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California License Plate Lookup

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License Plate Search

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License Plate Lookup in California

A California license plate lookup is a search initiated by entering the vehicle's license plate into a search tool. Typically, the search tool offers information about the vehicle associated with the license plate. A license plate search may be conducted for several reasons. Apart from determining who owns a vehicle, it is often used to obtain California traffic records and to ascertain the vehicle history when someone wants to purchase the vehicle with the license plate. By acquiring a car history report, the individual performing the search may verify the vehicle's faults and make an appropriate purchase decision and the associated costs. Additionally, a license plate search might assist in determining the brand and type of a vehicle.

In California, you may do a license plate search for your own vehicle by using the online vehicle record request tool or by visiting the State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) locations if you intend to obtain information about another person's vehicle. License plate lookup services can also be accessed from third-party services. A search conducted via the DMV tool is not usually free, although a few third-party vendors provide the service for free. By using the DMV search tool, you can be sure of receiving accurate and up-to-date information regarding the license plate. On the other hand, you cannot always rely on the accuracy of information found from free third-party search providers.

What is a California License Plate?

California license plates verify that vehicles are registered in the state, identify the kind of vehicle registration, and also associate vehicles to their owners. California requires that vehicle owners have both a front and rear license plate in order to drive legally in the state. Both plates must be affixed securely and be clearly visible and easily legible from left to right. The DMV does not require both front and rear license plates on motorcycles and some non-passenger types. For such vehicles, only rear license plates are required.

Vehicle owners can use license plate accessories, such as shields and covers, to keep their license plates spotless. However, the permitted accessories must not interfere with the visibility of the license plate or its recognition by an electronic device operated by a local or state law enforcement agency.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles issues license plates in California. The DMV issues several types of license plates to support a myriad of causes (such as arts, breast cancer awareness, and education), provide special recognition, and identify special status, among other things. The different types of license plates issued in California by the DMV are:

  • Special license plates (historical, occupational, legislative, recognition)
  • Special interest license plates (arts, environment, kids)
  • Standard license plates
  • Decals and placards (bicycles, parking, disabled individuals)

The California DMV issues standard license plates when registrants purchase new vehicles, replace lost, stolen, or damaged license plates, or surrender special interest license plates.

Third-party aggregate sites are a convenient alternative for obtaining license plate information. These sites are maintained by independent establishments which collate the information from government-run repositories. Obtaining records from these sites often proves substantially easier than government alternatives. However, requestors may be required to provide any information required to facilitate the record search and pay any required fees to access the record of interest.

How Do I Get a License Plate in California?

Vehicle license plates are issued to car owners during the vehicle's initial registration with the California Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV). The California DMV offers different requirements for registrations depending on the type of vehicle that registrants intend to register.

If you purchased your vehicle from a dealer, the following are required to complete vehicle registration with the state DMV:

  • Completed Title or Registration Application (REG 343) form. This form applies to new vehicles.
  • The California Certificate of Title (or an out-of-state title, if the car is currently registered outside California). This form applies to used vehicles. For vehicles with lost or damaged titles, provide a completed Application for Duplicate or Transfer of Title form (REG 227) to request a copy.
  • The signatures of seller and lienholder on the Certificate of Title.
  • Your signature on the Certificate of Title.
  • Applicable title transfer fees or a use tax.

The following may also be required:

  • Smog certification.
  • A completed Transfer and Reassignment (REG262) form. This form is not available for download on the DMV website due to its inherent security features. To obtain the form in person, visit a DMV field office in person.
  • Vehicle Emission System Statement (SMOG) (REG 139) form.
  • A Statement of Facts (REG 256) form.
  • A Declaration of Gross Vehicle Weight or Combined Vehicle Weight (REG 4008) form. This form is applicable for persons purchasing commercial vehicles.
  • Use tax and other relevant fees.

