California Vehicle Registration

California Vehicle Registration: Complete Guide

It is very important to know your responsibilities before buying a car. Although, there are various agencies that can provide you with information; there are things you can do to protect yourself before signing a contract. Looking up the VIN of the vehicle to get a history check and securing all the necessary documents before setting up an appointment with the DMV can save you from possible hassles.

California Vehicle Registration is a fairly simple process. Dealerships usually handle the registration for you, but if you purchase a vehicle from a private seller or receive a car as a gift, you must register your car with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Whether you are registering your car for the first time, renewing or replacing an existing one, or changing your address or name on your car registration, we have all the information you need.

Registering a vehicle as a new resident

In California, you become an official resident and thus required to register your vehicle when:

  • You become employed in California
  • Claim tax exemptions for a home located in California
  • Lease or rent a home or apartment
  • Apply for state documents, such as a voter registration or driver’s license
  • Enroll in school or enroll children in school

After establishing residency, a person has 20 days to register his or her vehicle. Make sure you have all the documents below  before you head to the DMV.

  • For privately owned: Completed Application for Title or Registration form. Must bear the signatures of the owners and lienholder related information.
  • For commercial: Completed Declaration of Gross Vehicle Weight/Combined Gross Vehicle Weight form.
  • For trailers: Completed Permanent Trailer Identification (PTI) Application Certification form.
  • Proof of insurance
  • Out-of-state title
  • Out-of-state registration
  • If necessary, weight certification
  • Smog and emissions certificate, check exemptions here
  • Payment for the registration fees

How to Register an Out-of-State Vehicle in California?

If you are a California resident and acquire a new car, truck, or motorcycle from another state, it must be certified to meet California smog laws to be registered in California. This includes certain diesel-powered vehicles. DMV cannot accept an application to register a vehicle in California that does not qualify for registration (California Health and Safety Code 43150 – 43156).

Registering a Vehicle Imported From Another Country (Direct Import)

A direct import is a vehicle that is not manufactured to meet U.S. federal motor vehicle safety standards (FMVSS) and/or California emissions standards.  They are not intended by the manufacturer to be used or sold in the U.S.

Anyone who brings an imported vehicle into California, or purchases an imported vehicle while in California, should be aware that some vehicles cannot be registered in California or in the U.S. Make sure to check first if your vehicle can indeed be registered in California or in the US before importing the vehicle.

Below are the requirements needed to register an imported vehicle to California:

Additional documents you may need:

  • Evidence of compliance with California emissions standards (1968 year-model and newer gasoline-powered vehicles and 1980 year-model and newer diesel-powered vehicles).
  • Evidence of compliance with U.S. emission standards (vehicles 20 years old and newer).
  • Evidence of compliance with United States (U.S.) safety standards (vehicles 24 years old and newer).

Re-registering a Salvaged Vehicle in California

The requirements for re-registering a vehicle previously reported as a total loss (salvaged) are:

  • A completed Application for Title or Registration (REG 343).
  • The California Salvage Certificate. The Salvage Certificate must be signed or endorsed for transfer if someone other than the owner named on the certificate is to be the owner.
  • A vehicle inspection by an authorized DMV employee or the California Highway Patrol.
  • Official Brake and Light Adjustment Certificates.
  • A weight certificate from a California Certified Public Weighmaster, if the vehicle is a pickup or truck.
  • Smog certification, if the vehicle is a 1976 or newer year model.
  • Total Loss Salvage Vehicle and Dismantled Vehicle Inspection Fee.
  • Prior History Fee.
  • Substitute Plate Fee.
  • Transfer Fee, if ownership is being transferred
  • Registration renewal fees, if due.

Transferring a Vehicle Between Family Members

To transfer vehicle-ownership between family members, complete the following requirements:

  • The California Certificate of Title properly signed or endorsed on Line 1 by the registered owner(s) shown on the title. You will need to complete the new owner information on the back of the title and sign it.
  • A Statement of Facts (REG 256) for use tax and smog exemption, if applicable.
  • Odometer disclosure for vehicles less than 10 years old.
  • A Transfer Fee.

