How to Get a Temporary License Plate in California

Temporary license plates are called Temporary Operating Permits in California and typically last up to 90 days while you wait for permanent plates to arrive.
Written by Jason Tushinski
Edited by Pat Roache
In the state of
California
, a car dealer may issue a Temporary Operating Permit (TOP) if all your registration fees have been paid but your permanent
California license plates
and stickers have not yet been issued.
  • A temporary license plate is called a temporary operating permit (TOP) in California.
  • You can face citations or tickets, fines, and penalties if law enforcement catches you driving in California without license plates, even if you’re waiting for your new plates to arrive.
  • California offers different types of TOPs for different circumstances, some of which require fees.

Temporary license plates in California

A temporary operating permit (TOP) is the California version of a temporary paper license plate, and it typically lasts for 90 days. According to the California Vehicle Code, you’ll need a TOP to legally operate a new vehicle in California while you wait on your permanent license plates and registration stickers.

How to get a temporary operating permit in California

A licensed car dealership will issue a TOP if your plate and stickers aren’t ready when you
buy a new car
, so long as your
vehicle registration
fees are paid. 
If you buy a used car, the dealership should also fill out and attach a Report of Sale (DMV Form REG 51) to the vehicle (usually on the bottom of the windshield on the passenger’s side). This form will include:
  • Vehicle’s make, model, year, and VIN
  • Date the vehicle was sold
  • Vehicle’s odometer reading
  • Numbers of the dealer and salesperson
  • Name and address of the person the vehicle was sold to
  • The temporary license plate number

Types of TOPs in California

There are other circumstances where you might need a different kind of temporary operating permit, including if your car fails its
Biennial Smog Certification
. You can get the following TOPs from the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Biennial Smog Certification TOP

If your vehicle fails the Biennial Smog Certification test, you’ll need to get a temporary permit. This permit will be valid for 60 days from the date of registration expiration or the date the vehicle is removed from non-operating status. 
To get one, do the following:
  • Pay all registration fees, plus an additional $50 for the temporary permit
  • Submit your failed inspection report

One-time 30-day TOP

You can apply for a 30-day TOP for the following:
  • A non-resident vehicle
  • An impounded vehicle (so long as all fees are paid)
  • A vehicle referred by the California Highway Patrol for VIN inspection or assignment
  • A vehicle having trouble passing original or transfer smog inspection
  • A vehicle requiring Federal Heavy Vehicle Use Tax with an expiration date other than July 31

One-time 60-day TOP

You can apply for a 60-day TOP under the following circumstances:
  • An incomplete registration application in regards to a vehicle failing a smog inspection test, after all fees are paid
  • A
    salvage retention vehicle
    that is being rehabilitated, so long as the customer has paid all registration fees and submitted brake and light certificates

One-time 90-day TOP

You can get a 90-day TOP under the following circumstances:
  • You are waiting for your permanent California license plate to be manufactured after buying a new car
  • You have applied for personalized plates and are waiting for them to be manufactured

One Day Moving Permit

You can get a One Day Moving Permit from California’s DMV for no fee under the following conditions:
  • With a Planned Non Operation Filing (PNO) on file to move from one place of storage to another—this is a car that is not intended to be driven
  • To move a vehicle from one garage or repair shop to another for
    car repairs
    , alteration, dismantling, or wrecking
  • To move a vehicle from one place to another for inspection by the DMV or CHP, VIN verification or assignment, smog control inspection, weighing a vehicle, or getting brake or light certification
  • For a vehicle that is incomplete or in the process of being altered.

One Trip Permit

A unique permit is available for the following circumstances:
  • For a vehicle to participate in a parade or float from one place to another and for no more than 100 miles roundtrip, which must be completed within 60 days.
  • An unladen vehicle for one continuous trip from one place in California to another in or out-of-state, and vice-versa (must be the most direct route).
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