How to Register an Out-of-State Vehicle in California

One of the first things you need to do after relocating to California is to register your car with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This process must be initiated within 20 days of moving to avoid late fees. 

California is more lax than other places when it comes to out-of-state vehicle registrations. If you moved to Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, or Texas, you must get a state driver’s license before registering your car. That’s not a legal requirement for those relocating to California and 10 other states, including Florida, Indiana, Maine, and New York. 

The first step is to fill out a vehicle registration form, such as REG 343, and pay a fee. After that, you must submit the vehicle’s out-of-state title, a smog certificate, proof of insurance, and other relevant documents. 

Below, we’ll show you the steps needed to register a vehicle from out of state in California. We’ll also talk about any exceptions you should be aware of and what you can expect to pay. 

Let’s dive in. 

Check the Residency Requirements 

California allows newcomers to register an out-of-state vehicle under certain conditions. 

For example, you must submit proof of insurance. But since you can’t live in one state and get insured in another, you must first establish residency in California. 

You’re considered a resident of the Golden State if you meet either of the following:

  • You work in California and pay income taxes in the state
  • You rent or buy a home in California and use it as your permanent address
  • You claim tax exemptions on a home in the state
  • You register to vote in the California elections
  • You spent more than nine months in California

*The above requirements don’t apply to military members and their spouses, children, or other close relatives. 

Generally, California defines residency as having a permanent home in the state. However, your residency status is determined based on several factors, with the length of your stay and where you have your closest connections being the most important. 

According to Section 4000.4 of the California Vehicle Code, any vehicle that’s either based in California or primarily used on California highways must be registered with the state. 

However, according to Section 6700, you are not required to register your car in California until you get a job or establish residency here, whichever occurs first. 

Check the Residency Requirements 

Out-of-state college students are subject to different requirements. 

First, they may or may not need to register their cars in California, depending on whether they intend to become residents. 

Second, you can stay on your parents’ policy, even if they live in another state, eliminating the need to get your vehicle insured in California (unless you decide to move here permanently). 

Given the complexity of the law, it’s best to contact a lawyer. Just remember that you have only 20 days to register your vehicle after establishing residency. 

Prepare Your Out-of-State Car for Registration

Once you have established residency in California, make an appointment with your local DMV office. When you get there, you need to submit several documents:

  • Form REG 343 (for personal vehicles)
  • Form REG 4017 (for trailers)
  • Form REG 4008 (for commercial vehicles)
  • Form REG 31 (Verification of Vehicle) 
  • Proof of insurance
  • The last issued out-of-state title
  • The car’s registration certificate 
  • A smog certificate (for certain types of vehicles)

REG 343, REG 4017, and REG 4008 are application registration forms. If you own a personal car, fill out Form REG 343. You must also complete Form REG 4017 if the vehicle has a trailer attached. 

Apart from that, remember to bring your out-of-state license plates. However, you can skip this step if the license plates are expired or must be returned to the state where they were issued. You can also keep the plates if the vehicle is registered interstate (in California and another state). 

Out-of-State Car for Registration

How to Get a Smog Certificate

With a few exceptions, most newer vehicles must undergo a smog check before registration. This step is necessary for obtaining a smog certificate. 

The California DMW requires a smog inspection for the following vehicles: 

  • Gasoline-powered cars produced after 1976 
  • Diesel-powered cars produced after 1998
  • Any vehicle under 14,001 pounds powered by propane or natural gas

Electric vehicles generate zero tailpipe emissions and, therefore, don’t require a smog check. 

If your car is less than four years old, you may pay a $20 smog abatement fee to skip the smog inspection. 

Smog checks were introduced in the Golden State in 1984 to reduce pollution. During testing, an auto mechanic will assess your car’s emissions system and issue a Vehicle Inspection Report (VIR) to document the results and any recommendations. 

If everything looks right, you’ll get a smog certificate. But if your car fails the smog test (which happens in about 10% of cases), you’ll need to have it repaired to reduce its emissions. 

Generally, a well-maintained vehicle should pass the smog check. Take these steps to increase your chances of passing on the first try:

  • Do an oil change (if necessary)
  • Clear your check engine light (if it’s on)
  • Get a new gas cap if your vehicle is over five years old 
  • Check the exhaust system for leaks 
  • Change the car air filter (if necessary)
  • Service the battery 
  • Flush the cooling system 

Next, search for a DMV-approved smog check station in your area and book an appointment. Note that some stations can perform pre-inspections so you can identify and fix any issues that could cause your car to fail the emissions test. 

DMV-approved smog check station

Expect to pay $30 to $80 or higher for a smog check, depending on the service center. The price may or may not include the state certificate fee. 

For instance, AllTech Auto charges $41.75 to $61.75 for a smog inspection, plus a certificate fee of $8.25. 

What Is a Vehicle Verification? 

