Out of State Vehicle Registration  

Registering An Out Of State Vehicle In California 

Registering an out-of-state car in California can be a daunting endeavor, fraught with various steps that must be meticulously followed before your vehicle can grace the Golden State’s roads legally. Many newcomers to California, officially establishing their residency, find the process to be more complex and potentially more expensive compared to their previous states of residence. At Zak’s Auto Registration, we have had the privilege of assisting thousands of customers who have relocated from other states to California, and we understand the unique challenges that come with transferring your vehicle’s title and registration.

a photo of downtown san diego california.

What Inspections Are Required To Register a Vehicle In California?

When it comes to California, one inspection that can’t be overlooked is the smog or emissions test. California is renowned for its strict emissions standards, and your vehicle must pass this test to become roadworthy in the state. The good news is that recent developments have made smog testing quicker and more affordable. Depending on your vehicle, smogging a car is now a relatively swift and cost-effective process, typically taking between 5 to 10 minutes and costing between $30 to $55, depending on the testing location. Some providers even offer more competitive rates.


For commercial vehicles or those used for commercial purposes, such as trucks, a Weight Master Certificate is required. This certificate is issued by certified weight masters and helps determine weight fees, with an estimated cost of around $11 at most weigh stations. Conveniently, most truck stops have certified weight masters who can issue the necessary certificate.

Another essential step in the registration process is VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) verification. This inspection can be carried out by a DMV employee, the California Highway Patrol (CHP), or a licensed private VIN verifier like Zaks Auto Registration. The VIN verifier’s role is to confirm the vehicle’s identification number and cross-reference it with the information on the vehicle’s title. Additionally, they establish whether the vehicle is classified as commercial or for personal use. While the CHP and DMV employees offer this service free of charge, it can be time-consuming. Zaks Auto Registration offers a service to expedite this process, with an estimated cost of approximately $50 when you bring the vehicle to us, or we can provide a mobile service to you.

Can I Register An Out Of State Vehicle Without a Title?

In cases where you don’t possess a title for your vehicle, perhaps because it’s still being financed, California offers an option called the “Golden-Rod Title.” This option enables you to register your vehicle with just the registration card from your previous state, bypassing the need for a title. It’s important to note that a purchase agreement from a dealership is not considered valid proof of ownership in this scenario.

Calculating Registration Fees:

Determining the registration fees for your out-of-state vehicle in California is relatively straightforward. First and foremost, it’s crucial to register your out-of-state car within 20 days of establishing residency to avoid late fees. You can initiate the registration process even before completing all the required inspections, which is why it’s essential to start early.

Registration fees are influenced by several factors:

  • Type of Power Source: Whether your vehicle is powered by gas, electricity, or diesel.
  • Vehicle Value: The purchase price of your vehicle is used to calculate sales tax.
  • Location: The city and zip code where you reside.
  • Weight: For commercial vehicles, weight is a significant factor in determining fees.

It’s worth noting that if you purchased your vehicle in a state that does not collect taxes, California may require you to pay those taxes upon registration. However, if you purchased your vehicle more than one year ago, you may be exempt from paying these taxes. Various other exemptions, such as family transfers or gifts, can also help you avoid certain taxes.

Registration For Commercial Vehicles In California:

Commercial vehicles operating with a weight of 10,001 pounds or more have specific rules to adhere to. Such vehicles must also register with the DMV’s Motor Carrier Permit (MCP) unit and obtain a motor carrier permit. The weight of the vehicle significantly impacts commercial vehicle registration fees. It’s important to clarify that if a vehicle is used to generate revenue, it’s considered commercial, regardless of whether it’s for business or personal use.


For instance, a 2021 Toyota Prius used to transport people for a fee falls under the commercial category and must pay weight fees during registration. However, a heavy 2021 Chevy Suburban used by a foreman to visit job sites would not be subject to weight fees. Additionally, any vehicle with carrying capacity, even if used for personal purposes, may be classified as commercial, such as a Chevy El Camino.

