California Car Registration: Everything You Need to Know
Updated: Aug 8
Owning a vehicle is exciting, but the process of registering your vehicle in California to become street legal can be confusing. Questions that may come up during the registration process are:
How do I complete my new car registration?
How do I complete my used car registration?
How do I register my out-of-state car registration?
How do I renew my registration?
Can I renew my registration online?
Is a smog check required?
Are there any special rules or emission requirements that will affect me?
How to complete your California vehicle Registration
This article will address all your questions and will get you cruising on the road to registering your car. Let's get started!
Did you just purchase a vehicle from a car dealership?
A majority of car dealerships take the hassle of registration out of your hands and they will complete the CA registration for you. The only thing you need to do is pay the registration fee at time of purchase, then sit and wait to receive your permanent registration certificate and the registration sticker in the mail. This fee is limited to, at most, $120 for all CA dealers. It is a win/win for both parties because it lessens the risk for the dealer and increases the ease of transaction and satisfaction for the customer.
The dealership should provide you with a temporary operating plate (TOP) which is valid for 6 months or until your registration is done processing, whichever date comes first. If you do not come across a dealership that will not process your registration for you, you will need to register your vehicle in person within 10 days of purchase and you will need to bring the following items:
If you have bought a new car from a dealership:
Application for Title or Registration: This document will allow you to apply for a new title/registration and will allow you to indicate information about the lien holder you would like to add to the title if you financed your new vehicle.
The vehicle title or Certificate of Title from the dealership signed by the dealer themselves in the seller section and your signature, the buyer, on the buyer’s line. Make sure this is done prior to leaving the dealership to avoid any potential hiccups at the DMV.
The Bill of Sale
The Odometer Disclosure Statement
Smog Certificate as well the Smog Form
Proof of Identification like a Driver License
If you bought a used car from a dealer:
The Certificate of Title from the dealership signed by the dealer themselves in the seller section and your signature, the buyer, on the buyer’s line.
The Bill of Sale
The Odometer Disclosure Statement
Smog Certificate as well the Smog Form
Did you just purchase a vehicle from a private party?
The purchase of a vehicle from a private party can make the registration party a little more tricky because it requires action by both the seller and the private party. The seller of the vehicle must report to the DMV that they have sold the vehicle within 5 days and then the buyer must register the vehicle within 10 days.
This process can be done in person or all completed forms can be mailed to the DMV. To prevent any registration delay, give your local DMV a call to ensure that you have all required documents prior to mailing out your forms.
The items you will need for registration and transfer of title are:
The Certificate of Title signed in the seller’s section by the owners’ listed on the vehicle’s title and your signature on the buyer’s line.
Make sure to look at the lien release section of the title prior to leaving the sale. If there is no lien holder listed on the title or a lien holder is listed but the lien is released on the title, you will not need anything additional. If there is a lien holder listed, request the lien release from the seller along with the title. The lien release should be a formal document and the information listed should match what is listed on the title like the financial institution from the seller’s bank and it should include the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), year, make, and model of the vehicle and the release date.
If the seller does not match the name listed on the title, you will also need a signed Bill of Sale.
A Smog Certificate
Per federal law, if your vehicle is less than 10 years old, the odometer mileage will need to be accurately depicted on the title. If there is not room on the title you will have to fill out a REG 262 form, which you will need to acquire from the DMV.
A helpful tip for purchasing a vehicle from a private seller would be to have them sign a Power of Attorney (POA) to allow for you, the buyer, to sign on the seller’s behalf if any of the other vehicle documents requires their signature. The POA can make the process of transferring of ownership if any complications arise.
Are you a new resident to the state of California?
In order to complete your California Registration, you will need to complete your residency documentation. According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, in order to establish residency you must fit one or more of the following criteria: Have been in the state for 6 months or longer, have a CA driver’s license or ID, have a job within CA, are registered to vote within CA, renting an apartment or home within CA, or you own a home and have a property tax exemption.
Once you have established residency, you will have 20 days to register your vehicle or else you will incur late fees. The documentation you will need for registering your vehicle is:
Application for Title or Registration: REG 343, Application for Title or Registration/Verification of Vehicle
Your Out-of State registration
If you own your vehicle: the vehicle’s Out-of-State title
A California Smog Certificate
A completed VIN Inspection. This will need to be filled out by a DMV employee, a California certified inspector, or police officer and is used to verify that your vehicle is compliant with the state standards.
Your out-of-state license plate is only required if you did not need to return them to the previous issuing state or they are expired.
Recommendations and Things to Consider:
To avoid extensive wait times at the DMV make an appointment online at your local DMV office or give your local field office a call. With COVID-19 closing some DMVs, appointments may not be available in your area at this time.
Be prepared to pay the taxes and fees associated with registration
Be proactive with the registration process to avoid any late fee, tickets from the California Highway Patrol, and reduce the possibility of losing any of the required documents. If your title becomes lost or damaged prior to the registration process you will need to apply for a new one.
How to complete your vehicle registration renewal in California
The process of registration renewal is a pretty simple process that can be done online in a majority of cases. About 60 days before your registration is set to expire, you should receive a renewal notice in the mail.
The renewal notice should have:
Name and Address
Renewal due date
Breakdown of the fees associated with registration
Late payment adjustments
Options for completing your renewal: Online, By mail, phone
In some cases, it will also include:
Manufacturer recalls that need to be corrected
Smog Check that need to be completed
With the transfer to the era of digital transaction, the California DMV has also made it possible to complete your car registration on their online platform. The information needed will be the last 5 digits of the VIN, the license plate number, and the renewal notice to confirm your address.
