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License Plates & Placards in California

SUMMARY: License Plates in California

License plates are required for most vehicles owned by California residents. To apply for plates you'll register your vehicle with the DMV. You'll also need to renew your vehicle registration to renew your license plates. On this page, you'll also find information surrendering tags to the DMV, replacing your license plates, and CA license plate lookup.

Looking for disability plates? See our Disability Placards & Plates page.

If you register your vehicle in CA, you are required to display license plates with valid date stickers, showing that your registration is up to date.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) issues license plates and expiration stickers when you register your vehicle and renew your registration.

California License Plates & Tags

The current standard California license plate is white with dark blue lettering. Of course, license plate designs are subject to change.

Vehicles registered in California must display valid license plates as evidence of current registration:

  • Passenger vehicles display 2 license plates:
    • 1 plate on the front of the car.
      AND
    • 1 plate on the back of the car.
  • Other vehicles, such as motorcycles, usually have only 1 license plate.

The CA DMV will issue the appropriate number of license plates when you register your vehicle.

To be valid, your license plate must have:

  • A sticker showing what month your registration expires.
    AND
  • A sticker, showing what year the registration expires.

Year stickers are issued each time you renew your registration, whereas month stickers do not change.

Specialty CA License Plates

The California DMV offers a wide range of specialty license plates, including:

  • Personalized license plates.
    • The online ordering system will perform a license plate lookup to determine the availability of your letter/number combination.
  • Special interest plates, for example:
    • Collegiate plates.
    • State or national park plates.
  • Legacy license plates using designs from past CA plates.
  • Special license plates, such as:
    • Historical vehicle license plates.
    • Antique motorcycle plates.
  • Recognition license plates, including:
    • Pearl Harbor survivor plates.
    • Purple Heart recipient plates.
  • Disability plates and placards.

Detailed information about these license plates, including fees and application procedures, is available on the California DMV site.

Temporary License Plates

The California DMV does not issue temporary license plates.

When you buy a new vehicle, the dealer will give you the appropriate paperwork so that you can legally drive your car.

The DMV also offers several temporary registration permits to transport unregistered vehicles.

CA Vehicles Requiring License Plates or Tags

The CA DMV issues license plates or registration decals for:

  • Passenger vehicles.
  • Commercial vehicles.
  • Recreational vehicles.
  • Motorcycles.
  • Trailers.
  • Off-highway vehicles (OHVs).
  • Tow dollies.
  • Bicycles.
    • Only in counties or cities that require the licensing of bicycles.

How to Apply for a CA License Plate

To receive a CA license plate, you must register your vehicle with the DMV.

If you are new to the state, you must register your out-of-state vehicle within 20 days of becoming a California resident.

Vehicle registration generally requires:

  • A registration application.
  • Registration fees.
  • Proof of car insurance.

You may also need your previous title and registration, a smog check, or other vehicle verification.

See our CA car registration page for complete details.

Renew a License Plate in California

To renew your license plate, you must renew your vehicle registration. The CA DMV requires you renew your registration once every year.

When you renew, you will receive an updated year decal that you MUST affix to your license plate.

NOTE: A smog check may be required for renewal.

To learn more, see our CA registration renewal page.

How to Replace CA Plates & Tags

If your license plate or year decal is lost, stolen, or damaged, you can request a replacement either by mail or in person. You will need:

Submit your materials:

  • By mail to:
    Department of Motor Vehicles
    Vehicle Registration Operations
    P.O. Box 942869
    Sacramento, CA 94269
  • In person at a California DMV office. Make an appointment to reduce your wait time at the DMV.

If you need a replacement month sticker, you can:

Replacement month stickers are free.

Surrender California License Plates

In general, CA license plates are not surrendered to the DMV. They stay with the vehicle when it is bought or sold.

If you have a specialty license plate, it stays with you (the "plate-holder") to be transferred to your next car if you choose to do so. Exceptions occur only with certain plates in the case of death, such as with disability license plates.

NOTE: If you have a standard plate but then choose to apply for a specialty license plate, you will exchange your standard plate when you pick up your specialty plate from the DMV.

Fees for Plates & Tags in California

The following fees apply to standard CA license plates:

  • New standard plate (registration fee): Fee varies based on your vehicle and location. Use the CA registration fee calculator for an estimate.
  • Plate renewal (registration renewal): Fees vary. You can estimate your renewal fee using the fee calculator.
  • Replacements:
    • License plate: $20.
    • Year sticker: $20.
    • Month sticker is free.

License Plate Lookup in CA

You can check the availability of a plate letter and number combination when you order a personalized plate online. However, the CA DMV does not have a general license plate lookup service.

If you have a concern about a vehicle, contact the police. They will look up the plate and find the registered owner themselves.

Forms

REG 156

To request replacement license plates, registration stickers, disability placards & IDs, and registration documents.

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