As mentioned earlier, you’ll also need to submit Form REG 31 (Verification of Vehicle). This document will be completed by the DMV after inspecting your car. 

Vehicle verifications are mandatory for most cars registered out-of-state. This process involves a physical inspection of the car, during which a DMV employee (or other authorized parties) will check the following:

  • VIN location
  • Engine number 
  • Odometer mileage reading
  • Ownership documents 
  • US Federal Certification Label
  • Emission label 

The information on the registration application has to match what’s on the car. For example, your vehicle’s engine number must be the same as the one on the title or registration. 

Steps to Register Your Out-of-State Car in California

Registering an out-of-state car in California is quite straightforward once you’ve established residency. Simply follow these steps: 

  1. Obtain a smog inspection certificate (if necessary) 
  2. Purchase car insurance from a company based in California (ask about these hidden discounts!)
  3. Schedule an appointment at your local DMV
  4. Fill out a registration application (e.g., Form REG 343)
  5. Submit the vehicle’s out-of-state title and registration
  6. Show proof of insurance
  7. Get your vehicle verified by a DMV employee 
  8. Pay the registration fees and other taxes

Once these steps are completed, you’ll get your California registration card and license plates. 

Note that you must pay the registration fees within 20 days of their due date, even if you don’t have all the necessary documents. The due date may vary based on a number of factors, such as when you established residency or when your out-of-state registration expires. 

Failure to pay on time will result in penalty fees, as shown below: 

Penalty fees for not paying on time

Apart from that, make sure the documents are complete and accurate. Otherwise, you may encounter delays. Check for any discrepancies with the out-of-state title, such as missing signatures, before submitting your application. 

You’ll also want to check the following resources before registering your car: 

How Much Does It Cost to Register Your Car?

Vehicle registration fees depend on the city or county where you live and several other factors, including:

  • Your car’s purchase price or declared value 
  • Car engine type (gas, diesel, or electric)
  • Gross vehicle weight (GVW)
  • Type of vehicle (e.g., passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, off-highway vehicles, or trailers)
  • Other considerations (e.g., special license plates) 

The cost of registration starts at $74, which includes an alternative fuel/technology fee of $3. However, you may have to pay additional fees and taxes, depending on your circumstances. 

Other Taxes and Fees 

Someone who bought a car in a state that doesn’t collect sales tax must pay those taxes after registering the vehicle in California. 

But if that person purchased the car more than a year ago, they are not required to pay sales tax. The same applies to those who received the car as a gift or bought it from an out-of-state dealership (in which case the sales tax is usually included in the price). 

Sales tax in California is 7.25% but can go up to 10% in some counties. 

So, if you bought a $50,000 car from Delaware, Montana, or another state that doesn’t charge sales tax, you’ll pay $3,625 to $5,000 right off the bat—in addition to registration fees and other charges, such as:

  • County-specific fees
  • California Highway Patrol (CHP) fee: $32
  • Zero-emission vehicle parking fee: $17
  • Smog abatement feet: $20
  • Off-highway vehicle (OHV) fee: $33
  • Non-resident service fee: $27

To get an estimate, use the DMV’s vehicle registration fee calculator for new residents. This should give you an idea of what you can expect to pay. 

Additional Considerations 

The above regulations apply to new residents who bring their cars to California. However, there are several other situations where you may need to register an out-of-state vehicle. 

Let’s say you live in California and bought your car from a dealership in another state. In such cases, the dealership will handle the paperwork. It may also give you license plates, collect sales tax, and pay it to your state. 

Additional considerations where you need to register an out-of-state vehicle

However, each dealership has its own policies, so you should inquire about these aspects in advance. 

Now let’s assume you’re a California resident who purchased a car from an out-of-state private seller. After receiving the vehicle, you have 10 days to register it with the DMW. 

In the above scenario, you may or may not need to get a smog check. It depends on the vehicle’s age and the date when the seller renewed its registration card. It may also be necessary to fill out additional forms, such as REG 227 (Application for replacement or transfer of title). 

Things are a bit more complicated if you’re based in California and buy a car with a lienholder. 

In this case, you must satisfy the lien before proceeding with the registration. After that, it’s necessary to fill out Form REG 343 and bring any additional documents proving vehicle ownership.

Lastly, let’s assume you want to register an out-of-state leased vehicle in California. 

In this scenario, you must ask the leasing company to sign the registration form (REG 343). Alternatively, they may send you a notarized power of attorney that allows you to sign on their behalf. 

Bring Your Car to the Golden State 

Registering an out-of-state car in California isn’t that difficult if you know what documents are needed. Our advice is to research your options in advance so you can get everything done on time. 

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to contact your local DMV office for more information. Each case is different, and the exact steps (and the associated fees) for registering a car depend on your circumstances. 

For example, you may or may not need to pay sales tax. Plus, the county where you live may charge additional fees. Your car’s make and model, year of manufacturing, weight, emission levels, and other factors come into play, too. 

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