Turning in your license plates to the California DMV when you sell or dispose of your vehicle is an important step that many vehicle owners overlook. However, not returning your plates can lead to parking tickets, unpaid tolls, and other legal issues being traced back to you even after you no longer own the car. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk through all the steps needed and options available for properly returning your California license plates.

When Do You Need to Return License Plates in California?

Returning license plates in California is a necessary step in certain situations. Whether you are selling or transferring ownership of your vehicle, destroying or dismantling your vehicle, or moving out of state, it is important to understand when and how to return your license plates.

Selling or Transferring Ownership of Your Vehicle

If you are selling or transferring ownership of your vehicle in California, returning the license plates is required. This ensures that the plates are not misused or associated with any illegal activities.

When you sell or transfer your vehicle, make sure to remove the license plates and return them to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) as soon as possible. Failure to do so may result in fines or other penalties.

Pro Tip: Before returning your license plates, it is always a good idea to make a copy or take a photo of them for your records.

Destroying or Dismantling Your Vehicle

If you are planning to destroy or dismantle your vehicle in California, you are required to return the license plates to the DMV. This applies to situations where the vehicle is no longer operable and is being permanently taken out of service.

By returning the license plates, you help prevent any misuse or unauthorized use of the plates.

Did You Know? The DMV offers a convenient online service for returning license plates. Visit their website at www.dmv.ca.gov to complete the process easily.

Moving Out of State

If you are moving out of state from California, you must return your license plates to the DMV. This is important because your California plates are no longer valid once you establish residency in another state.

Returning the plates ensures that they are not used illegally or associated with your name after you’ve moved.

Fun Fact: According to a recent study, California is one of the top states that people move out of. So, if you find yourself moving out of the Golden State, don’t forget to return your license plates!

How to Return License Plates

Returning license plates is an important step when you no longer need them or when you are selling your vehicle. By returning your license plates, you help prevent fraudulent use and ensure that they are properly disposed of.

In Person at DMV Field Office

If you prefer to return your license plates in person, you can visit a DMV field office. Here is a step-by-step guide:

  1. Gather the necessary documents: Bring your vehicle registration card and a valid ID.
  2. Remove the plates: Take off the license plates from your vehicle.
  3. Visit the DMV field office: Locate the nearest DMV field office and bring the plates along with the required documents.
  4. Return the plates: Hand over the plates to the DMV representative and follow any additional instructions they provide.
  5. Obtain a receipt: Make sure to ask for a receipt as proof of returning your license plates.

For more detailed information on returning license plates in person, you can visit the official California DMV website.

By Mail

If you are unable to visit a DMV field office in person, you can also return your license plates by mail. Here’s how:

  1. Secure the plates: Remove the plates from your vehicle and secure them to prevent damage during transit.
  2. Complete the necessary forms: Fill out the Application for Refund or Requisition of License Plates (REG 17) form, which can be found on the California DMV website.
  3. Include required documents: Enclose a copy of your vehicle registration card and a note explaining that you are returning the plates.
  4. Package and address: Place the forms, documents, and plates in a secure package and mail them to the address specified by the DMV.
  5. Keep proof of mailing: Retain a copy of the mailing receipt or send the package via certified mail to track its delivery.

For additional instructions and mailing address details, refer to the California DMV’s online guide on returning license plates by mail.

Remember, returning your license plates promptly is essential to avoid any potential issues or penalties. By following these steps, you can ensure a smooth and hassle-free process.

Fees for Returning Plates

Returning license plates in California may require payment of certain fees. These fees are designed to cover administrative costs associated with the plate return process. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the fees and any exceptions or waivers that may apply.

Standard Plate Return Fee

The standard plate return fee in California is typically $20. This fee helps cover the costs of processing the returned plates and updating the DMV’s records. When returning your plates, you will need to include a check or money order for the appropriate amount made payable to the “Department of Motor Vehicles.”

Exceptions and Waivers

There are certain exceptions and waivers that may apply to the standard plate return fee. For example, if you are returning your plates due to a total loss of your vehicle or if you are an active duty military member, you may be eligible for a waiver of the fee.

Additionally, some county tax collectors may have different fees and procedures for plate returns, so it’s always best to check with your local office for specific information.

For more detailed information on fees for returning license plates in California, you can visit the official California DMV website.

What Happens if You Don’t Return Plates?

Returning license plates in California is a legal requirement when you sell or transfer ownership of a vehicle, or if you no longer plan to use the plates. Failure to return the plates can result in various consequences, including fines, penalties, and being liable for future violations.

Fines and Penalties

If you don’t return your license plates to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) after selling or transferring your vehicle, you may face fines and penalties. The exact amount of the fines can vary depending on the circumstances, but it is important to take this requirement seriously to avoid any unnecessary expenses.

The DMV may charge late fees for plates that are not returned within the specified time frame. These fees can accumulate over time, potentially resulting in a significant financial burden. Additionally, failure to return plates can lead to the suspension of your driving privileges, which can further complicate your situation.

Being Liable for Future Violations

Another consequence of not returning your license plates is the potential liability for future violations committed by the new owner of the vehicle. If the new owner fails to register the vehicle and obtain their own plates, any traffic violations or toll violations associated with the old plates could be attributed to you.

This means that you could be held responsible for tickets, fines, and other penalties incurred by the new owner. It is crucial to protect yourself by promptly returning the plates to the DMV and ensuring that the new owner registers the vehicle in their name.

Alternatives to Returning Plates

Returning license plates can be an inconvenience, but luckily there are alternatives available for those who no longer need their California plates. Here are two popular alternatives:

Selling Plates to New Owner

If you have recently sold your vehicle but the new owner does not want the license plates, you have the option to sell the plates separately. This can be a great way to recoup some of the costs associated with purchasing new plates for your next vehicle.

You can advertise the plates for sale online or in local classifieds, making sure to include information such as the plate number and any relevant details. By selling your plates, you not only save yourself the hassle of returning them, but also potentially help someone else who may be looking for specific plate numbers for personal or sentimental reasons.

Transferring Plates to Another Vehicle

If you are purchasing a new vehicle and want to keep your existing license plates, you have the option to transfer them to your new vehicle. This can be a convenient and cost-effective solution, as you won’t have to go through the process of obtaining new plates.

To transfer your plates, you will need to visit your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office and complete the necessary paperwork. Keep in mind that there may be certain restrictions, such as the plates needing to be the correct type and in good condition.

By transferring your plates, you can maintain a sense of continuity and personalization with your new vehicle, while also avoiding the hassle of returning the plates.

It’s important to note that these alternatives may not be available in all states, so it’s best to check with your local DMV or relevant authorities for specific guidelines and regulations.


Properly returning your license plates to the California DMV is a quick and easy process, but an important one to close out your registration paperwork when you no longer own a vehicle. Following the proper steps will help you avoid any headaches or legal issues down the road. The DMV provides several convenient options for returning plates by mail or in person. Be sure to account for any applicable fees as well. With this guide, you now have the key information needed to successfully return your California license plates.

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