There are two things that aren't exactly fun about one's birthday. The first is the convention of having to organize or pay for a get-together with family and friends. Oh, it's fun, but you can end up tired and with an empty wallet on your special day.

The other is that your driver's license from the Land Transportation Office (LTO) always expires on one of your birthdays. Of course, you can renew your license before or after (with a penalty fee), but still, it's something you have to think about as you add one more year to every form you have to fill up.

If that's the case for you this month, don't worry; I feel you because I just went through my own renewal. But what I can say is that it has never ever been this straightforward and fast.

There are a lot of things that people can criticize the Duterte administration for, and that goes for motoring and transportation concerns too. With the LTO, it has been a mixed bag. Yes, the plate supply is very much a far cry from what it was before, but there are still issues with things like the implementation of mandatory vehicle inspection and the child seat law. That last one isn't really their fault because the LTO didn't write the law. If you're frustrated about it then you should read the law, see who were the ones that wrote it, and factor that in as you fill up your ballot in May.

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But one aspect that the LTO and the Department of Transportation did get very right was the licensing process. It really has improved. In 2000 when I got my first license, the LTO wasn't a straightforward place; that's putting it mildly. The processes weren't clear, and the list of requirements were confusing and inconvenient. That's why fixers were everywhere; people who -for a fee- would use their connections with the ones behind the counters to simplify it.

Based on my experience renewing, those days are gone.

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The first step is to go online and register an account at the LTO's LTMS portal (https://portal.lto.gov.ph). This is also the same site you'll go to for a new license or for vehicle registration renewal. Once you do get your account verified, you can check your current license status, demerits, and violations. This will actually determine what kind of license validity period you'll get, but more on that later.

The thing you need to accomplish on the LTMS portal is the CDE or the Comprehensive Driving Exam. You'll find this in the E-Learning tab on the website. If you know your road rules and signs, practice road courtesy, and generally drive well, you should be fine. Some have argued that this part is pointless, as people can Google their answers. While that's valid, I would put it out there that when you take the time to type in and research an answer, you're actually learning something. You still come out of it with more knowledge, but hopefully, you won't have to Google each and every one.

Once you get the passing mark, this is where you can go down two different paths to get your renewal.

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1) Online application and appointment

The first is to go to a nearby clinic that is accredited by the LTO for medical exams. They'll administer the check for a fee of PHP 500; they'll check your weight, height, eyesight, blood pressure, color blindness so on and so forth.

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At the end of that process, you'll get a medical certificate that you can use for your renewal. From here, you'll need to initiate a transaction for renewal under the e-services tab on the LTMS portal. You'll have to download the certificate (also from the portal) and re-upload it in the transaction along with the medical certificate's alphanumeric reference code. After this, you can select an appointment with your nearest LTO facility, pay your fees, have the photo taken, and get your card.

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2) Skip the online transaction and go to LTO

In the end, I opted to skip the online application process and actually go to the LTO directly. The primary reason is that the LTMS portal didn't seem to reflect the brand new LTO extension office in Cainta, Rizal.

Once I got there, it was very straightforward. The medical exam took 10 minutes (though they didn't do the BP check). And I had the photocopy shop next door print out my CDE results because I forgot the copy I printed out at the office.

Afterward, I walked into a relatively empty, bright, and new LTO EO at around 3:30 PM. The admin staff punched in my details into the LTMS portal and took the printed CDE and medical certificate.

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The staffer then told me everything was alright, and that I can proceed to the cashier to pay the renewal fee of PHP 585, and so I did. Then I got the photo taken, did the dual index fingerprints, verified my signature, and got the card.

The whole process from me walking through the door at the LTO Cainta Extension Office to getting my card took only 15 minutes. Back in the day I remember spending several hours just waiting to get my license only to realize the license card wasn't available because they ran out of plastic or the machine wasn't working. Yes, most of the time we just walked away with a receipt as our license.

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The LTO really has made a lot of progress with the licensing process. All you have to do is maximize the online tools at your disposal and follow the instructions. And if they keep this up, there really is no need or desire to work with fixers because it's already so easy. 

Of course, the experience and speed can vary from one LTO facility to another depending on the number of people applying. That will likely be the case if you go to a main or regional office of the LTO. I was lucky because the Cainta Extension Office isn't exactly that conveniently located next to a mall or the municipal center (read: low foot traffic) and there were only a few people there.

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There are some things I wish that were changed like the requirement to come in for a medical check midway through the validity period; honestly, it seems more like an exercise in rubber stamping. The LTO should also increase the passing score for the CDE to at least 75%; some lawmakers are even looking to remove that requirement, which we definitely do not agree with. But for all the LTO's issues, I'm glad they made good progress.

One last thing: the license I got was a 5-year. Apparently, a traffic violation from 2020 prevented me from getting the 10-year license. That's the way it is, but considering it used to be just 3 years, I'm still pretty satisfied with the new renewal process.