coterminous. That’s why any time you fill out literally any form anywhere, and you are asked where you live, you put “Washington” in the city block and select “DC” or “District of Columbia” or (when the site has no idea what it is doing) “Washington, DC” for the state box.

      • DC is DC

        It’s just a nickname — there *is* no “city” “inside” the District, there’s just the District of Columbia.

        Though as much as I prefer using “District of Columbia,” I also see the value in adopting the name from the statehood constitution. Say “Washington, D.C.” everywhere and make clear that it stands for Douglass Commonwealth. And use the comma and periods!

        • anon

          Just want to note that there was a city. There was also a Washington County, DC, a Georgetown, DC, an Alexandria, DC, and an Alexandria County, DC.
          Because of retrocession and annexation of the remaining jurisdictions by the city, Washington and the District have been coterminous since 1871. There may have been nuanced differences in the way the federal government administered the two entities, but that disappeared with Home Rule.

        • KenyonDweller

          It’s not just a nickname. Washington has been the name of the city since 1791:
          “Shortly after the owners of the land selected for the capital transferred their property to the government, President Washington began to refer to the newly-created town as “the Federal City.” At a meeting on September 9, 1791, the commissioners agreed that the “Federal district shall be called the ‘Territory of Columbia’ and the Federal City the ‘City of Washington.’” (The term “district” was more popular than “territory” and officially replaced it when the capital was incorporated in 1871.)”
          From the DC Historical Society website.

          • anon

            No, Washington as a city (or anything else) has not existed in ANY form since the Organic Act of 1871, which repealed the city charters of both Washington and Georgetown and allowed for just the entity of the District of Columbia. Wikipedia, people.

          • anon

            Since I realized there is NO Washington here, some years after moving here, I make a point of telling people that I live in the TERRITORY of the District of Columbia. I think this gets across to people better the idea that we are governed as a US territory and do not have full voting rights – at least to those who paid attention in school and know what a territory is (a colony, really) – it won’t help those who didn’t pay attention and don’t know what DC is. (I had a friend driving down from NYC to visit me who asked me if Washington was in VA – she clearly wasn’t paying attention in her midwestern childhood, or had lousy teachers.)

            Though it may make accessing things like bars and liquor stores and planes elsewhere more difficult, I think it is a cop out on the part of the DMV to use a name that doesn’t exist – it is like they are trying to normalize our unrepresented situation, which is not normal IN THE WORLD. Emphasizing that we are a territory of citizens living in the capital of a supposed democracy without full rights would serve DC citizens far better, I think.

            Though I did enjoy not having to pay a parking ticket written in NYC for the state of WA when my license place said “Washington, DC” and the cop went with WA for Washington on the ticket.

            I do not like trying to apply for jobs (in the US!) only to find that the web application does not allow me to apply because I live in DC – a place that does not exist in any form in their web application, which has happened more than once.

        • Truxton Thomas

          Indeed, Florida Ave. is the former boundary of the old City of Washington.

  • HaileUnlikely

    I almost posted the same article this morning as a Rave. Not only to reduce confusion, but I generally support no-b.s. plain language communication. The legal name of Rhode Island is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” What do their licenses say on them? Just Rhode Island. Commonwealth of Virginia? Nope, just Virginia. Stubborn insistence on using names that are otherwise used nowhere else but in court documents does nothing but make government less accessible to the vast majority of people.

    • Something Like Anonanon

      If “District of Columbia” is not plain language communication, we’re screwed.

      • HaileUnlikely

        If so, then we are. I don’t think the DMV is the right entity to take up that battle, though. Work with what we’ve got. P.s. Before Real-ID, DC licenses had always said “Washington, DC” and not “District of Columbia” on them. Did this ever actually bother any of us back then?

    • GBinCH

      I wish their license said “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

    • Duponter

      By your logic, shouldn’t it just say Columbia then? District of = Commonwealth of = State of.

      • HaileUnlikely

        No. My logic is basically that if it the common usage differs wildly from the legal name, then call it what everybody calls it. If it were commonly called Columbia, then sure, put that on the license. But that’s not what people call it.

        • c

          people from DC call it the District of Columbia.
          It really doesnt matter what someone from Michigan or utah calls it.

          • HaileUnlikely

            Disagreed on both counts.
            1. Sure, people call it “DC” (i.e., the actual letters, pronounced like “dee see”), but I have never heard a single person utter the phrase “I live in the District of Columbia” or anything to that effect without either saying “Dee See” or “Washingtion” or “Washington, Dee See.” Other than in completing official government documents, I don’t know if I’ve heard people say “District of Columbia” more than a couple times in the 13 years I’ve lived here.
            2. The stated reason for this change was because people in other parts of the country were getting tripped up and hassling our citizens. Whether you care what somebody from Michigan calls this jurisdiction is irrelevant, to the people who are in the position to implement the change in question, it does matter.