Vehicle Registration Renewal in California

Vehicle’s registration in California must be renewed every year.  The DMV will send you a vehicle registration renewal notice prior to your vehicle’s registration expiration date with the following:

  • Your vehicle information.
  • Your license plate tag’s expiration date.
  • Registration renewal fees.
  • Late renewal penalty fee information.
  • Parking ticket late fees (if any).

DMV Customers have a variety of options to renew their vehicle registration without visiting a DMV office.

  • Renew Online
  • Use a DMV Now Kiosk to instantly receive a new sticker
  • Visit a business partner

How to Renew your California Vehicle Registration Online?

In order to renew your vehicle registration online, you must have:

  • Access to the Internet
  • A valid credit/debit card or checking account
  • The last five digits of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or the vessel Hull Identification Number (HIN)
  • Insurance with one of the participating insurance companies or be renewing a vehicle not requiring evidence of insurance (such as a trailer)
  • Smog certification on file at DMV

Vehicle Registration Fees in California

California DMV charges multiple when you register your vehicle. Each case is different. These fees will be charged during your car purchase if you buy from a dealer. You must pay the DMV directly if you purchased your vehicle from a private party. The fees that are required from ALL vehicles include:

  • Registration fee: $60.
  • California Highway Patrol (CHP) fee: $26.
  • Transportation Improvement Fee (TIF)—Based on your vehicle’s value:
Vehicle Value VR Fee Increase
0-$4,999 $25
$5,000-$24,999 $50
$25,000-$34,999 $100
$35,000-$59,999 $150
$60,000 and higher $175
  • Late registration fee
    • Less than 1 year: $30.
    • 1 to 2 years: $50.
    • More than 2 years: $100.

California License Plates

Most vehicles are issued with two license plates to be displayed at the front and rear end of the vehicle. Exceptions to this rule are motorcycles and trailers, which only require one rear license plate. License plates are used for identification purposes and provide law enforcement a means to locate the vehicle owner through DMV records. Rear plates must have current registration sticker in order to show that they are valid.

If your license plates have been stolen, mutilated, damaged, or lost; it is your responsibility to obtain a replacement. You’ll need to submit an Application for Replacement Plates Form (REG156) either by mail or in person at one of the DMV offices.

Military Vehicle Registration in California

Military personnel who are also residents of California but deployed to a location outside the state may qualify for a renewal penalty waiver.

To qualify for the renewal penalty waiver, the registered owner must be ordered to temporary military duty during a period when a Presidential Executive order specifies the United States is engaged in combat or homeland defense and the registered owner is a member of one of the following:

  • Armed forces,
  • Armed forces reserve, or
  • National Guard.

Deployment does not include:

  • Temporary duty for the sole purpose of training or processing.
  • A permanent change of station.

Only penalties incurred during deployment may be waived.

The application for registration renewal must be submitted with the appropriate fees within 60 days after termination of deployment to qualify for the penalty waiver.

Submit proof of temporary military duty during a period when a Presidential Executive Order specifies the United States is engaged in combat or homeland defense and be a member of the armed forces, armed forces reserve, or the National Guard who has been called to active duty or active service.

Complete a Miscellaneous Statements of Fact (REG 256) stating:

  • That you are a member of the armed forces, armed forces reserve, or the National Guard.
  • The termination date of deployment.

Military personnel, stationed in California are exempt from payment of the vehicle license fee (VLF) on any vehicle owned or leased and registered in California provided:

  • The nonresident military owner is shown as a lessee or registered owner of the vehicle.
  • The vehicle is not operated “for hire.”

In order to obtain the VLF exemption, military personnel must complete a Nonresident Military Exemption Statement (REG 5045) form and NATO members are required to complete a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Status of Forces Agreement (REG 5046) form.

NOTE: The duty station must be located in California in order to receive a VLF exemption.