How to register a car in California


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UPDATED: 2021-02-26T20:24:36.346Z
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Registered cars in California driving down a Los Angeles road on a sunny day.

You’ll need to register your car in California to be a legal driver in the state whether you have recently relocated to California or are a resident who has just purchased your first vehicle.

While registering your car is required, it doesn’t have to be difficult. If you take the time to understand the process and ensure that you have everything you need before you begin, it can go smoothly.

Here’s what you need to know to register a car in California.

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Why do you need to register a car in California?

Registering a car serves one primary purpose. It establishes a formal link between a vehicle on the road and its legal owner. Having this on record with a governmental entity, and carrying your registration in your vehicle, can be required by a state for a variety of reasons, but the big ones are:

  • Taxation: This is usually through administration of a property tax. Knowing who the owner of the vehicle is provides a means to determine to whom a tax bill should be assessed.
  • Safety: This is determined through a mandated inspection process. Having unsafe vehicles on the road is a threat to others. Registering a vehicle means that there is a record of an inspection process that ensures major vehicle systems such as brakes, lights, and other components are in working order.
  • Track or prevent criminal activity: Having a governmental record of who owns a vehicle is useful in case there are questions of ownership and it improves the ability to track illicit sales if a car is stolen.

Who is required to register a car in California?

Any vehicle that will be used on California’s roads must be registered and the vehicle’s legal operator must be the one to register. Within this broad mandate are a variety of circumstances, each of which could require slightly different documentation, which we’ll detail in the “what do you need” section below.

If you purchased your car at a dealership in California, you’re in luck. Most dealerships take care of the entire registration process for you. You’ll receive a temporary registration card to hold you over until you receive your permanent card and stickers in the mail.

It’s always good to verify that a dealership will be doing this for you, because if they do not, you’ll need to take care of registering the car yourself.

Buying a car isn’t the only situation for which you’ll need to register a car in California.

Here are some other examples of instances that will necessitate registering your vehicle:

  • If you’ve moved to California and have a vehicle that was previously registered in another state (you’ll have 20 days from the date of your move to register your vehicle to avoid being assessed a late fee)
  • If you’ve just purchased a vehicle through a private sale (you have 10 days from the date of sale to register the vehicle to avoid being assessed a late fee)
  • If you are transferring title from one family member to another
  • If you need to change title from an individual to an estate
  • If you are looking to secure specialized license plates, such as disabled persons or disabled veteran plates

This covers most of the common circumstances under which you’ll need to register a vehicle. For a more complete list, visit California’s DMV vehicle licensing website.

What do you need in order to register a car in California?

Registering a vehicle in California is administered through the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). You’ll need to bring documentation with you. This includes some basics that everyone must bring. Additional documentation might be required beyond that, depending on the type of vehicle you’re registering and your specific situation. Keep in mind that some DMV offices require drivers to make an appointment. Sometimes, you can get a temporary registration certificate for a vehicle if you're unable to make an appointment right away. These can last anywhere from 10 to 45 days.

The following items are always required regardless of circumstance:

  • Vehicle title, signed by the previous owner
  • Application for registration
  • Proof of ownership
  • Driver license
  • A verification of vehicle form, filled out by an authorized DMV representative, law enforcement officer, or a vehicle verifier licensed by the state of California
  • You will also need to bring a method of payment for any fees that will be assessed
  • For some drivers, some additional documents may be required.

Other types of supporting documentation that might be required:

  • An odometer disclosure statement
  • Valid smog certificate (after a smog check)
  • Out-of-state registration (for vehicles being registered after a move)
  • Weight certificate (for commercial vehicles)
  • Bill of sale
  • Lien satisfied/Legal owner/Title release form
  • Medical certifications (for disabled plate/placard applications)
  • Statement of deceased owner (for transferring the registration to an estate)

Again, this list provides examples but is not exhaustive. Your situation might require other supporting documentation, so always make sure to review what is needed for your circumstances before heading to the DMV. Being prepared will save you time and aggravation! Check out the list of California DMV frequently asked questions to find out more.

Do you need to have proof of insurance to register a car in California?

Yes! The official terminology for this is called evidence of financial responsibility and it’s required for all vehicles that are “operated or parked on California roadways.”

California has minimum coverage requirements for liability insurance of $15,000 for the injury or death of one person; $30,000 for the injury or death of more than one person; and $5,000 in property damage.

Insurers in California are required by law to report coverage for privately owned vehicles. This is an electronic reporting system that transfers data from insurers that provide policies in the state to the state's DMV system. This means that the state has access to information such as insurance policies that have lapsed or been canceled, so make sure you pay your insurance premiums on time. If you do not have proper insurance (which means meeting all insurance requirements) at all times, your registration and your license can be suspended or revoked.

If you’re looking to save money on your car insurance after your move to California, check out some of the reviews and ratings of California car insurance companies on our website.

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