California Vehicle Registration Guide for 2024

Buying a car is more complicated than it seems. At the very least, you’ll need to research your options, schedule a test drive, and negotiate prices. Once the purchase is completed, you must register your car with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This final step is more or less complex, depending on your state’s laws and who you buy the car from. 

If you’re based in California, you have only 10 to 20 days to complete the vehicle registration process. Unless you bought the car from a dealership, it’s necessary to visit a local DMV location and file some paperwork.

Apart from that, you may need a smog certificate and other documents. For example, California residents who wish to register an imported vehicle must also show evidence that the car has cleared customs.

The only way to bypass these steps is to purchase from a dealership, which will handle the registration process on your behalf. If that’s not an option, read on. We’ll show you how to register a car in California without going back and forth to the DMV. 

Why It’s Important to Register Your Car

Car registration is a legal requirement in the U.S. and most other countries. The only types of vehicles exempt from registration in California include:

  • Aircraft refueling vehicles
  • Disaster relief vehicles
  • Hauled vehicles
  • Firefighting equipment (e.g., fire trucks)
  • Cemetery equipment (e.g., vehicles used for maintaining cemetery grounds)
  • Construction equipment
  • Forklift trucks
  • Golf carts
  • Snowmobiles
  • Miniature motorcycles

If you own a personal or business car, trailer, or tow dolly, you must register it with the California DMV.

Failure to do so can result in a traffic ticket and a fine of $280 plus court and administrative fees, according to Shouse Law Group. Additionally, you will be charged with an infraction.

Vehicle registration also helps establish legal proof of ownership, thereby protecting your investment.

Let’s assume you purchase a car but, for some reason, postpone its registration. Perhaps you don’t plan to use it over the next few months because you don’t yet have a driver’s license.

Why It's Important to Register Your Car

The problem is that you may have difficulty proving ownership if the car is stolen. Plus, you may receive a fine for failing to register it on time.

While it’s true that you can insure an unregistered vehicle in California, your policy may not cover theft and other events, such as damage from fire. 

What Do You Need to Register a Car in California?

The vehicle registration process is quite straightforward for California residents.

  • If the car is new, you’ll apply for registration and title by filling out Form REG 343. For used vehicles, bring the California Certificate of Title with you to the DMV.
  • Next, you must sign the Certificate of Title and ask the seller to do the same. 
  • The DMV may require additional documents, depending on the type of car to be registered—which is something we’ll discuss later in this guide.

Note that if you buy the car from a private party, you must register it within 10 days from the date of purchase. This requirement doesn’t apply to vehicles purchased from dealerships.

Things are a bit more complicated for those looking to register an out-of-state vehicle in California.

In this case, you must establish residency in the Golden State and then register the car within 20 days. The registration process involves additional steps, such as undergoing vehicle verification.

What Do You Need to Register a Car in California?

Documents Required for Vehicle Registration

As mentioned earlier, the documents required for vehicle registration in California depend on several factors, including:

  • Who you bought the car from
  • Whether the car is new or used
  • The type of vehicle

These factors will also determine the fees you pay.

Now let’s discuss some common scenarios—and what documents you’ll need to bring or fill out.

You Buy a New Car from a Dealership

Most dealerships will transfer the title and issue temporary registration on your behalf.

If the one you chose doesn’t provide these services, then you must register the car yourself. This process must be completed within 10 days from the date of purchase.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Your state ID card or driver’s license
  • Form REG 343 (Application for Title or Registration)
  • A Certificate of Title signed by both parties (you and the seller or lienholder)
  • Proof of insurance (optional) 

Vehicle registration fees start at $74 and vary from case to case. For example, you may have to pay extra for special license plates.

To get an estimate, use the DMW’s vehicle registration fee calculator.

You Buy a Used Car from a Dealership

When you purchase a used car, you must bring its Certificate of Title to your local DMV as part of the registration process. In this case, it’s not necessary to fill out Form REG 343.

For lost or damaged title certificates, complete Form REG 227 to obtain a copy. The title must be signed by both parties.

You Buy a Used Car from a Dealership

Apart from that, you must pay a title transfer fee of $15—plus other fees (if applicable). These steps must be completed within 10 days from the date you purchased the vehicle.

The DMW may ask for additional documents, such as a Vehicle Emission System Statement (REG 139) and/or a smog certification. 

You Buy a Used Car from Another Person

When you purchase a car from another person, you must transfer ownership to your name within 10 days. Prepare the following documents prior to visiting your local DMV:

  • Your ID card or driver’s license
  • The vehicle’s title, or pink slip
  • Odometer mileage record form (for cars older than 10 years)
  • Smog certification
  • Proof of insurance (optional)

If the name on the title is different from the seller’s name, you must get a bill of sale before registering the car. Make sure this document is signed by both parties—the vehicle’s owner and the seller.

Note that late registration can result in penalty fees, as shown below:

Penalty fees for late registration.

You Buy a Vehicle from Abroad

Imported vehicles are sometimes more affordable than those sold in the U.S. The downside is that the registration process involves extensive paperwork.

