How to register a non-Calfornia vehicle in California

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I see and hear a lot of questions about bringing vehicles into California and registering them.  This seems to be a common issue because there are so many tempting used cars and motorcycles on eBay that we in CA would love to buy.  Most people are aware that new vehicles sold in CA often have special emissions requirements but these regulations can also affect the purchase of used vehicles from out of state.

I'm not an attorney, so I write here based on documents provided on the California DMV web site and from my personal experience buying and selling used cars over the past decade.

First, to clarify the law in California, the DMV and the California Air Resources Board regulate that new vehicles purchased by CA residents have to be made to meet CA emissions standards (meaning that they are specially equipped for CA emissions from the factory or are 50-state certified, which means that all the cars of this make/model meed CA standards). 

If you bought a new vehicle before you moved to California, you can register it here regardless of the emissions if you had it previously registered in the other state.  So, if you just bought a car last month while living in Dallas and suddenly got transferred here you can bring it with you regardless of the emissions or miles on the odometer.  From the DMV:

If you are moving to California from another state, you may register a new federally certified vehicle in California if it was first registered by you in your home state, or for military personnel, in your last state of military service. When applying for vehicle registration in California, you must provide evidence of your vehicle’s previous registration and that you were a resident of the other state when you acquired the vehicle.

The damage comes if you are already a CA resident.  The reason is that the DMV defines a "new" vehicle (car or motorcycle) as one with less than 7,500 miles on it.  So, to clarify, here are some scenarios... assume that buyer here already lives in California:

You are looking at a used motorcycle from Seattle. 

-  Emissions

----- It's a 50-state emissions vehicle or was originally built to CA emissions specs.  For cars this is usually easy to find on a decal in the engine compartment... it can sometimes be more difficult to verify for motorcycles.  Typically, only some newer fuel-injected motorcycles (e.g. BMWs and Moto Guzzis) are built to 50-state specs.

        You are OK to register the bike in CA

----- It's not a CA-spec motorcycle.  In this case you'll need to pay attention to to the mileage. 

        If the vehicle has fewer than 7,500 miles you are out of luck.

        If the vehicle has more than 7,500 miles on it you are home free.

Common questions:

-  Can I modify the vehicle to bring it to CA specifications?  No, the DMV doesn't car if the vehicle meets the required low emissions level (other than the bi-annual emissions checks for cars).  They only recognize the original specs with which the vehicle left the factory. 

Personally (my opinion now), I think of it this way.  This 7,500 mile law is not intended to clean the air.  Rather, it's intended to limit options for CA residents and push more sales to dealers in the state. 

-  Can I buy a car with 6,500 mile on it and drive it around until it has 7,500 miles before I register it?  There are a few legal issues with this one.  First, I quote from the CA DMV web site (emphasis in bold is mine): "California law considers any vehicle with less than 7,500 miles on the odometer when acquired by a California resident or business to be a new vehicle. " 

So, by the letter of the law if you acquire the vehicle with lower miles you are out of luck.  Let's just say that since most states require a signed odometer statement when the title is transferred, you wouldn't want to get yourself or the seller into any trouble should questions arise, would you?

-  If I'm on vacation in another state and my old car gets totalled in an accident, what do I do about getting home?  Can I buy a new car and drive it back?

Fortunately, the powers that be anticipated such an occurance.  There are a few limited exceptions to the law.  Again, according to the DMV site there are specific exceptions to the emissions rule.  You are OK if the car was:

  • Obtained it as part of a divorce or inheritance settlement.
  • Purchased it to replace a vehicle stolen while you were using it out of state.
  • Purchased it to replace a vehicle which was destroyed or made inoperative beyond reasonable repair while you were using it out of state.
  • Were on active military duty outside California, and you registered the vehicle in the state of your last military service.

Hope this helps.  Bottom line to me is that if you live in CA and are looking for a used car on eBay Motors, keep your search to vehicles with more than 7.500 miles on them and you should be OK regardless of the emissions standards to which the car was built. 



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