It’s one of many questions military members ask when moving to a new duty station: Do I have to change my vehicle registration? Fortunately, California’s vehicle registration laws are generally very military-friendly.
California Residents: Residents of California may choose to register their vehicle in California. In addition, your or your spouse’s vehicle may be registered in another state or foreign country, provided that that particular state or country was the location of your last permanent duty station. In other words, if you registered your vehicle in the last state you lived in, California will allow you to keep the registration there.
Non-California Residents: The same rules as above apply for residents of a state other than California. Non-California residents who are stationed in California are exempt from paying the vehicle license fee if they register their vehicle in California. Non-California residents may also register their vehicle in the state that is their permanent state of residence. All of these options carry the requirement that the vehicle must be registered to you or your spouse, the registration and license plates must be current and valid, and the owner(s) must have valid insurance.
Of course, even though California may not require you to register your vehicle(s) in California, the state in which you are currently registered may not allow a non-resident to renew registration if they have moved out of the state. Before assuming that you will be able to renew an out-of-state registration, make sure you check the laws of the state in which the vehicle is registered. For example, say you are a resident of Ohio, and immediately before you moved to Fort Irwin, you were stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. While you were in Texas, you registered your vehicle in Texas. However, because you are not a Texas resident, Texas will no longer legally allow you to keep your vehicle registered there once you leave the state. The laws vary from state to state, so make sure you research the laws for the state that apply to you, or make an appointment at the Legal Assistance Office if you need help finding out the laws from the applicable state.
Should you choose to register your vehicle in California, or find that you are required to do so, make sure to leave yourself plenty of time to assemble the necessary paperwork and have the smog test performed. You will need the California Application for Registration or Title, the last issued out-of-state title, the last issued out-of-state registration, a California Verification of Vehicle (this may require an appointment to have completed), a certificate from a California smog station (this may also require an appointment to have completed), the out-of-state license plates, and payment for all appropriate fees and taxes. Keep in mind that California may charge you taxes on your vehicle, depending on how long you have owned it, how it was acquired, and how much tax you paid when you purchased it. This, along with the other mandatory California fees, may make the cost of registering your vehicle in California extremely high. Therefore, if you are not required to register your vehicle in California, it is highly recommended that you calculate all fees and taxes before choosing to register in California. The California DMV has a Vehicle Registration Fee Calculator on its website that can assist with this.
California residents who have their vehicle registered in California and who are deployed during the time that their vehicle registration is due for renewal and unable to renew it due to the deployment may apply for a renewal penalty waiver. The application must be submitted within 60 days of termination of the deployment, and it will require an appointment with the local DMV.