          • Formerly ParkViewRes

            Same, never heard a single person say I’m from the District of Columbia. And in my experience most people say they’re from “DC” as Haile outlines. Or just listen to Beat Rock by Tabi Bonney!

          • Duponter

            I literally say I live “in the District” or in the “District of Columbia” all the time. All of the time. And I’ve lived her 20 years. Stop assuming how you do things is how everyone does things.

            I tend to agree that globally “Washington, DC” is more recognized and I have no beef with that being on the licenses. But there are plenty of people here who say the “District of Columbia.”

          • Anonamom

            Agreed with Haile, it’s either “DC” or simply “Washington” or “the District”. A lot of old timers call it Washington or the District, and I have only found new comers who insist on calling it the District of Columbia for any other reason than emphasis. Hell, my former neighbors called it Washington and they have been fighting for statehood since before most of us were born!
            Honestly, I support the change. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been carded and gotten funny looks, asked if I’m from Colombia, and been asked “where’s that?” Plus, to be perfectly honest, it has always been Washington, DC to me.

          • HaileUnlikely

            I did not say nobody has ever said it, that wold be presumptious of me and demonstrably false. I said I have never heard anybody say it, and to the best of my ability to recall, that is a factually true statement. A question for you, Duponter, about what proportion of the time that you hear DC residents refer to this city do they say “District of Columbia?” (I’m not asking you to opine about what everybody says, only asking you to do as I have done and report what you yourself have heard, as that is all either of us have any basis to do.)

          • Duponter

            More frequently than you. I hear “the District” probably the most frequently among people who live here. Or “DC” if used as an adjective – DC police, DC crime, DC schools, etc. Although I do hear “District schools” or “issues facing the District” frequently as well.

            I also didn’t say you said no one said it, I simply noted that a lot of people do, despite you claiming you’ve never once heard anyone say it.

          • HaileUnlikely

            Not disputing that people say “The District” and just “District” as in your examples. I sometimes do as well. My intent was to contrast the frequency with which I hear the current vs. new names that actually appear on licenses (“Washington, DC” and “District of Columbia”), not various shortened versions.

          • llucas

            Exactly. If you’re from here, you say you live in the The District – or District of Columbia. I never say I live in DC or even use the term.
            “I don’t know if I’ve heard people say “District of Columbia” more than a couple times in the 13 years I’ve lived here.” – you obbiously aren’t hanging out with locals.

          • HaileUnlikely

            I have lots of friends who are locals, several whose families have been here for generations. Yes they say “The District.” They also say “DC” and “the city.” I’ve never heard any of them actually say the “of Columbia” part.

          • FridayGirl

            I’m with Haile on this one and it seems silly that we’re arguing about it, honestly. I mean, it doesn’t really matter what people who are using the license call it — it’s what people SEEING the license know it as. And no, I don’t really care to have to educate TSA agents in line at the airport. That’s not my job. So calling it Washington DC on the license is just fine. It’s not stopping anyone from calling it whatever they want to call it in daily conversation. Good grief.

          • tj

            Where are you from?

            “The District of Columbia”

            No, it usually is:

            “D.C.” or “Washington, D.C.”

            But never “Washington” which can lead to discussion on the Marion Berry rather than Marion Barry.

            As far as the license goes, it really doesn’t matter as long as I can get my booze.

          • c

            when people say they are from DC or “the district’ they are shorthanding the “District of Columbia”, not “Washington”. that was my point. the name of the city is the District of Columbia. that some people call it “washington” shoudldn’t sway our official documents.

          • HaileUnlikely

            Of course they are. That’s not in question. My point is that the because the full name is so rarely used, it has become significantly less recognizable, especially by others who do not live in or near the District of Columbia, compared with the more commonly used “Washington, DC.”

      • Formerly ParkViewRes

        We didn’t say people universally DON’T say they’re from District of Columbia. I was responding to c’s absolute statement that “people from DC call it the District of Columbia.” Because in my experience, I have never heard that, but I do hear “the District” as well. Top 3 for me are DC, the District, and Washington, DC.

    • Anon. no. 5

      You should make sure you never move to the UK, errr the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Her Majesty’s Government would drive you insane.

      • HaileUnlikely

        No doubt.

        • bruno

          You’ll recall they used to be in charge here be we tossed them out.

  • 7thStTechGuy

    What’s up person born the day after me! That was a good week!

    • AMDCer

      Hey – that IS my birthday (albeit, not the same year…)!

