Car owners can apply for a vehicle registration in California by submitting certain types of documents and the applicable fee payments through the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In order to obtain a DMV registration certificate, motorists must submit the necessary items in person through a nearby DMV office. While the department may not offer other application methods, it allows applicants to schedule their office visit online or by phone.

Registering a car in CA is a procedure that will vary to a certain degree depending on factors such as whether or not the owner is an existing or a new resident. Furthermore, these steps may vary depending on whether a motorist has purchased a new or used motor vehicle. Consequently, the car registration requirements may be slightly different according to particular circumstances. In any case, it is important to note that car owners will be required to complete the titling and the registration transactions during the same office visit.

California Car Registration Requirements

Before learning how to register a car in California, you must ensure that you meet the requirements to obtain a registration certificate. The standard prerequisites to register a car, motorcycle or other types of vehicles are outlined in the following list:

  • You have successfully transferred the vehicle ownership or you have the corresponding vehicle ownership document in your possession. In the event that you are transferring the ownership rights of a used vehicle, you must have a bill of sale.
  • You have obtained the necessary financial responsibility package.
  • You have filled out an odometer mileage statement, if the vehicle is newer than 10 model years.
  • You have submitted your vehicle to a vehicle identification number (VIN) verification, if required.
  • You have obtained the 90-day smog certification, if required.
  • You have obtained a weight certificate, if registering trucks and pickups.
  • You have collected the paperwork and fee payments that apply under your circumstances.

State law requires you to get a CA vehicle registration within 10 days of obtaining a new or used car. If you fail to pay the applicable fees within 30 days, you will be subjected to certain fee penalties. If you are a new state resident with an out-of-state vehicle or a current resident who has obtained a vehicle from outside of California, you must pay the applicable fees within 20 days of their due date.

Car Insurance Requirements for Registering a Car in California

One of the most important California vehicle registration requirements is obtaining the mandatory auto insurance coverage. As a general rule, you will only be issued your auto registration paperwork if you purchase the following minimum liability insurance amounts:

  • $5,000 for property damages
  • $15,000 for the death or injury of one person
  • $30,000 for the deaths and/or injuries of more than one person

Before processing your CA vehicle registration application, the DMV will check your compliance with the state insurance laws. You may be required to furnish an additional proof of insurance, depending on the type of coverage you have obtained.

Vehicle Inspection/Smog Inspection/VIN Inspection Requirements in California

Certain types of motor vehicles will receive a DMV registration in California only after passing various inspection procedures. In most cases, before applying for a vehicle registration, car owners will have to obtain a 90-day smog certification. However, certain exemptions to this rule still apply. For instance, vehicles that were recently issued a biennial smog certification will not require a new inspection. Newer-model vehicles will also be exempted from this requirement.

Certain groups of vehicles, such as out-of-state cars, will also have to pass a VIN verification in order to receive a CA vehicle registration. This inspection procedure is completed by DMV employees or other authorized law enforcement officials in the state. The VIN inspection process includes a physical examination of the vehicle for purposes of checking its roadworthiness and the validity of its identification number.

Registering a Vehicle in California

If you would like to know how to get a new car registration in California, note that you will be required to submit your request in person through a nearby DMV site. The steps to get your vehicle registration may vary to a certain degree depending on whether you have a resident or out-of-state vehicle and whether you have purchased it from a private party or an auto dealership. In any case, you will be required to submit several types of documents and pay certain licensing fees.

How to Register a New Car in California

In order to get a car registration in California if you have purchased your vehicle from a dealership, motorists will typically not be required to complete any steps. In general, dealers will submit the request to register a car on behalf of the vehicle buyer. The dealership will also issue CA temporary tags, which can be utilized for 90 days or until the vehicle owner receives his or her permanent plates and registration certificate in the mail. If this option is unavailable to a purchaser, he or she will have to follow the procedure for registering a used vehicle, as outlined below.

Registering a Used Car in California

To obtain a new vehicle registration in California after purchasing a vehicle from a private party, you will have to visit a nearby DMV office and complete both the transfer of ownership and the registration process in person. If you are wondering what you need to register a car in CA, note that the applicable items may include, but are not be limited to:

  • A properly reassigned certificate of title bearing the signature of the seller.
  • Lien release forms, if applicable.
  • A filled out “Application for Title or Registration” form.
  • A separate odometer mileage statement, if the title does not have a reserved section for this purpose and the vehicle is newer than 10 model years.
  • A smog certificate, if required.
  • Payment for the applicable titling, registration and tax fees.

In addition to the above standard car registration documents, you may be required to submit additional forms and/or paperwork, depending on your case. Therefore, before making an office visit, inquire with the state DMV about the exact documentation that applies under your circumstances. The state DMV will issue your CA vehicle registration as soon as it confirms that you have met the full set of applicable requirements.

How to Register a Car in California as a New Resident

Registering a vehicle in California as a new state resident is a very similar process as the standard application procedure outlined in previous sections. To get an auto registration as a new resident, you will be required to make a DMV office visit, fill out the proper application form, submit your out-of-state vehicle documents and tags and pay for all applicable fees.

If you are transferring an out-of-state DMV registration in CA, your motor vehicle will also have to pass a smog inspection and a physical vehicle verification. Depending on the type of vehicle you are registering, you may also require a declaration of vehicle weight and/or a general statement of facts.

Vehicle Registration for Military Members in California

Military members with out-of-state vehicles do not have to get a California auto registration after commencing their military service within the state. Nonresident military personnel can continue utilizing their out-of-state registration to legally drive within California. However, active duty personnel can still choose to apply for a car registration.

Military members who choose to get a new car registration with the state DMV be exempted from paying the vehicle license fee after submitting the “Nonresident Military Exemption Statement” form.

Temporary DMV Registration in California

The state DMV issues temporary registration documents in California for purposes of legally operating a motor vehicle for a limited time period. These short-term vehicle registration permits are designed for motor vehicles that were not issued permanent registration documents and plates. For example, car owners can obtain a one-day vehicle moving permit at no fee for purposes of transporting their vehicle to destinations such as inspection stations.

Motorists can also obtain a free-of-charge temporary operating permit that allows them to operate a motor vehicle for purposes such as obtaining a vehicle registration in another state or completing the CA car registration requirements.

California License Plates

After paying the California car registration fees, the state DMV will issue your registration documents. However, the DMV manufactures its sequential license plates and mails them out within four to six weeks from the date of application. If you order personalized plates, on the other hand, you will have to wait between 10 and 12 weeks before they are manufactured. Furthermore, you will have to pick them up from the corresponding DMV office.

California Car Registration Fees

The last step in the California DMV registration process is paying the applicable licensing fees. The total car registration cost will include several smaller fees, which will vary depending on your circumstances and the type of vehicle you are registering. The following list outlines the standard CA vehicle registration fees that you may be required to pay:

  • $58 main registration fee, which includes a $3 alternative fuel fee
  • $25 California Highway Patrol fee
  • Various county or district fees ranging from $1 to $19
  • A varying vehicle license fee, in lieu of property taxes
  • A late penalty fee ranging from $30 to $100, if applying beyond the allotted registration timeframe
  • A transportation improvement fee ranging from $25 to $175
Last updated on Friday, March 6 2020.