California License Plate Lookup

Karl Brauer

Written by

Karl BrauerAutomotive Journalist & Analyst
Miranda Yan

Reviewed by

Miranda YanEditorial Director & Co-Founder

Updated on: Mar 26, 2023

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A California license plate lookup is extremely helpful when you are trying to find detailed information about a vehicle registered in California. This article covers everything there is to know about California license plates and how you can look them up through a free online tool.

How Is a California License Plate Registered?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles defines a license plate as a plate, decal, or placard that aids with identifying vehicle owners and providing their proof of registration, driving privilege, parking permissions, and other vehicle information.

According to state law, legal license plates are required for the following types of vehicles:

  • Passenger vehicles
  • Motorcycles
  • Commercial motor vehicles
  • Utility trailers
  • RVs and passenger trailers (coaches)
  • Park trailers

License plates have been a legal requirement in California since 1905. They are issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the California DMV requires all vehicles to have both front and rear plates.

This excludes motorcycles and RV trailers, which are required to have rear plates only. Law enforcement agencies and government officials often use license plates to identify vehicles.

What Are the Types of California License Plates?

In California, the Motor Vehicle Department (DMV) issues eight types of license plates. They differ based on the needs of the users, legal requirements, and vehicle types. Based on the information provided by the California DMV, the license plates can be classified into:

Standard License Plate

This type of license plate contains information that helps identify and verify driver registration and vehicle type. This plate is issued when an individual buys a new vehicle, if an existing plate is lost/damaged/stolen, or to replace special interest license plates returned to the DMV.

Special License Plates

Special license plates are issued on request. They can be ordered to recognize special services, achievements, status, or occupation that an individual or organization wishes to highlight on their license plate.

Special Interest Motorcycle License Plates

In California, specific license plates are reserved for motorcycles only, similar to the approach used in Texas. These special interest license plates are used to showcase an organization, institution, cause, or charity on the license plate of a motorcycle.

Special Interest License Plates

These license plates are issued to vehicles that are affiliated with or belong to a particular organization, institution, or charity. They have a separate license plate.

Special Recognition License Plates

These fall under the category of special license plates. They are given to people who have received significant honors like the Gold Star, Purple Heart, Legion of Valor, or any other military/civilian recognition of equal status.

Occupational License Plate

These license plates are issued to dealers and vehicle dismantlers.

Legislation License Plate

These license plates are issued to individuals who work in the Senate, Assembly, or other local and federal electoral bodies. These license plates are issued to current and retired members of the California State Assembly, Senate, and House of Representatives. Each license plate is distinguished with a designated letter to indicate the position held by the individual.

Apportioned License Plates

These license plates are given to large businesses and corporations. While prorated plates are no longer in circulation, they were issued for interstate fleet vehicles to show apportioned stickers, representing vehicles that commonly travel across state lines.

Where Can I Do a California License Plate Lookup?

For California residents, there are two ways to get trustworthy vehicle information using a vehicle's license plate number.

California DMV

The Department of Motor Vehicles in California offers people access to vehicle registration records. You can obtain them by submitting a license plate number or a vehicle identification number associated with a vehicle. You should mail the request form along with payment to the DMV to get the information you need.

Online license plate lookup service providers

This is generally the easier way to look up information related to a vehicle's license plate number. It can help you get vehicle details almost instantly, and you can view more detailed information beyond what the DMV provides.

VinPit provides verified online license plate search information that helps you confirm vehicle information for nearly any license plate number. Simply enter the vehicle's license plate number in the search bar and receive the information quickly. VinPit will process the request through its large, constantly-updated database and deliver all available records for the vehicle.

What Can You Find Through California License Plate Search?

A vehicle report generated by the California license plate search contains a wide range of information about a car. You can find:

  • Technical specifications
  • The market value of a vehicle
  • True mileage
  • Maintenance and repair history
  • Accident history
  • Total loss/salvage records
  • Thefts and recoveries
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Safety ratings
  • Status of warranty
  • Open and past recalls
  • Details of auto insurance
  • VIN verification
  • Consumer complaints

Can I Find Vehicle Owners With License Plate Lookups in California?

Although you can obtain a wide range of vehicle information with a California license plate lookup, you can't do a license plate owner lookup to discover the owner's name, address, phone numbers, email address, and so on. These details are protected by the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which limits access to personally identifiable information.

There are a few organizations authorized to access the private details of a vehicle driver. These include law enforcement agencies with legal reasons to confirm a car owner's personal information.

Most consumers would need the assistance of a private investigator to discover this information. Investigators may have the resources or access necessary to locate an owner based on a vehicle's license plate number, such as in a hit-and-run situation. Note that this process will take some time, and these services can be expensive.


Are California license plate lookups legally permissible?

Yes. It is legal to do a license plate lookup in California. You can use it to obtain a variety of vehicle details with no legal restrictions.

Why should I do license plate lookups on VinPit?

There are many reasons you should choose VinPit to do a California license plate lookup. They include:

  • It's a free service
  • It delivers rapid results
  • It provides nearly everything you need to know about a vehicle

Can I look up a temporary license plate in California with VinPit?

No, unfortunately, you can't find information about a vehicle if it's using a temporary license plate and you input its number for a license plate lookup.

Why can't I get the owner information with a California license plate lookup?

Personal information about drivers is protected by the DPPA (Driver's Privacy Protection Act). Under this act, license plate lookup service providers are generally prohibited from disclosing drivers' personal details.

Can I look up every license plate in California?

You will be able to find details about most license plates registered in California. But we can't guarantee that you can look up "every" plate, as there are still some license plates not reported to our data sources.