The requirements for registering vehicles purchased from private parties are:

  • The vehicle's title, signed by the person selling the car. A completed Application for Replacement or Transfer of Title (REG 227) form is required if the vehicle title has been stolen, damaged, or lost.
  • Bill of sale. This form is required if the vehicle seller is not the owner whose name is on the title. This bill must be signed by both the seller and the person whose name is on the title.
  • Odometer mileage record. This record is required if the vehicle is less than 10 years old. Complete the Vehicle Transfer and Reassignment (REG 262) form if the title does not have a line where the mileage information can be written. Ensure the buyer and the seller sign the form.
  • A smog certification.
  • Applicable fees and a use tax.

Registration requirements and steps for other vehicle types such as a boat, vessel, motorcycle, dealership purchase, foreign imports, and specifically constructed or modified vehicles are outlined on the DMV website. Fees, documents, and other requirements for obtaining personalized and special interest license plates can also be found on the DMV website. Registrations may be completed at a California DMV field office in person. Upon completing registration, you will be issued a registration card, vehicle stickers, and the license plate.

Passenger License Plates vs. Commercial License Plates

The DMV issues standard California license plates to vehicles registered as passenger vehicles in California, while commercial license plates are issued to passenger-type vehicles that transport passengers for hire. The commercial vehicle category includes rental limousine, taxi, or ambulance that transports persons for compensation or profit. Note that passenger vehicles that transport property for hire cannot be registered commercially.

The vehicle registration procedure for passenger vehicles is as outlined for the standard automobile vehicle process, while to register a commercial vehicle, the following are required:

  • Title or Registration Application (REG 343) form.
  • Declaration of Gross Vehicle Weight or Combined Vehicle Weight (REG 4008) form. The REG 4008 form is required for owners of commercial motor vehicles with an unladen weight of 6,001 lbs. or more but under 10,0001 lbs. (except pickups). This form assists the DMV in verifying the maximum operating weight of the vehicle with a load.
  • Verification of Vehicle (REG 31) form.
  • Statement of Facts (REG 256) form, if applicable.
  • Titling paperwork.
  • Applicable fee by weight.

For more information about obtaining license plates for commercial vehicles in California, visit the DMV Commercial Vehicle registration page.

How Can I Find the Owner of a License Plate in California?

A number plate search is one way to know the vehicle owner. Information about the vehicle and the owner is usually captured during the initial vehicle registration with the California DMV after purchase. By looking up the license plate record either with the DMV or through online license lookup services, you can find the person associated with the record.

California License Plate Renewal

To renew your license plate in California, you only need to renew your vehicle registration with the DMV. To complete vehicle registration renewal, the following are required:

  • The last five digits of the VIN or HIN (Hull Identification Number ) for a vessel or boat.
  • The license plate number.
  • The renewal notice containing a current address.
  • The payment information. Note that there is a 2.1% payment processing fee for all credit or debit card transactions; however, no additional fee is required for persons paying directly from their bank accounts.

The California DMV outlines different requirements for renewing disabled persons parking plates or placards.

Vehicle registrations are renewed yearly in California. After completing your renewal, the California DMV will issue new registration stickers for the year. Registrants are required to affix the stickers to their license plates to ensure their validity for that year. Although license plates remain with the vehicles associated with them, California permits certain kinds of license plates, such as special recognition, personalized environmental, and special interest license plates, to be reassigned to other vehicles upon request by the owners and payments of appropriate fees.

The California DMV recommends that persons looking to renew their vehicle registrations determine if they are eligible to use the department's online vehicle registration renewal system. The system offers eligible persons a faster route to vehicle registration renewal than through the DMV Virtual Field Offices. The DMV website provides additional information on renewal fees, renewing vessels, and related inquiries.

Persons who complete renewals online typically have their registrations completed in 2 weeks, the same for persons who complete renewals by phone. Mail-completed renewals take up to 30 days, while persons who use DMV Kiosks will have their applications approved instantly if all renewal requirements are met.

Can You Look Up License Plates with VIN?

The California DMV maintains the public records of vehicle registrations in the state, including the license plate number information and the vehicle identification number (VIN). Hence, you can obtain the license plate of a vehicle if the VIN is known. The VIN, license plate number, and other information are recorded and maintained at the vehicle's first registration. Any changes to these records are also updated as at when due.