  • ImStillAmerican

    This is super annoying but I had an incident where a bouncer at a bar was very confused by the new license. He kept asking me for my passport and insisted I couldn’t use a foreign license. Sadly this guy thought I was from Colombia and not D.C. He was certainly embarrassed and I was pretty annoyed that I had to explain that the ‘D.C.’ In Washington, D.C. stands for District of Columbia. Sigh

    • KPS

      YES!! That’s EXACTLY what happened to me in January when I went to rent a car. The guy corrected himself within seconds though. It was no biggie, just something that had never happened to me before.

  • Dupone East

    It’s not our education system that’s failed, it’s everyone else’s. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire!

  • DarrenRUNS

    Confusion? Seriously?

  • I swear I’m over 21

    Anyone else ever have the problem when you try to purchase alcohol out of the area and they look up your ID to make sure it’s real and they can’t find it? I was once denied alcohol in NY because the cashier insisted I was using a fake ID. Turns out that they were looking at Washington State’s IDs and didn’t know to look under District of Columbia. Granted I have an old ID that says Washington, DC on top. I now know to tell people to look under D for District of Columbia whenever someone takes the book out.

  • o2bncdg

    All my printed stationery says “The District of Columbia”. No Washington anywhere. We’re not a state so I can do damn well as I please.

    • o2bncdg

      And I just got my REAL drivers license just a few months ago, and it doesn’t expire until 2025. It says “District of Columbia” emblazoned across the top. I’m keeping it!!

      • HaileUnlikely

        My old license that says “Washington, DC” (not District of Columbia) on it is valid until 2021.

  • bruno

    Maybe the Russians will annex us and it will be moot :^)

  • KPS

    A few months ago I rented a car and when I handed over my DL the rep actually asked for my passport as well. It was odd and my expression must have looked perplexed because he then suddenly said that for a second he thought my license was from another country. I guess he thought it was the country Colombia. First time that ever happened, but it occurred to me at that moment that most Americans probably have never thought of this city as “District of Columbia”. Well, I just moved to Takoma Park anyway, so I’m due to transfer my license!

    • Robert

      Why I left the US. Dumb is not good.

  • TrinidadLopez

    These things matter a lot. Remember when we put “Taxation Without Representation” on our license plates and then immediately became a state with voting representatives in Congress?

    • T


  • Felony I

    Last September I was in Utah for work. I went to a grocery store there to buy beer. The cashier carded me then asked for my passport (I’m brown). A second cashier told me only American licenses could be used. I explained loudly that the District of Columbia is where the American president lives. Eventually I was able to purchase the beer but not without a snide comment from the first about DC technically not being in the US. I am 110% certain that a white person has never been asked to produce their passport to purchase beer. Nevertheless the license change will probably be a great help.

    • saf

      You’re wrong. I’m pretty pale, even for a white girl, and I’ve had issues with people not believing it’s a real license from a real place. And Utah, that surprises me not at all.

    • anon

      I’m brown. It probably didn’t help, but I do know that white people face this particular problem with DC licenses too.

    • Anon Spock

      Countless folks from DC have had this issue because. Up until now, all of them I’d heard of were white. Americans are poorly educated.

      • HaileUnlikely

        It’s a created problem that we collectively have foisted upon ourselves by calling the capital of our country something other than it’s legal name. Given the ubiquity of the usage of “Washington” and rarity of the usage of “District of Columbia” in national news, on printed maps, on pulldown menus for where to have goods shipped to, etc., I am loathe to call somebody in another part of the country or world “dumb” or “poorly educated” for not immediately recognizing “District of Columbia,” at least provided they recognize that “Washington DC” is the capital of the United States and is in fact part of the United States as opposed to somewhere in South America. Hell, most adults who work in non-technical fields would struggle mightily with 7th grade algebra or geometry. To me that is way dumber than recognizing the legal name of a city that is never used outside of legal documents.

        • Truxtoner

          Maybe the issue is that our legal name doesn’t match what everyone everywhere else calls us, including, according to you in other comments, most of the people in DC. Perhaps our legal name is what is stupid, not us for not using it? I’d much rather change our legal name to Washington, DC (or D.C.) and be done with it. Then we don’t have to change the names of our sports teams, newspapers, airports, metro system, etc. etc.

        • Truxtoner

          Sorry, addendum:

          Because telling the world and most of us here to stop using “Washington” isn’t going to happen, whether anyone likes it or not.

          • HaileUnlikely

            I agree with all of what you say here.

    • dcd

      “Eventually I was able to purchase the beer but not without a snide comment from the first about DC technically not being in the US.”
      These are the people who foisted Jason Chaffetz on us, after all.

      • saf

        Well, and the fact is, I don’t know why some of the places out there even sell booze. They clearly don’t WANT to!