Ineligible Vehicles For California Registration:

While most vehicles can be registered in California, there are scenarios in which a non-resident vehicle may be ineligible. Many of these cases relate to emissions standards, and it’s crucial to understand the distinction between a vehicle that can pass a smog test and one that is emissions compliant.

For example, the California DMV may have stricter requirements for vehicles like the Land Rover Defender imported from other countries, which are considered grey-market vehicles. Some vehicles may not even be eligible for registration or titling in California. The Japanese version of the Nissan Skyline is another example. If a vehicle lacks an emissions label stating that it is California compliant and has fewer than 7,600 miles, it may not be eligible for registration in the state.

After Registration Of Your Out-Of-State Vehicle In California, you will receive:

  • Stickers for registration
  • A California Vehicle Registration card
  • New license plates (if required)
  • The vehicle’s title (unless a Golden-Rod Title was used)

Understanding California Laws for Vehicle Owners:

Operating your vehicle in California also comes with specific legal responsibilities. You must maintain car insurance coverage on your vehicle at all times, except when the vehicle is in non-operational status. Proof of insurance must be carried in the vehicle at all times.

Additionally, California law mandates that both license plates (front and rear) must be displayed on your vehicle. While some individuals prefer not to mount the front license plate on the bumper, law enforcement allows it to be placed on the dashboard.

Special Considerations For Hybrid And Electric Vehicles:

California offers special permits and decals for hybrid and fully electric vehicles, encouraging environmentally friendly transportation options.

Importing Vehicles Into California:

Importing a vehicle into California is a complex process that requires thorough research and adherence to strict emissions standards. It’s essential to understand that eligibility for registration may be determined by the model year, and verification of the vehicle can only be done by California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers. Making a vehicle emissions compliant can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor, and not all vehicles are practical candidates for this process.

Where To Register Your Out of State Vehicle:

You have several options for registering your vehicle and obtaining the necessary stickers, registration card, and license plates:

Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Government Agency: Ensure you make an appointment for a smoother experience.

AAA Auto Club: Membership is required to utilize this option.

Private Licensed Companies: Licensed businesses like Zak’s Auto Registration can assist you with the registration process. Especially in San Diego, visit one of our offices and leave with your plates, stickers and registration card in person.

Why Choose Zaks Auto Registration to Register Your Out of State Vehicle and get California Plates ?

At Zaks Auto Registration in sunny San Diego, we’re committed to ensuring a smooth and stress free out-of-state vehicle registration experience in California. Whether you’re new to the state or have registration questions, our experts are here to assist you every step of the way. Don’t let the DMV process overwhelm you, let us simplify it. With our expertise, we navigate the DMV’s requirements efficiently, ensuring your vehicle is registered without delays. Enjoy the vibrant atmosphere of San Diego as we handle the details, making your transition to California vehicle ownership seamless. Contact us today for support and guidance in registering your out-of-state vehicle. Welcome to the Golden State with Zaks Auto Registration in San Diego!


No, California requires vehicles to pass the smog or emissions test to be registered. If your vehicle fails the test, you must address the necessary repairs or modifications before it can be considered roadworthy in the state.

The Golden-Rod Title is an option in California for registering a vehicle without a title, such as when it’s still being financed. It allows registration with just the registration card from the previous state, bypassing the need for a title. Note that a purchase agreement from a dealership is not considered valid proof of ownership in this scenario.

Registration fees are influenced by factors such as the type of power source (gas, electricity, or diesel), vehicle value, location (city and zip code), and weight for commercial vehicles. It’s crucial to register your out-of-state car within 20 days of establishing residency to avoid late fees

No, commercial vehicles or those used for commercial purposes, like trucks, require a Weight Master Certificate in California. This certificate, issued by certified weight masters, determines weight fees and is necessary for the registration process

Yes, California offers special permits and decals for hybrid and electric vehicles to encourage environmentally friendly transportation options. These permits and decals may come with specific benefits or exemptions

Yes, the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) verification process can be expedited by using a licensed private VIN verifier like Zaks Auto Registration. While the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and DMV employees offer this service for free, a private verifier may provide a quicker turnaround for a fee.

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