California VIN Number Lookup

A vehicle identification number, otherwise called VIN, is a 17-digit code of characters and numbers, used for identification in modern vehicles. VINs provide information about the unique serial number, manufacturing information, and other vehicle options. California VIN lookups conducted using the California DMV portal even provide additional information such as vehicle service records and information about the current and previous owners of the vehicle. Hence, while a VIN lookup is helpful in multiple scenarios, it is more commonly used when buying a used car. By obtaining information about the vehicle history, such as repairs, recalls, and accidents, buyers can protect themselves from getting scammed.

A VIN lookup can also help the police stop automobile theft and insurance fraud and identify recovered stolen vehicles. Vehicle manufacturers place the VIN in several places on the car. A VIN is commonly placed on the vehicle's dashboard, where the dashboard meets the edge of the windshield. Other locations where you may find the VIN include:

  • On the door jamb or the doorpost
  • The rear wheel well or beneath the spare tire
  • Front of the engine block

The California DMV allows requesters to use the INF 1125 form or its online vehicle record request tool to obtain vehicle history information. The INF 1125 form requires requesters to input the VIN, among other information. Completed application and a $5 request fee may be mailed to:

DMV Information Release Unit
MS G199
P.O. Box 944247
Sacramento, CA 94244-2470

Note that if you are not requesting your own record but someone else's record, the Request for Record Information (INF 70) form must be used instead of the INF 1125 form. Typically, a vehicle history report will arrive in the mail within 2-3 weeks. Several third-party vendors also offer online services that help requesters conduct VIN lookups to obtain vehicle histories.

Can Civilians Lookup License Plates in California?

Yes. License plate information collated by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is considered public information under the California Vehicle Code (CVC) §1808 and the Public Records Act (California Government Code § 7920 et seq.). Hence, any member of the public can find a vehicle's specifications, accidents, defects, theft reports, odometer readings, and other vehicle-related information upon a license plate search.

However, laws like the California Information Practices Act of 1977 (Civil Code §1798 et seq.) and the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) (Title 18, United States Code §§2721-2725) exempt certain details from public disclosure - primarily, personal and confidential information. These laws also establish conditions for the disclosure of personal or confidential information by government agencies. Per the DPPA, a motorist's personal data can only be disclosed for permissible uses, such as to assist a government agency in carrying out its functions or for use in connection with motor vehicle theft, recalls, or emissions.

What Do Police See When They Run Your Plates in California?

Upon running a citizen's California license plate number, the police can see the individual's personally identifiable information (PII) and details about the vehicle registered under the person's name. For example, the vehicle's make, year, model, registration, title, accidents, and salvage history.

Personal information accessible to law enforcement includes a motor vehicle registered owner's name, residence address, home telephone number, medical or disability information, social security number, financial information, physical description, and photograph.

Free License Plate Lookup in California

Overall, there are two main ways to conduct a license plate lookup in California: through the DMV or through third parties. An application to the DMV allows the requester to obtain official motor vehicle records and can be submitted electronically, by mail, or in person at a DMV field office. However, the requester must pay a fee for the information.

On the other hand, many third-party websites offer free license plate lookup services to interested individuals. These sites are accessible upon an internet search and easy to use, requiring only a license plate number and registration state to furnish the user with vehicle-related information. However, some sites may provide only basic vehicle information for free and paywall the rest until the user registers or subscribes.

How to Search for Ticket by License Plate in California

Here's how to search for a traffic ticket by license plate in California:

  • Check the ticket to determine the presiding court. Typically, this will be the court stationed where the offender received the ticket.
  • Go online to find the court's traffic ticket payment portal. Courts in California dedicate a page on their websites to assist traffic offenders in paying their tickets without coming to court (except the offender received a mandatory appearance ticket). These portals or systems can be used to find and view unpaid traffic tickets as well as pay for them.
  • Access the portal with any indicated search query. Since it is a license plate search the user wants to perform, the individual will input the relevant number into the appropriate search box, ensuring that the "State" selection (if required) is set to "California". The user can then select the "Submit" or "Search" button to bring up any outstanding ticket linked to the license plate.

Not all courts will have a "License Plate Search" feature on their payment portal. In such cases, the user will be offered other search queries, such as a citation number, driver's last name, or notice number.