    • Kathleen

      Weirdly, I have been asked for my passport to buy beer many times, but not in DC. I grew up in TN and was still licensed there when I moved to MA for college. Massachusetts had psycho alcohol laws while I lived there (no happy hour, last call at 1:30, and most significantly, they didn’t recognize any out of state licenses or foreign passports). So, I carried my passport my entire senior year. One time I was turned away at a liquor store because my passport was issued in New Orleans instead of Boston. So stupid.

  • Nathan

    My current “District of Columbia” license is cracking. Was putting off going to the DMV, but better do it soon I guess.

  • charlie

    It’s almost like Bowser could take her million dollar of statehood promotion and I don’t know, use it to brand this as “The District.”

    • Anonymous

      I think most of it was spent on that commercial featuring Paul Strauss and Jonathan Banks, who plays “Mike” on Better Call Saul (and Breaking Bad) and who was born in the District of Columbia.

  • F ST NE

    Let this be my biggest issue in life…

    • anon

      seriously, blows my mind

      i called a school yesterday to pay off some kids outstanding school lunch balances so they don’t go hungry, could you imagine if every person that commented on this did that

      • F ST NE

        Wow..what a great idea–Do you just call a school and tell them you want to pay for lunches?

        • FridayGirl

          actually… that is pretty good. I’d be curious how to do this as well.

  • Anonymous

    My big beef with the new licenses is that they are dark and unattractive. They look like the border card I got when I registered for Global Entry. I liked the old bright and colorful licenses way more.
    I just got my license replaced and I didn’t even notice the District of Columbia vas Washington, DC thing. I guess I will have a collector’s item until 2025.

  • Anonymous

    And having multiple versions of drivers licenses, each of which refers to the District in a different way, will reduce confusion in other jurisdictions?

  • AdMoRez

    This is definitely needed! I travel around for my job, and twice in other states I had people who didn’t know what “District of Columbia” was. In Phoenix, a bar thought it was the country, Colombia, until I told them it was Washington DC, where the president lives. He then said, ok, and served me beer.

    The second time sucked more. I went to a Casino in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the front security wasn’t having none of that. The security women merely said “we don’t let people outside of this territory in.” I was like “Huh? Excuse me? You don’t like anything within the United States in?” Security Lady: “No, just US States.” I said: “Well District of Columbia is Washington DC, where Obama lives, that’s not considered US territory to you?” Security lady then just stops talking to me and ignores me. Another worker wasn’t sure but called the supervisor, and the security lady yelled at him for getting involved. The supervisor came, verified that District of Columbia is a US territory, and let me in. Another worker came to apologize and told me that folks there aren’t educated. He knew also that District of Columbia is Washington DC but was scared of that security lady and didn’t want to get involved.

    • Anon

      But see these are an opportunity to educate people! Maybe talk about our lack of voting rights, too.

  • Anonthony

    This is beyond ridiculous. It’s like eliminating times tables because a few people have a hard time learning them.

    • FridayGirl

      That’s… really not even close to the same thing.

      • Anonthony

        Oh really? It’s only being changed because people are dumb.

        • FridayGirl

          But… it’s being changed back to what it used to say. Like, if they hadn’t changed it in the first place no one would have been crying foul.

  • anon

    Seems like the solution would be to educate other people with a section on the back with an American flag explaining where and what the District is (it can say something about commonly being referred to as Washington, DC, as a nod to the city that eventually grew to its boundaries). And people will actually learn something.

  • Rich

    Once in awhile I’ve had a problem elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem to justify this. I threw out my DC license form the 90s years ago–can’t remember if it was Washington or D of C.

  • Duponter

    At the end of the day, maybe if few of us can seem to agree on what the city should be called or is called, that explains why we are constantly having to change our identifications. If we don’t know, why would anyone else?

    • HaileUnlikely

      Good point. Agreed.

  • wobber

    Increase the font size too! I have had TSA agents, bank tellers, and bar tenders tell me they can’t read the ID b/c the font is too small.

  • alurin

    I think a better solution would be for bartenders in the District to stop recognizing out-of-District IDs for alcohol until the states educate their citizens better. All those Congressional aides would get the problem sorted within a week.

  • Contessa of Cleveland Park

    I served as a DC Election Day worker last November and worked from 6 a.m.-9 p.m. (plus 4 hours’ training) for the princely sum of $180. When income-tax season rolled around, I made a good-faith effort to figure out whether I was supposed to pay Social Security tax on the payment. Good luck. The answer varies state-by-state. IRS directs us to the SSA table at https://www.ssa.gov/slge/election_workers_chart.htm. SSA lists the answer for all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands.

    DC? Nowhere to be found.

  • Anonn

    This is the state of America. People are too stupid to know what District of Columbia is.

  • merp

    I’m bummed by this change, BUUUUUUT I was in Hawaii a couple years ago and one TSA agent there thought the District of Columbia was a different country…

  • guest

    you know, we can petition our government to have this changed back to District of Columbia… we do have representation locally


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