How to Search for a California License Plate
You can use online portals to lookup free, basic information from a license plate such as the make, model, and year. After that, California does not allow residents to request a copy for someone other than themselves. Government agencies, law officers, companies and private investitures can get a full report which will have more information such as the owner's name, social security number, physical description, home address, home telephone number, education, vehicle insurance details, fingerprints, photographs, driving and vision tests, accident reports, financial matters, and medical or employment history. California allows you to look up your records online (but it is not considered an official record). You must use the form INF1125 and mail it into the DMV Headquarters to get an official copy. When requesting records, you will need to supply your name, address, phone number, and driver's license number for an audit trail. You cannot look up a license plate using the VIN through official channels.
California Vehicle License Plate Rules
California requires every driver to display two license plates on their vehicle. One on the front and the other on the back. Before 2015, this requirement was not in place, and drivers could display a tiny index card type plate on their windshield instead.
When purchasing a new vehicle or moving to California, you must register your car within 20 days. If you purchase from a private party, you have only ten days to transfer ownership. You must also file a Notice of Transfer and Release of Liability with the DMV.
Your fees may be a combination of the following items:
- Registration Fee.
- Vehicle License Fee (This is the fee that may be an income tax deduction).
- Weight Fee.
- Special Plate Fee.
- County/District Fees.
- Owner Responsibility Fee.
When registering a new or used vehicle, you must present the title application or title, the odometer statement, and a smog certificate (unless the vehicle is four years old or less).
California vehicle registration must be renewed every year at the same time as last year. If you move out of state, you must also file a change of address report with the DMV (form DVV14).
California Specialty License Plates
The state of California has a wide variety of license plate options. Most residents use the standard license plate, which may be white, blue, or black. These are simple designs with two or three colors only. Some other plates offered are:
- License Plate Introduction (Plate Sizes, Validity, and History).
- Standard License Plates (Passenger, Commercial, trailer, etc.).
- Special Interest License Plates (Arts, Kids, Tahoe, etc.).
- Special Interest Motorcycle License Plates (Coastal, Tahoe, etc.).
- Special License Plates (Exempt, Livery, Historical Vehicles, etc.).
- Special Recognition License Plates (Legion of Valor, Purple Heart, etc.).
- Occupational License Plates (Dealers, Dismantlers, etc.).
- Legislative License Plates (Senate, Assembly).
- Apportioned License Plates (Power Unit and Prorate).
Each of the styles above has specific designs geared towards representing the subject of the plate. They also offer decals and placards for things like Bicycles, Disabled Person Parking Placard, etc.
Some of them may be ordered online or some through the mail by filling out a special application. Additional fees (ranging from $20 -$103) apply to specialized plates and also vanity lettering.
What Does the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) in California Say?
Along with complying with the federal DPPA laws, California has its own Information Practices Act of 1977 and Vehicle Code that relate to driver's privacy. These laws protect the privacy of residents and the sensitive information contained with their license plate records maintained by the DMV.
Under this law, California vows that "Under the Information Practices Act of 1977 (IPA), an agency shall not disclose any personal information in a way that would link the information to the individual to whom it pertains, with certain exceptions (Civil Code 1798.24)."
California License Plate Search Frequently Asked Questions
May I Lookup License Plate Numbers in California?
It is only legal to look up license plate numbers in California if you are a company, law enforcement agent, or other approved person. Typically, you will need a signed consent form from the individual owner, and you must provide proof of your use of the data.
What Information Do I Need to Request Records?
When looking up just basic information, you only need the vehicle plate number. If you want a complete report, then you will need to provide your name, address, driver's license number, phone number, birth date, plate number, and you must sign the form.
How to Look Up a California License Plate Using the VIN?
The state does not have a way to lookup vehicles using the VIN. However, you can always use online portal systems and the national title registry. However, remember, there are strict laws governing the use of this information, so be careful how you use it.
How to Find an Owner of a License Plate in California?
You must contact the local DMV office or the local police to locate the owner of an abandoned vehicle or for some other reason. If, for example, you dinged a car at the grocery store, you could take their plate number to the local police to have them contact you to make reparations.
What is a Legitimate Use of License Plate Information?
Although there are a few exceptions to the DPPA rules regarding the legal use of license plate information in California, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are allowed to look up your records. Additionally, per California law, the only permissible uses for this information are:
- Carrying out government agency functions, including courts and law enforcement.
- Use in matters of motor vehicle safety, theft, emissions, product recalls.
- Motor vehicle market research and surveys.
- Legitimate business needs in transactions initiated by the individual to verify the accuracy of personal information.
- Use in connection with a civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding.
- Research activities and statistical reports, so long as the personal information is not re-disclosed or used to contact individuals.
- Insurance activities.
How To Lookup California License Plates for Free?
The state of California has extremely rigid privacy laws. Therefore, you can look up a license plate for free and obtain very basic information like year, make, model, engine type, trim level, the manufacturer and sometimes the color of the vehicle.