The State of California Department of Motor Vehicles handles vehicle registrations, driver's license applications, and commercial services for drivers and vehicle owners in the state. There are DMV offices across the state where residents can register their vehicles, get titles, and renew their registrations. 

The Golden State also offers online options for vehicle renewals and registrations. Here are the details you need to know about registering your car in California.

How much does it cost to register a car in California?

There are many variables that influence the cost of your California vehicle registration, and the state also charges a handful of fees on top of the vehicle registration cost. Registration fees are based on the following factors:

  • Vehicle type (car versus motorcycle, for example)

  • The purchase price or value of the vehicle

  • The date on which the vehicle was purchased

  • The owner's city and county of residence

  • The gross vehicle weight (GVW)

  • Special license plate fees (if applicable)

  • Unpaid parking violations

Fee calculators 

The state offers online tools that can help you figure out how much you'll pay in fees when you buy a new vehicle, register a new vehicle, or renew your vehicle. Here are links to those fee calculators.

New vehicle fees

New resident fees

Used vehicle fees

Vehicle license fee

Renewal fees

For example, a resident of Los Angeles County who purchases a new electric car with a value of $40,000 pays $530.00 to register the vehicle. Each year, the price for registration decreases slightly. 

Meanwhile, a resident who purchases a new gas-powered (internal combustion engine) car with a value of $40,000 pays $550.00 to register the vehicle.

>>SAVE MONEY: Compare auto insurance in CA for savings 

Vehicle registration fees in California

In addition to paying the variable registration fee in California, residents also pay additional fees when their car is registered for use on the state's highways. Those fees include a California Highway Patrol (CHP) fee, a vehicle license fee, a transportation improvement fee, and a county/district fee.

There are also fees for smog inspections for all vehicles that have an internal combustion engine and that were manufactured after 1975. 

The state offers a search tool for residents who own a vehicle that needs a smog test. These locations are licensed by the state to offer smog tests. A smog test can run anywhere from $40 to $60 for most vehicles, but some businesses charge more money for cars and trucks that do not have a modern computer and require special equipment for the smog test.

Electric vehicles don't need smog tests, diesel-powered vehicles manufactured before 1997 don't require them, and natural gas vehicles weighing more than 14,000 pounds also don't need them.

California requirements for vehicle registration

Getting a vehicle registered in California when you purchase the car from a dealership is quite easy since the dealership takes care of all the details for the registration. If you buy a car from a private party, you'll need to visit the DMV to register the car, or you may be able to register the car online. You may also need to register your vehicle at the DMV if you move into the state from another location and need to update your plates and title for use in California.

If you purchase a vehicle from a private party in California, you have 10 days to transfer ownership of the vehicle. You'll use an Application for Duplicate or Transfer of Title form, which is REG 227. The seller must sign the title when he or she sells the car, and the buyer must provide several pieces of information when registering the car.

Information required by the DMV includes the following.

  • Application for Duplicate or Transfer of Title

  • Bill of Sale (when the seller is not the official owner of the vehicle)

  • Record of the odometer mileage (for cars less than 10-years-old)

  • Smog certification

  • Applicable fees and use tax

Registering motorcycles, boats

There are also varying fees and procedures for activities like commercial vehicle registration, motorcycle registration, and registration of scooters and mopeds. All boats and vessels in the water must be registered, imported vehicles must be registered, and specialty vehicles that were constructed by the owner or modified must be registered, too.

Renewing California vehicle registration

Renewing car registration in California is fairly straightforward and only requires a few steps online via the state's official DMV renewal portal. Residents receive a renewal notice in the mail and can use the information in their notice to renew their registration online.

Tip: Vehicles that require a smog test must successfully pass a smog test at an authorized testing location before the vehicle's owner may use the online tool to complete the renewal process.

Information required during the vehicle-renewal process includes the vehicle's license plate number and the vehicle identification number (VIN), as well as a credit card for the fees.

What happens if I lose my California vehicle registration?

California drivers may obtain a duplicate registration for their vehicle if they lose their registration card or it's damaged and rendered unreadable. To obtain a duplicate registration card, residents must submit an application and pay all necessary fees. In addition to replacing vehicle registration cards, the state will also replace plates, stickers, and other documents, as long as the vehicle owner completes an Application for Replacement Plates, Stickers, Documents (form REG 156).

Specialty and vanity license plates in California

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Vanity and specialty plates in California are called special interest license plates, and owners of automobiles, commercial vehicles, motorcycles, and trailers may apply for them. The state requires that applicants fill out a Special Interest License Plate application or apply online. Some of the special interest license plates California residents may apply for include environmental plates, memorial plates, and plates that support the California Arts Council.

Summary

Registering your vehicle in California is required, but drivers can save money in other areas. Comparison shopping for car insurance, using an app to find the lowest gasoline prices and staying on top of regular maintenance are just a few ways to save.