What Is a Smog Certificate for the State of California?

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Urban landscape with smog (Photo: @Tereza via Twenty20)
If you live in California, then you know all about the state government’s many environmentally conscious initiatives. Among these are environmental fees of all kinds, on all kinds of things, which increases their cost. One of these fees is for a smog certificate. In fact, you can’t even drive legally in California without one.

What Is a Smog Certificate?

When you buy a vehicle or move to California, the first thing you have to do before registering your vehicle is to get a smog check. A smog certificate shows that your vehicle meets certain environmental requirements according to California law in an effort to reduce pollution.
The California Smog Check Program applies to any vehicle manufactured from 1976 or later. Even cars that were manufactured before this time have to have an intact exhaust system.

When Is a Smog Check Required?

You have to get a smog check when you first buy a new vehicle. Following this initial registration, you must then get a smog check every two years. If you plan on selling a vehicle in California that’s over four model years old, then you’ll have to have a smog check performed before you can sell the vehicle.
If you move to California, you must have a smog check performed before you can register your vehicle. You can’t register a vehicle without making sure its smog certificate is up to date. Otherwise, you’ll be driving an unregistered vehicle in the state and will have to face the legal consequences if you’re pulled over by law enforcement, including fines and loss of the ability to register the vehicle in California.

How Much Does a Smog Check Cost and Where Do You Get One?

The price of a smog check depends on the type of vehicle you drive and the county in which you live. The price for a smog check ranges between $29.95 and $69.95 and doesn’t include the cost of getting your vehicle fixed if you fail the smog check. To get a smog check, you have a few options.
STAR Certified: A STAR Certified testing station is considered to adhere to the highest emission test standards. A STAR Certified station can also perform up to $500 of free emission repairs to get your vehicle in compliance. There are testing-only, repair-only, and test and repair STAR Certified stations.
Test-and-repair: Testing and repair smog check stations both test your vehicle and offer repairs to get the vehicle into compliance with California emission testing laws.
Test-only: Testing-only smog check stations are only outfitted to test your vehicle’s emissions. If it doesn’t pass the smog check and you need repairs, you’ll need to take your vehicle to a repair or test-and-repair station. The inspector can give you advice on what you need to do to bring your vehicle into compliance.
Repair-only: Repair-only smog check stations offer repairs to your vehicle to bring it into compliance with California emission laws. Of course, once your vehicle is repaired, you still have to take it and have it tested again. You shouldn’t have to pay another testing fee as long as you take your vehicle back in to be tested within a specific time frame.

Smog Check Exceptions

In addition to vehicles that are a 1975-year model or older being exempt from getting a smog check, there are a few other instances where you don’t need to take your vehicle in for a smog check in California, including:
  • Natural gas-powered vehicle with a gross weight over 14,000 lbs.
  • Diesel-powered vehicles made before 1998 or have a gross weight over 14,000 lbs.
  • Electric vehicles
It’s important to make sure that your vehicle stays in compliance with California emission testing standards. Not only do you help the environment, but you can also avoid the fines and penalties associated with driving a non-smog certified vehicle.