If you have recently moved, completing a change of address form is recommended before completing registration online. You are not eligible to renew online if the vehicle is not insured, you do not have a valid checking account, debit or credit card, there is not a valid smog certificate on file at the DMV.
Renewing by mail
To renew by mail, you must send the renewal notice, a form of payment like a cashiers check or money order, cash or check, and any required documents that are listed on the renewal notice.
Renewing via telephone
To renew over the phone, you will need your renewal notice and a form of payment like a debit or credit card, or a valid checking account.
Listed on the example notice above, you may also see “TO FILE PLANNED NONOPERATIONAL”. A Planned Non-Operational vehicle is one that must remain in a driveway or garage and is not allowed to be parked, driven, or stored on any public street or highway. If you have a project car or junk car that you do not plan on driving over the course of the registration year, filing your car as a planned non-operational vehicle saves you a good chunk of change.
How to calculate and understand Fees and Taxes for car registration in California
Whether you are applying for a new registration or you are renewing your vehicles registration, you will have to pay fees and taxes. Many factors come into play in determining how much you are going to have to pay out-of-pocket.
Those factors are: your vehicle type, weight and purchase price, the date you purchased your vehicle or the date you moved to California, your city and/or county, special plates, and any unpaid violations. On their site, the California DMV has a more specific monetary breakdown on the different fees and penalties that you may have to pay. Here are some calculators that CA DMV has provided for your convenience to calculate your approximate registration fees:
New Vehicle purchased from a Dealer: Calculate New Vehicle Fees
Used Vehicle purchased from a Dealer Calculate Used Vehicle Fees
Out-of-State Vehicle Registration: Calculate New Resident Fees
Vehicle License Fee: Calculate Vehicle License Fees
Renewing your registration: Calculate Vehicle Renewal Fees
Note, these calculators will not work for customers that require a more complex calculation i.e. planned non-operational vehicles and partial year registration.
During the registration and renewal process is a great time to think about refinancing your vehicle! Refinancing your vehicle can help save you money during the life of your loan. WithClutch is a refinance company based completely online that gives you payment options to save money on your auto loan in seconds.
Complete your car registration in California Online without going to the DMV - but a Smog Check May be Required
What is a Smog check and how do you complete a Smog inspection?
A smog check measures the type and amount of pollutants that your car is releasing into the environment. It is required the first time you register your vehicle, every 2 years after your initial registration, and if you are selling the vehicle.
There are certain vehicle that are EXEMPT from having to complete smog certification:
Gas vehicles made in 1975 or earlier
Diesel vehicle made in 1995 or earlier OR has a Gross Vehicle Weight greater than 14,000 lbs
Vehicles made less than 6 years ago
You reside in a county that a Smog inspection is not required
To schedule an appointment, give your nearest SMOG location a call. To find your nearest location, use smog locator tool on https://www.bar.ca.gov/ and give The only items you will need are your car, a valid payment method, and, if you are renewing your registration, your renewal notice.
Once your vehicle passes the Smog inspection, the information will be sent to the DMV electronically.
If you fail a Smog check, it means that there is something in your car’s emission system that is faulty and will need to be repaired. It is your responsibility to find a certified Smog Test Repair center and have a licensed Smog Test technician locate and fix the issue. The best resource at your disposal for this step is the Bureau of Automotive Repair, who can refer you to a repair location and go over next steps.
The price of repairs can run both ends of the spectrum in terms of price depending upon what needs to be serviced. Since a passed smog check is required to register your vehicle, be prepared to pay these out of pocket costs.
Special rules for car registration in California - emissions rules that may impact you
There are two special rules regarding California emissions that may impact you: 49-state vehicles and Senate Bill 100.
A VIN inspection evaluates if your vehicle meets U.S. federal safety standards and your state’s emission standards. Of all 50 states, California has the strictest and most rigorous testing of emission causing some vehicle to meet federal standards but not state standards. Vehicles that do not meet the California standard are referred to as a 49-state vehicle and those that do are referred to as 50-state vehicles.
This rule affects Individuals moving in from out-of-state with a 49-state vehicle. If the vehicle has more than 7,500 miles, registration should go off without a hitch granted the out-of-state registration is provided. If it has less than 7,500 miles, it is considered a new vehicle in California and it is not possible to register these vehicles unless it meets one of the exceptions defined by the CA DMV.
These exceptions include:
Acquired through a legal settlement
Purchased as a replacement for a California registered vehicle that was stolen while being driven out-of-state
Purchased as a replacement for a California registered vehicle that was totaled while being driven out-of-state
An emergency vehicle
Military Personnel who previously registered their vehicle in the state their last orders dictated
A motorcycle that was made in 2005 or older and has an engine smaller than 50cc displacement Models 2006 or newer that meet the engine criteria must obtain an emission label and may be registered despite having less than 7,500 miles.
If your vehicle was specially built but not from a manufacturer and was not intended for resale, your car is considered a Specially Constructed Vehicle (SPCNS). Since SPCNS are unique, each must be inspected by a Smog Check Referee to determine the model-year and the specific smog specifications for that vehicle moving forward. To register a SPCNS vehicle, please see the DMV site for items needed.
Your car is registered, now what? Lower your payments!
Now that you feel the stress and confusion of vehicle registration vanishing, it’s time to take a look on how to improve another aspect of your car-ownership experience: your loan. This is where WithClutch.com comes into play.
More than likely, if you received your vehicle loan from a dealership, you are drastically overpaying on your loan. We live in a time of greedy car dealerships which has caused the car loan market to be inefficient. This market inefficiency is due to the fact that most vehicle owners pay more for their loan than they were qualified for.
Most people can save money by refinancing their loan from the comfort of their home. “Most people” may be you, which is why you shouldn’t waste any more time or money and follow these simple steps.