Are Tinted License Plate Covers Illegal In California? Examining The Laws

As a California driver, you may be wondering – are tinted or colored license plate covers illegal? With so many vehicles on California roads sporting darkened plate covers, it’s easy to assume they’re legal. However, the truth is more nuanced. In short, yes – tinted plate covers in California are prohibited under most circumstances. The CA vehicle code bans any covers that obstruct license plate text or identifying features. But minor tinting within limits is generally tolerated.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine California laws on license plate covers to clarify what’s permissible. We’ll outline the specific vehicle codes that address colored and tinted covers. We’ll also provide examples based on the degree of tinting and analyze permissible exceptions. By the end, you’ll understand exactly when a tinted plate cover crosses the line from legal to illegal in the state.

California Vehicle Codes Banning Obstructed License Plates

License plates are an essential component of any vehicle, as they provide a unique identification number that helps law enforcement and other agencies keep track of vehicles. In California, there are specific laws in place to ensure that license plates are visible and legible at all times.

These laws aim to prevent the use of tinted license plate covers or any other obstructions that may hinder their visibility.

VC Section 5201 – License Plate Requirements

Under VC Section 5201, all vehicles registered in California must display a valid license plate on both the front and rear of the vehicle. The plates must be securely attached, displayed vertically or horizontally, and be clearly visible at all times.

Any covering or device that obstructs or impairs the legibility or visibility of the license plate is considered illegal.

VC Section 5201.1 – Plate Visibility and Legibility

VC Section 5201.1 specifically addresses the issue of license plate visibility and legibility. It states that no person shall operate a vehicle with a license plate that has been covered, obscured, or otherwise rendered illegible.

This includes the use of tinted license plate covers, plastic shields, or any other material that alters the appearance of the license plate or makes it difficult to read.

It is important to note that even covers that claim to be “clear” or “see-through” may still be in violation of the law if they impair the visibility or legibility of the license plate in any way. Therefore, it is advisable to avoid using any type of cover or device that may potentially obstruct the license plate.

Penalties for Violating License Plate Display Laws

Violating the license plate display laws in California can result in penalties and fines. According to the California Vehicle Code, the penalty for obstructing or covering a license plate can be up to $250.

Additionally, law enforcement agencies have the authority to issue citations and require the removal of any obstructing cover immediately.

It is worth noting that these laws are in place for public safety and law enforcement purposes. Clear and visible license plates help authorities identify vehicles involved in criminal activities, traffic violations, or other incidents.

By adhering to these laws, drivers can help ensure their own safety and aid in the effective functioning of law enforcement efforts.

For more information on California vehicle codes and regulations, you can visit the official California Legislative Information website:

Exceptions Where Tinted Covers Are Permitted

While the use of tinted license plate covers is generally prohibited in California, there are certain exceptions where these covers are permitted. It is important to understand these exceptions to avoid any legal issues and ensure compliance with the law.

Classic / Historic Vehicles

One exception to the prohibition on tinted license plate covers in California is for classic or historic vehicles. These are vehicles that are at least 25 years old and are maintained in a condition that is consistent with their original design and specifications.

Classic or historic vehicles may be allowed to use tinted license plate covers as long as they comply with other applicable laws and regulations.

It is worth noting that the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has specific guidelines and requirements for classic or historic vehicles. These guidelines outline the necessary documentation, registration process, and any restrictions on modifications or alterations.

If you own a classic or historic vehicle and are considering using a tinted license plate cover, it is advisable to consult the DMV guidelines or speak with a knowledgeable professional to ensure compliance with all regulations.

Plate Protectors

Another exception where tinted license plate covers may be permitted is for plate protectors. Plate protectors are clear plastic or acrylic covers that are designed to protect license plates from damage or wear.

These protectors are generally allowed as long as they do not obstruct or impair the legibility of the license plate information, including the numbers, letters, and registration tags.

It is important to note that the use of tinted plate protectors should still comply with all other applicable laws and regulations. For example, the cover should not dim or distort the visibility of the license plate, and it should not interfere with the operation of any automated license plate recognition systems or devices.

Dealer License Plates

Dealer license plates, also known as dealer tags, are another exception where tinted license plate covers may be permitted. These plates are used by licensed vehicle dealers for the purpose of transporting vehicles that are being sold or displayed for sale.

Tinted license plate covers may be allowed on dealer license plates, but it is important to ensure that they do not violate any other laws or regulations.

It is worth mentioning that while these exceptions exist, it is always advisable to review the specific laws and regulations pertaining to license plate covers in California. These exceptions may be subject to change or additional requirements, so staying informed is essential to avoid any legal issues.


In summary, California law prohibits license plate covers that obstruct visibility or legibility, though light tinting is often tolerated. To avoid being cited, it’s recommended to steer clear of dark tinted covers and inspect plate visibility at night. When in doubt, remember – the purpose of license plates is vehicle identification, which can’t be impeded by cover coloring or darkness.

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