What You Need to Know about Vanity plates in California

Everyone can appreciate a funny specialty license plate when sitting at a red stop. Clever combinations like “L8R BRA” or “I GOTTA P” can make an average car 10X cooler and are sure to attract a few honks on the highway in recognition. If you’re interested in joining in on the fun and jazzing up your own vehicle with a personalized plate, here are the steps you’ll need to take:

How to apply for a vanity license plate in California

You can apply for a vanity license plate in the state of California two different ways:

  1. Mail the completed Special Interest License Plate application to the Department of Motor Vehicle address at the bottom of the form with the appropriate fee.
  2. Order online on the DMV website.

Any motor vehicle- car, truck, trailer, or motorcycle registered in California can apply, but not all specialty plates are available to motorcycles. Note that special interest license plates have additional fees that are used to support the relevant programs and projects displayed on the specialty plates but vary depending on the organization. California offers a range of special interest plates with graphic designs that are related to the organization’s interest. A few examples include:

Lake Tahoe Conservancy

Lake Tahoe Conservancy License Plate You can use vanity license plates to support great causes!

Pet Lovers

Pet lover license plate Show your love for pets with your license plate!


Collegiate License Plate Support your college with a collegiate license plate

Whale Tail

Whale Tail License plate Support California's beautiful coastline with your vanity plate!

In addition, special license plates include: agriculture plates, arts council plates, coastal commission plates, firefighter plates (available only to current and retired firefighters), memorial plates, veterans’ plates, Yosemite Conservancy plates, and plates for the Child Health and Safety Fund. Once you’ve selected the background you prefer, you can choose to have the license number personalized or sequential. If you choose sequential (a random license plate number), then you must have the vehicle registration card available for the car receiving the plate. If you choose to customize a plate, you can pick any combination of letters, numbers and characters between 2 to 7 characters. However, they can’t be offensive (in any language so don’t try and get around this one), or resemble existing plates. If you order your plates online, you can see if your desired combo is available and preview it before purchase.

Speciality plates cost around $50 and the personalization fee is $48. So, if you decide to go with something original, make it worthwhile! Once the order is placed, there are NO refunds for the special plate. Randomly assigned plates will arrive by mail within 6 weeks, but personalized plates take longer, usually about 12 weeks. Make sure that once you’ve received your new plates, you go in person to exchange your previous plates to the DMV location you specified on your application.

Unlike traditional license plates, speciality or vanity plates typically stay with the owner instead of the vehicle. If you decide to sell your car, you have a few options when handling your personalized plate. You can reassign the plate to a new car, retain your plate until you get a new vehicle (retention fees will apply- $38), or release the plate back to the DMV. Whichever route you take, make sure you complete the appropriate application (the Special Interest License Plate app or the Special Recognition License Plate app) and gather the necessary items before submitting by mail or in person. You’ll need registration paperwork if you’re reassigning the plate to a new car, the retention fee if you’re keeping it for later use, or the plates themselves if you’re releasing to the DMV.

Whatever you decide to go with, make it special and know that you’re supporting a number of great organizations in the process!

Krista Doyle