Car Registration

Registering a Vehicle in California

There are different processes for registering your vehicle depending on whether you bought that vehicle from a car dealership or you purchased it from a private individual.

There is also a separate process for converting a non-transferable vehicle registration to a transferable one.

Purchasing a Vehicle from a Car Dealership

With vehicles purchased from a dealership, the dealership will generally take care of all registration paperwork for you, and issue you a temporary registration certificate for you to keep in your car until your official registration arrives from the CA DMV. They may or may not issue license plates – ask your dealership beforehand what their specific process is.

Purchasing a Vehicle from a Private Individual

If you buy your vehicle from a private party, you have 10 days to register it. To do so, go to your local DMV office (you may make an appointment online or call (800) 777-0133 and:

  • Present the vehicle title, which must also include the odometer mileage if the vehicle is less than 10 years old.
  • If you cannot locate the title, you must complete an Application for Duplicate or Paperless Title(Form REG 227).
    • Present a valid smog certificate. The seller is responsible for providing you with the valid smog certificate if the car is more than 4 years old.

      • Smog certificates are good for 90 days after inspection. Make sure the certificate does not expire before you register the vehicle.
      • The smog certificate is not required if the previous owner renewed the registration within 90 days of the vehicle sale and renewed the registration for 2 years.
      • Submit a completed Application for Title or Registration (Form REG 343).
      • Pay all fees and taxes (see “California Vehicle Registration Fees” below).

      Changing a Non-Transferable Registration to a Transferable Registration

      A non-transferable registration in CA is given to out-of-state vehicles that are registered in California without proof of ownership (i.e. the vehicle title). These vehicles henceforth cannot be sold, transferred, or given a CA vehicle title. If you wish to buy or sell a vehicle with a non-transferable registration, you will need to have it converted to a transferable registration.

      You may convert your non-transferable CA registration to a transferable registration by submitting to your local CA DMV office:

      • Your current non-transferable registration card.
      • The vehicle’s last-issued title.
      • An Application for Title or Registration (Form REG 343) and a Bill of Sale, if you are purchasing and registering a vehicle from a previous owner.
      • An odometer disclosure statement for vehicles less than 10 years old.
      • Proof of smog certification, if applicable.
      • Payment for renewal fees, if the vehicle’s registration is due for renewal within 30 days.
      • Payment for any applicable transfer fees or outstanding citations.

      Military Vehicle Registration in California

      Military service members and their families have slightly different rules for car registration depending on whether they are residents of California or not.

      Non-Resident Military Vehicle Registration

      Members of the Armed Forces/NATO and their families who are stationed in California are not required to get a California vehicle registration. To legally drive in the state, military service members must:

      • Have valid CA auto insurance.
      • Have valid license plates issued from your state/country of residence, or the state/country of your last permanent duty station (you may be required to show orders or other documentation).
      • Have current registration in either your own or your spouse’s name.

      All out-of-state vehicle registrations must be renewed properly in the state/country where it was issued in order to be legal in California.

      If you purchase a vehicle in California or choose to register your out-of-state vehicle with the CA DMV, you will qualify for a non-resident vehicle license fee exemption. Please see the information below for California military residents.

      Vehicle Registration for CA Military Residents

      California residents who are stationed outside of California can register your vehicle in whatever state you are currently stationed in, and then register it in California when you return to the state.

      CA military members stationed within the state, or non-resident military members who register their vehicles with the CA DMV, are eligible for a vehicle license fee exemption. To obtain the exemption, submit the following to the CA Department of Motor Vehicles:

      CA resident service members stationed out of California do not qualify for the vehicle license fee exemption.

      California residents deployed by the military may also qualify for a deferment of payment when it is time to renew your vehicle’s registration.

      California Vehicle Registration Fees

      California has multiple fees that are required when you register a vehicle depending on different factors. If you are purchasing a vehicle from a car dealership, these fees will be a part of the total price of the vehicle. You must pay the fees directly to the CA DMV if you purchase your car from a private individual.

      All vehicles must pay:

      • Registration fee: $56.
      • California Highway Patrol fee: $24.

      Late Vehicle Registration Fees

      Vehicles must be registered in California within 20 days after you establish residency or you will be subject to late fees determined by the duration of delinquency.

      You have 10 days to register a vehicle in California after you purchase it from a private party, or you must pay late fees.

      California Vehicle Registration Penalties:

      • Less than 1 year: $30.
      • 1 to 2 years: $50.
      • More than 2 years: $100.

      California Highway Patrol Fee Penalties for an original registration:

      • Less than 1 year: $30.
      • 1 to 2 years: $50.
      • More than 2 years: $100.

      All other fees vary depending on your vehicle. If you want to get a more accurate estimate of your Vehicle License Fees (VLFs) you can visit the California state site to use their California VLF calculator to get an idea of what you will be required to pay. Any and all fines, violations, and debts to the CA DMV must be paid in full before you will be allowed to register a vehicle.

      CA Smog Checks & Inspections

      Almost every vehicle in California must pass a smog inspection prior to being registered. California has certain areas that require a smog certification every 2 years. New cars that are 6 years old and under located in this area will be charged a $20 smog abatement fee every year for the first 6 years of registration instead of getting a smog inspection.

      The only vehicles that do not require a CA smog inspection are:

      • New vehicles less than 4 years old.
      • Hybrid and electric vehicles.
      • Gas vehicles model year 1975 and older.
      • Diesel vehicles model year 1997 and older.
      • Diesel vehicles weighing more than 14,000 lbs.
      • Natural gas vehicles weighing more than 14,000 lbs.
      • Motorcycles.
      • Trailers.

      CA Weight Certifications

      Weight certificates are required to register some pickups and trucks in California. You can get this certificate from either a public scale or a moving company that has a vehicle scale. There will be a nominal fee to get your truck weighed, which varies by location and is based on the unladen weight of the vehicle.

      Trucks requiring a weight certification are:

      • Are commercial vehicles with an operating weight of 10,000 lbs. or less.

      You must fill out a Statement of Facts (REG 256) estimating the weight of the vehicle.

      Trucks exempt from the weight certification requirements are:

      • Any truck or pickup that has previously been registered in California, and the prior CA registration displays the unladen weight (the truck cannot have been changed or modified in any way that would change the printed weight on the registration).
      • Trucks or pickups that weigh 6,000 lbs. or less when empty.
      • Trucks with 2 or 3 axles weighing 10,001 lbs. or more.

      CA License Plates

      California vehicles are required to have license plates, which must have a current registration sticker in order to show that they are valid.

      License plates will remain with the vehicle when bought and sold, unless they are specifically requested to be kept by the seller.

      There are a number of special interest license plates available in California, including collegiate, military, and social cause plates. Fill out the Special Interest License Plate Application to get the special license plate you would like.