Registering out of state vehicles in California.

25 September 2014

If you're in the process of moving to California you have to get your car registered before your existing license plates and car registration expire. It also would behoove you to get your car registered as fast as possible because the longer you wait, the more you'll have to pay to get it done. It could easily run you $700us if you're not careful, and I advise you to not sell internal organs to get your paperwork through if you can avoid it. The first step of the process is to get your California driver's license. To do this you need your current out of state driver's license, your birth certificate, your Social Security card or passport, and money. You'll need to pass a vision test (I had to take mine twice at two different desks and pass both times), you need to fill out a copy of form DL 44 (which you can only get at the DMV office because each has a unique barcode printed on it), and you need to pass a 36 question written exam. You can only miss three questions on the exam, and the questions are very detailed. Study the handbook and take the practice exams until you ace them; they're online here. You'll also have a thumbprint taken with an optical scanner. You don't need to make an appointment to get your driver's license. If you pass they'll punch a hole in your existing DL and give you a printed out temporary license that's valid until your real one arrives in the mail.

As for registering your car, even if you have a paper temporary license, that's fine. Get your paperwork going and it'll sort out. Seriously. You'll need the following documents:

  • The title from the state you moved out of. If they don't give it to you normally (like Pennsylvania does, or did when I left there) call up the DMV there and badger them until they hand it over. Even if the title's in the name of the bank and not you, that's what the California DMV needs.
  • Proof that you're insured. They may not ask for it but have it anyway. I used the "this is how you're covered" page from my bi-yearly automobile insurance packet.
  • A copy of the PDF file here, printed and filled out.
  • Your current license plates (i.e. not expired in the state you moved out of).
  • If you don't have a hybrid or electric car you need a printed and filled out copy of this PDF. You will also probably have to get your car inspected at a garage ahead of time.
  • Money.
  • Knowledge of how much you paid for your car for the REG 343 form.
  • If you bought your car within the past calendar year, call the car dealership or the finance company and find out how much you paid in sales tax for your car. It has to go on the paperwork and they'll want to know it. If it was longer than a year, don't worry about it.

You don't need to make an appointment to get your car registered, either. Just show up at the DMV early, ideally an hour before the DMV office opens. They'll tell you where to park. Park there and wait for someone to give your car a walk-around. They'll fill out a copy of form REG 31 for you. At a minimum whoever checks out your car will look under the hood, write down the VIN, and take an odometer reading. Bring two or three books and be prepared to wait multiple hours. I waited nearly four hours before my number was called. When they do call your number, have all of your paperwork filled out and ready. You'll have time to do it, use it. If your paperwork is in order, they'll tell you how much you need to pay. The online calculator that tells you how much you'll probably pay is accurate to the penny in my experience, assuming that you've entered accurate information. Make sure you have enough in your budget to cover it. How much you pay is, in part, contingent upon when you first drove your car in California as what they consider a resident. You can probably lie but I don't know how deeply they check due to the privacy screens on the displays, nor do I know what would happen if they caught you lying. Good luck.

Assuming that everything's in order you'll get your permanent California license plates and registration stickers immediately. Put them on your car before you leave the parking lot and put the registration stickers on the rear license plate. Bring tools that you know you can use to add and remove license plates. You don't have to give them your old plates but you do have to put on the paperwork what you plan to do with them (send them back to the state you moved out of, keep them, give them to California). They'll honor whatever you put on it but you do have to tell them.