According to the California DMV, you’ll need the following documents to register an imported car:

  • Your ID card or driver’s license
  • An out-of-state title
  • Form REG 343 (Application for Title or Registration)
  • Form REG 4008 (Declaration of Gross Vehicle Weight/Combined Gross Vehicle Weight)
  • Form REG 31 (Verification of Vehicle)
  • Form REG 256 (Statement of Facts)
  • Form REG 262 (Vehicle/Vessel Transfer and Reassignment), which must be filed in hard copy
  • Customs clearance documents
  • Weight certificate (for trucks and pick-ups)
  • Proof that your car complies with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS); these documents are required for vehicles produced after 1995.

Like in the previous scenarios, the DMW may also require a smog certificate and other documents.

Do You Need Insurance to Register a Car in California?

According to Section 4000.38 of the California Vehicle Code (CVC), car owners have 30 days to submit proof of insurance from the date they register a vehicle or transfer ownership to themselves.

Therefore, you can register your car or transfer the title to your name without showing proof of insurance. However, you must do it within 30 days, or your vehicle registration may be suspended.

Our advice is to insure the car before registration. At the very least, you’ll need minimum liability insurance, which covers the following:

  • $15,000 for the injury or death of one person
  • $30,000 for the injury or death of two or more people
  • $5,000 for property damage

Car owners who cannot afford a standard policy may apply for the California Low-Cost Automobile Insurance Program. Make sure you also ask about these hidden auto insurance discounts that could lower your premiums by hundreds of dollars a year. 

California Low-Cost Automobile Insurance Program

How to Register Your Car in California

Once you have all the necessary documents, take these steps to complete the vehicle registration process:

  1. Schedule an Appointment with the DMV
    • The vehicle registration process cannot be completed online. Therefore, you’ll have to book an appointment at a local DMV office.
  2. Complete the Necessary Forms
    • Depending on your circumstances, you’ll need to file Form REG 343 and/or other documents, such as REG 4008. 
    • With a few exceptions (e.g., REG 262), most forms can be completed online and printed.
  3. Submit the Required Documents
    • When visiting the DMV office, bring your state ID card or driver’s license, an application form, and other necessary documents, such as the car title and smog certificate.
  4. Pay the Registration Fees
    • The California DMV accepts most payment methods, including cash, credit and debit cards, money orders, and cashier’s checks. 
    • You may use online fee calculators to get an estimate, but the exact amount will be determined by the DMV personnel at the time of registration.
  5. Request a Temporary Operating Permit (TOP)
    • This document allows you to drive your car while waiting for the license plates and stickers to arrive by mail. A standard TOP (for complete registrations) is valid for 90 days.

What’s Next? 

The DMV will process your application and then mail the registration card, license plates, and stickers. This can take several days to several weeks, depending on their schedule.

Next Steps

Meanwhile, you can operate the vehicle if you have a valid TOP and car insurance. 

Additional Considerations When Registering a Vehicle

The vehicle registration process may differ from case to case. For example, California residents who want to register a leased car must have the application form (REG 343) and title certificate signed by the leasing company, too.

Listed below are some special situations you may encounter when registering a vehicle in California.

You Want to Register an Out-of-State Car

Out-of-state vehicle registrations must be completed within 20 days from the date you establish residency or get a job in the Golden State.

Apart from that, the registration process isn’t much different from when you register an in-state car.

You must fill out an application form and submit several documents, such as the vehicle’s registration certification and most recent out-of-state title. You’ll also need to have your car inspected by a DMV employee, who will fill out and sign Form REG 31 (Verification of Vehicle).

You Want to Renew Your Registration

If your registration is about to expire, you can renew it online. The DMV will mail the updated registration and stickers within two weeks.

Renewing your registration online

Another option is to renew your registration at the DMV Kiosk. If you go this route, you’ll get everything done on the same day.

Alternatively, you can do it by phone (1-800-777-0133) or submit the required documents by mail.

You Don’t Have a Driver’s License

Unless you are underage, you can buy and register a car without a driver’s license. However, you cannot test-drive the vehicle.

Additionally, you must name a driver for insurance purposes. Remember that it’s necessary to purchase liability coverage within 30 days from the car registration date.

Your Car Is No Longer in the DMV’s Records

If a vehicle’s registration has expired for four years or more, the car may no longer appear in the DMV’s records.

In such cases, you must submit a new registration application and additional documents, including an odometer disclosure statement, a smog certification, and Form REG31.

You Want to Register a Modified Vehicle

Specially constructed or modified vehicles must undergo additional testing as part of the registration process.

For example, you’ll need to have your car verified by DMV personnel and get an official brake and light adjustment certificate. Bring the receipts, bills of sale, and other documents issued for the parts used to alter the vehicle.

You Want to Register a Modified Vehicle

You Want to Register an All-Terrain Vehicle

All-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and other off-highway vehicles (OHVs) are subject to different legal requirements than standard vehicles.

First, you must complete a registration application form (RED 434) and show proof of ownership. 

After that, you’ll need to have the vehicle inspected by a DMV employee and submit Form REG 31. Sometimes, the DMV may also require Form REG 227 (Application for Duplicate or Transfer of Title) and other documents.

If you plan to drive your OHV on public roads, make sure it meets the equipment and modification standards outlined by the CVC. You must also register it with the DMV again, but you can maintain dual registration

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