How to Register a Vehicle in California

Life can be complicated, but this doesn’t have to be the case when finding out how exactly to register your car in California.

Confused about how to register a car? Don't worry, we'll help clear things up.
Confused about how to register a car? Don’t worry, we’ll help clear things up.

Yes, registering your ride in the state of California may seem bit complicated, especially when considering things like fees, titles, and registrations (all words that add confusion simply at their mere mention) but it doesn’t have to be. You just might have an answer as to how to register a vehicle in California.

First, point inward. Who are you? No, this isn’t philosophical. It’s about where you’re from and where your car is from. If your car is from out-of-state your first steps will be a little different than those of someone from California or with an in-state vehicle.

How to Register a Car as a New California Resident

If you’re a new resident of California, you’ll first need to head down to the local DMV office (Department of Motor Vehicles).

You’ll have to establish residency in order to register a car. A resident is in possession of a driver’s license or voter registration as proof, as well as California-based employment, tax exemption for a home in the state, or rent or lease for an apartment in-state. If you’re underage, you’ll need to be enrolled as a dependent.

If you're not of age, you'll have to register as a dependent.
If you’re not of age, you’ll have to register as a dependent.

If you’re of voting age, you’ll also re-register to vote in the state, with more information available on the Secretary of State website along with the voter registration application and specific county election details.

Once your residency is established as an official Californian, you’ll need to submit an application for the title or registration. The terms and qualifications  might be different depending on whether it’s a commercial vehicle or otherwise, but either way, you’ll need to apply and bring proof of insurance. You’ll also need an out-of-state title if you are attempting to transfer your title to California. An out-of-state registration is also requested and a weight certification if required. You’ll need a smog certification, which should be updated every two years and is required within a certain timeframe, as well. If this smog test isn’t done there will be fees and if it doesn’t pass a smog test (with legal limits and exceptions), consider it a junk car. A smog check isn’t the only thing to be done ASAP by penalty of fees.

You have to do a smog check or face a penalty fee.
You have to do a smog check or face a penalty fee.

The state of California enforces fees on essentially every car bought or transferred within its confines. All vehicles must pay a $46 registration fee. If the car is bought from a dealership, this should be included in its total. If you register the vehicle after 20 days post-residency, the fee will go up and you will have to pay $30. If you buy it from a third party, it must be done within 10 days. If it’s later than a year, it’ll be $50. If it’s more than two years late, it’ll be $100.

That all being said, smog checks aren’t always required. If the car is less than 4 years old, is a hybrid, is a 1975 model or older, its motor is vintage, it is a motorcycle, or is a trailer, it won’t require the smog check and won’t have the associated fees.

How to Register a Car as a Current California Resident

If you purchased the car in California and have already established residency, the process before registering is a little bit smoother.

If you're not a new resident, the process for registering a car is much smoother.
If you’re not a new resident, the process for registering a car is much smoother.

Dealerships will generally handle the paperwork and work with you in getting those taken care of. They will help give you a temporary registration until the official registration arrives and may even issue license plates. Ask about their policy. They should also have a manufacturer’s certificate of origin as proof of the car’s history and where it was sold.

The car should also have a vehicle VIN, a unique vehicle identification code specific to that single car. This will be available in 17 digits and will be required for insurance as well as registration.

If you buy your car from a private party or individual, you have 10 days to register it. Make sure it has an owner’s manual and the necessary materials, certifications, and checks before purchasing. Once it’s yours, head over to your local DMV office and make sure to bring the vehicle title with its mileage, a smog certificate depending on its registration renewal (within 90 days, you’re good), application for the title or registration, and be ready to pay all fees and taxes for the certificate of title.

Once the residency is established, the proof is displayed, and the fees and the tax are paid, a registration will be yours courtesy of the Secretary of State Office and with legal witness.

Mine all mine! After you complete these steps a vehicle registration is yours.
Mine all mine! After you complete these steps a vehicle registration is yours.

All California vehicles are required to have license plates with registration stickers as proof of their authenticity. These plates will remain on the vehicle when bought and sold unless the seller requests them. The state department requires these as record amongst the other aforementioned documents associated with the car.

When you’ve got it all done, you’re good to hit the road. Be careful, life can be complicated and California traffic is certainly no exception to the rule.