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Top Gear Philippines

Temporary driver's license in the Philippines

NOTE: This entire piece was written by a Philippine-based foreigner who "wishes to remain anonymous." We know the person.

I read with interest your multiple stories about the Land Transportation Office and the issues regarding license plates. It had always baffled me as to why this would be a problem in the first place. In most western countries, one simply goes to register the car and then takes the registration document to a license-plate shop, where the plates are printed and installed on the same day. To drive around without plates is virtually unheard of in all European countries, as is having to wait for plates.

One might be able to understand a delay in the making of these plates if they were of a very complicated nature, but they are not. Printing simple metal signs isn’t exactly rocket science, and I completely failed to see how this could even ever be a problem--until I got to experience the LTO firsthand. While my recent experience with the agency didn’t concern license plates and car registrations, I believe my experience is still somewhat indicative of the inner workings of this bureaucratic behemoth, and shows the real reasons as to why things are in such a mess. Please allow me to explain.

I arrived in the Philippines a while ago and--being a law-abiding type of person--read up on driving-license regulations. The same indicated that I could use my foreign license for 30 days, but that I should then proceed to acquire a local license by visiting an LTO office. So I read up on what I needed for this, and went on my way to the LTO.

As soon as I arrived at the LTO branch, a fixer approached me and asked what I needed. He was a polite chap and he seemed to be part of a whole group of fixers populating the car park, looking for business. I should add that I am somewhat unfamiliar with the concept of a fixer (as one is not needed if your government processes are run correctly), but having previously seen the ungodly levels to which Philippine bureaucracy can go, I figured it would be better to let someone help me before I got lost in forms and requirements.

(Sadly, it seems the LTO budget does not stretch to providing air-conditioning for the agency's offices, so it’s not exactly a pleasant place to be in. This particular branch featured a filthy waiting area with broken chairs and a general atmosphere reminiscent of the scene in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, where the main characters are having to deal with the Vogons and their bureaucracy.)


So I communicated my requirements to said fixer, and following a medical examination that hardly deserved to be called as such, some quick photocopies of my existing documents, and my picture being taken for the new license, I sat down and waited for things to take their course. While waiting, I couldn’t help but notice the huge “NO TO FIXERS” signs everywhere, and thought to myself what a nice bit of lip service they were.

After about an hour of waiting, I was (quite covertly) handed my receipt. Wrapped in it was my shiny new Philippine driver's license. I did, of course, realize that all 'regular' applicants were told that no cards were available, and that the earliest time any non-fixer-assisted mortals could expect to get their proper credit card-sized license would be in September (according to an LTO counter staffer). A two-class system, designed to abuse processes that would otherwise work well, is clearly in place in pursuit of monetary gain.

You see, this isn’t the first credit card-sized license to reside in my wallet, and the ones I had received before, issued in European countries, had also all been processed in roughly the same amount of time but without the need for a fixer, because it very simply does not take months to print a little plastic card. It takes minutes, using a printer that fits on your desk. The fact the LTO could make a card for me in such a short time proved this. (I am more than happy to show you my license in person, so you can see the date it was issued, and confirm that according to the official LTO announcement, that license shouldn’t exist as it was issued way faster than the official waiting time.)

I think the same type of thing might be happening with license plates. There probably are plenty of license plates around, and there never really has been any "shortage." How can there be? You can have any type of plate made within minutes in shops all over the city. How is it possible that any little shop can do it, but the mighty LTO cannot? Think about it. It makes no sense at all. It is more likely that some people somewhere in the system have created a nice little moneymaker for themselves, the same way they do with licenses.

As you've pointed out in an article, this may well involve people at the LTO and at car dealerships, who happily cash in with bogus “express fees” and other corrupt practices--and that’s what the issue comes down to: corruption. The ugly cancer that continues to ravage your otherwise amazing country. Without it, everyone would receive their plates and licenses on time, and there wouldn’t be any of these issues. The problem with corruption is, of course, that it costs everyone a lot of money, and the LTO and other agencies would be well-advised to start fighting it in earnest and not just put well-meaning signs up on the walls of their offices.


This is 2015. If the government wants more foreign investments and more foreign companies to set up shop here, it needs to clean up issues like this. Quite frankly, if the relatively simple task of registering a motor vehicle already causes such huge issues, then that doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in the country as a competent business destination. If this and the many other corruption-related issues are not addressed properly soon, the current economic miracle may fizzle out sooner than you think, and that would be a shame as the people of the Philippines are amazing and deserve so much better than the chaotic bureaucracy they have to continuously endure.

Photo from Ver Bajar, for illustrative purposes only

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