Vehicle owners in California must have a registered vehicle with the appropriate license plates. All rear plates must display a validation sticker that is up to date. Failure to do so leads to additional fees when renewing a vehicle.
If you live in California, or plan to, you can register your vehicle with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The DMV is the place to register, apply for license plates, and purchase validation stickers.
Remember, by California law, you must have up-to-date license plates with a valid sticker displayed on the rear of your vehicle.
Note that California is one of the states that may ban a lot of license plates based on religious, hateful, or other content. Check out our California's banned license plates list.
When you register your vehicle and apply for license plates, you can choose between the state’s standard California license plate or a specialty plate.
Upon registration, you must show your license (not expired). When you receive your license plates, you're expected to place one on the front and one on the rear.
If you're registering a motorcycle, you may only be required to display one license plate, on the rear.
In addition to registering your vehicle at the DMV, you must also purchase a validation sticker to show the month of expiration. This sticker must be placed on the rear plate and be visible at all times.
You'll obtain both a month sticker and a year sticker. The month sticker should never change. A new year sticker will be given to you upon renewal of your registration.
It's not uncommon to see catchy slogans and phrases on license plates in California. You can personalize your license plate with a combination of numbers, letters, and some special characters.
If you're personalizing standard plates, you must follow these guidelines:
The California DMV does not provide a search to see which plates are available. But you can search here, through the findbyplate.com website, to see what plates are taken.
A wide range of specialty license plates are offered by the California DMV. These plates add an additional $50 (more or less) to your total. Take a look at a few of the specialty plates you can get in California:
Some of these plates, to be considered, require an application form. You may have to provide certain documentation to be eligible. For example, if you are applying for Firefighter License Plates, you would have to provide documentation that shows that you are, or were, a firefighter.
Whether you have just moved to California with your car or you are a resident purchasing a new vehicle, you must get your vehicle registered at the DMV within 20 days.
To register your vehicle, you’ll need:
Depending on the vehicle you're registering, you may also need additional documents such as an emissions test or previous title.
In California, you don't surrender your plates to the DMV when you sell your car. Instead, your plates remain with the car and transfer to the new owner (if there is a new vehicle owner).
However, if you have purchased specialty plates, these remain yours, and you can have them transferred to your new motor vehicle.
If you already have standard plates for your vehicle and wish to upgrade to specialty plates, you'll have to surrender your standard plates to do so.
You may find your license plates stolen or missing. If this occurs, you must apply for new plates immediately. You can obtain new plates by submitting an application for replacement, which you can bring in person or by mail to the DMV.
You will also be required to pay replacement fees:
To receive your new plates faster (sometimes on the same day), it is best to go to the DMV instead of mailing an application for replacement.
Note: You can obtain a replacement for the monthly stickers absolutely free
Before the date on your license plate stickers expires, you should go to the DMV and renew your vehicle’s registration. You’ll have to renew your vehicle once a year, and upon renewal you will receive a new year sticker to apply to your license plate.
Depending on the year that your vehicle was made, it may also be expected to undergo an emissions test. Changes to legislation occur each year, and with the advancements in car technologies, your car may be subjected to additional fees if it does not keep the air clean.
Before ordering your personalized license plate, you can look up available license plates in California for free. You’ll be able to find which plate names are available.
If you are looking to purchase a vehicle privately, this license plate search engine gives you VIN information such as vehicle history and previous owners.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to look up a California license plate number and report bad drivers: