Types of California License Plates

January 27, 2012

California license plates have been required since 1905, beginning with a black background and yellow characters. Many different plate designs and variations have been developed since then. Below you will find all the different types of license plates the state of California has to offer.

California License Plate Types
Below you will find all the different types of license plates the state of California has to offer.

  • Standard. These plates are issued when you a buy a new vehicle, replace damaged or stolen plates, or trade in special interest license plates. Today, the basic plate has CALIFORNIA in red script and white background with blue characters
  • Special Interest. Special interest plates include Environmental, Memorial, Arts Council, Coastal Commission, Collegiate, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Foundation, Firefighters, Kids, Olympic Training Center and Veterans' Organization plates. The fees collected for these plates go to their respective programs. For example, the Kids license plates donate to the Child Health and Safety Fund. These plates are available for people who own autos, commercial vehicles, trailers and motorcycles
  • Special. These plates are issued to holders of Federal Communication Commission (FCC) amateur radio station licenses
  • Special Recognition. The different types of recognition plates include Congressional Medal of Honor, Legion of Valor, Pearl Harbor Survivor, Prisoner of War and Purple Heart. If requested, these plates are issued to the recipients of these awards and acknowledgments
  • Occupational. Occupational license plates are issued to new vehicle distributors, dealers, dismantlers, manufacturers, remanufactures, special equipment dealers and manufactures, and transporters
  • Legislative. These plates may be issued to State Assembly members, State Senators, retired member of Congress and United States Senators. The numbers on these license plates represent Assembly, Senate or congressional districts
  • Apportioned Power Unit. These plates are issued to heavy trucks and trailers. The sticker on an apportioned power unit plate indicates the gross weight of the vehicle
  • Prorate. Prorate license plates are issued for commercial vehicles that usually travel into two or more jurisdictions in Canada or the U.S. These plates prevent carriers from having to buy trip permits when they enter a new jurisdiction

The California Department of Motor Vehicles provides information on how to apply for one or more of these license plates. Discover what California license plate best suits you.

How to Get California License Plates

In order to receive California license plates for your vehicle, you'll need to be a resident of the state and register your car with the California DMV. Whether you opt for custom California license plates, California personalized license plates or standard plates, you must complete the registration and plate request process that is standard throughout the state. The following information can serve as a set of guidelines for registering your vehicle.

Keep in mind that you will only need to register a vehicle that is operational and that you plan to drive or park on California public roads. Other vehicles do not need plates. You also must register a vehicle within either 10 or 20 days of purchasing that vehicle or arriving in the state of California, respectively, in order to avoid late fees and other penalties.

Collect the Application for Title and Other Materials
The single most important form that you'll need to acquire and complete in order to register a vehicle and order your California license plates is the Application for Title or Registration form. This document is available at DMV offices in paper form or on the California state DMV website to download.

Additionally, you'll need a copy of the title of the car and, if the car was previously registered in another state, the most recent registration information. Do not give away or mail your originals of these documents; instead, make photocopies to use in order to obtain your California license plates and retain the originals for yourself.

If you've just purchased a new car, you will also need to present a copy of the Bill of Sale, the official document for the transaction and purchase of the car. For cars that are 10 years old or younger, this document should include an official odometer reading and certification.

Finally, if your car hasn't yet been checked for smog and emissions, you'll need to obtain a certificate of inspection for these pollution tests.

Determine the Fee for Your Case
In California, the fee to register a vehicle fluctuates according to a number of different factors. For that reason, it isn't possible to predict exactly how much money you'll have to pay in order to complete the registration. The state DMV website has a registration fee calculator that you can use if you'd like to determine the fee before you deliver the materials to the DMV.

Complete and Submit Forms to the DMV
Fill in and sign all of the forms that are required in order to complete the registration procedure. Next, locate the DMV branch office closest to you; there are DMV branch offices in all counties in California. You must submit the application for registration in person at the DMV office. Bring all of the requested documents with you along with the necessary payment.

Once you've completed the registration at the DMV, the representative who is assisting you will provide you with a temporary license plate form to display in your car until the metal plates are printed and mailed to you.

Frequently Asked Questions about Personalized California License Plates

Personalized California license plates are great to have if you want to add a personal touch to your vehicle. You may want to configure the license characters to read as a word or you may want a special interest plate to support an organization of interest. Either way, you need to know the answers to the following questions before you get a personalized license plate.

What Are Special Interest License Plates?
Special interest license plates display an image related to the organization of interest. The extra fees collected for these plates go directly to the organization. These plates support many organizations and programs such as the Yosemite Foundation, Veterans' Organization, and the Child Health and Safety Fund. You can also personally configure the numbers and/or letters on the plate. Special interest plate programs have a limited availability for motorcyclists.

Who Can Get Personalized California License Plates?
Anyone who owns a registered auto, truck, trailer or motorcycle in California is eligible to get a personalized plate.

What Are the Required Documents?
A completed special interest license application may be submitted to the DMV. You can also order the personalized plates online. Visit the California Department of Motor Vehicles website to order a plate or print out an application for submission. You will need your registration card information for both methods.

How Long Does It Take to Receive a Personalized Plate?
The plates are available 8-12 weeks after they are ordered online or the application is received by the DMV. You will be notified by mail when your plate is ready to be picked up. However, plates that have not been personally configured are sent directly to your address and received within 4-6 weeks.

How Do I Find Out If a Personalized Configuration I Want Is Available?
The California DMV website will let you know if your configuration is not available. The department will reject any combination of characters they deem is inappropriate or offensive.

How Do I Reassign a Personalized Plate to Another Vehicle, Keep It for Future Use, or Release Interest in It?
Complete and submit a special interest license plate application to indicate that you want to put the personalized plate on another vehicle, hold the plate for later use, or release interest on it. There are retention fees for holding a plate for future use. These fees vary depending on the type of plate and are listed on the application. Pay the annual fees to avoid plate cancellation.

Can I Move My Personalized Configuration to a Different Type of Plate?
Complete the special interest license plate application to make a conversion request too. Conversion fees will vary and these are also listed on the application.

How Do I Replace My Personalized Plate If It Is Lost, Stolen or Damaged?
Submit the application to notify the California DMV your plate has been lost, stolen, or damaged. The plate cannot be reissued if both personalized plates are lost or stolen. As a result, you must pick another personalized plate.

Can I Give a Personalized Plate to Someone As a Gift?
Yes, all personalized plates may be given as a gift.