California License Plate History Timeline

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Vehicle owners in California must have a registered vehicle with the appropriate license plates. All rear plates must display a validation sticker that is up-to-date. Failure to do so leads to additional fees when renewing a vehicle.

Sample California License Plate

MILFORD - For Dave Kuehn, vehicle license plates are a snapshot of history, and collections like his are a timeline tracing the rise of the automobile and the arc of war. When Connecticut began. As part of our ongoing series on California license plate history, we thought we’d post pictures of the old metal license plate year tabs that were attached to California plates. Prior to stickers, these small metal tabs were used on the base year plates: 1941, 1945, 1947, and 1951. Following is a timeline history of Texas automobile registration and license plates. This information has been compiled by me (Nick DiFonzo) from official State sources, information from other collectors, the ALPCA archives, and evidence from actual plates. License Plate History: A Timeline. 1901: New York requires the first license plates. 1903: Massachusetts is the first to issue uniform, enamel-on-iron license plates. 1910: Metal plates begin to replace other materials like leather, ceramic, canvas, and wood. 1920: Massachusetts produces its own license plates at Charlestown State Prison.

Getting a License Plate in California


If you’re living or plan to live in California, you can register your vehicle with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The DMV is the place to register, apply for license plates, and purchase validation stickers.

Remember, California law states that you must have up-to-date license plates with a valid sticker displayed on the rear of your vehicle.

Types of License Plates in California

When you register your vehicle and apply for license plates, you can choose between the state’s standard california license plate or a specialty plate.

  • Standard California License Plate: White plate with dark blue letters
  • Specialty Plate: See Specialty License Plates in California

Upon registration, you must show your license (not expired). When you receive your license plates, you are expected to place 1 on the front and 1 at the rear.

If you are registering a motorcycle, you may only be required to display 1 license plate on the rear.

Validating Your California License Plates

In addition to registering your vehicle at the DMV, you must also purchase a validation stick to show the month of expiration. This sticker must be placed on the rear plate and be visible at all times.

You will obtain both a month stick and a year sticker. The month sticker should never change and a new year sticker will be given to you upon renewal of your registration.

Personalized License Plates in California


It's not uncommon to see catchy slogans and phrases found on license plates in California. You can personalize your license plate using a combination of numbers, letters, and some special characters.

If you are personalizing standard plates, you must follow these guidelines:

  1. Limit of 2 to 7 characters
  2. No slang or offensive words (English or any other language)
  3. Cannot look like an existing license plate (i.e. interchanging letters and numbers).

The California DMV does not provide a search to see which plates are available. Instead, you can go here to look up California plates for free.

Specialty License Plates in California

There is a wide range of specialty license plates offered by the California DMV. The cost for these plates add an additional $50 (more or less) to your total. Take a look at a few of the specialty plates you can get in California:

  • Agricultural License Plates
  • Arts Council License Plates
  • UCLA Collegiate License Plates
  • Firefighter License Plates [for current of retirees]
  • Child Health & Safety License Plates
  • Pet License Plates
  • Wildlife Conservation License Plates
  • Historical License Plates
  • Special Recognition License Plates

Some of these plates require an application form to be considered. To be eligible, you may have to provide additional documentation. For example, if you are applying for the Firefight License Plates, you would have to provide documentation that shows that you are/were a firefighter.

Applying for California License Plates

Whether you have just moved to California with your car or you are a resident purchasing a new vehicle, you must get your vehicle registered at the DMV within 20 days.

To register your vehicle, you’ll need:

  • Valid Car Insurance
  • Application Form
  • Money to Pay for Fees

Depending on the vehicle you are registering, you may also need additional documents such as an emissions test or previous title.

Surrendering License Plates in California

In California, you do not surrender your plates to the DMV when you sell your car. Instead, your plates remain with the car and transfer to the new owner (if there is a new vehicle owner).

However, if you have purchased specialty plates, those remain yours and you can have them transferred to your new motor vehicle or simply to hold onto.

If you already have standard plates for your vehicle and wish to upgrade to specialty plates, you will have to surrender your standard plates to do so.

Lost or Stolen California License Plates

California License Plate History Timeline

Sometimes you may find your license plates missing. If this occurs, you must apply for new plates immediately. You can obtain new plates by submitting a application for replacement then bring it in person or mail it to the DMV.

You will also be required to pay replacement fees:

  • Replacement Plate: $21
  • Replacement Sticker: $21

To receive your new plates faster (sometimes in the same day) it is best to go to the DMV instead of mailing an application for replacement.

Blue And Yellow License Plate

Note: you can obtain a replacement for the monthly stickers absolutely free!

Renewing License Plates in California

Before your the date on your license plate stickers expire, you should go to the DMV and renew your vehicle’s registration. You’ll have to renew your vehicle once per year, and upon renewal you will receive a new year sticker to apply to your license plate.

Depending on the year your vehicle is made, you may also be expected to undergo an emissions test. Changes to legislation occur each year, and with the advancements in car technologies, your car may be subjected to additional fees if it does not keep the air clean.

How to lookup California license plates

Before ordering your personalized license plate, you can look up available license plates in California for free. You’ll be able to find which plate names are available.

California License Plate History Timeline Free

As well, if you are looking to purchase a vehicle privately, this license plate search engine gives you VIN information such as vehicle history and previous owners.

Here is a step by step guide on how to lookup a California license plate number and report bad drivers:

  1. Open a web browser
  2. Go to
  3. Enter the plate number and select state
  4. View the report
  5. View images submitted by the community
  6. View videos submitted by the community
  7. Add comments
  8. Add pictures of the vehicle
  9. Add videos related to the vehicle

California Highway Patrol dispatchers and officers use the radio code “11-99” to communicate, “officer needs assistance.”

What is the California Highway Patrol 11-99 Foundation?

The 11-99 Foundation exists to serve California Highway Patrol employees and the members of their families in times of crisis, and provide scholarships to their children. We are an IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit, charitable organization. Our mission is simple, important and profound – the Foundation is devoted to the welfare of CHP employees and their families.

If you would like to become a Lifetime Member, please visit the Membership page to learn more about our five membership levels. In addition to making a donation to join, you will be required to submit an application and authorize the 11-99 Foundation to complete a background check to verify your eligibility.

How do I order replacement or additional membership items if I’m already a member?


If you are already a Lifetime Member, please contact the office to order replacement items. Only existing members may order additional license plate frames ($108/ea), and must submit a copy of your registration or insurance showing the name of the member on the document. You may either call or submit your request using our contact form.

The 11-99 Foundation license plate frames are NOT for sale to the general public. Frames are only offered to newly approved or existing members, as there are 1-2 included with each membership level. Only newly approved or existing members may order additional license plate frames ($108/ea), and must submit a copy of your registration or insurance showing the name of the member on the document. Please refer to the Membership page to review the details of each membership level and what items are included with each level.

If you are a member, please coordinate your replacement through our office by calling 714-529-1199 or submitting a request online.

NOTE: All license plate frames, as well as all membership items, are the sole property of the 11-99 Foundation (as noted on all membership applications). Third-party or private-party sale of frames or any membership item is strictly prohibited. Our staff monitors selling platforms on a daily basis and will flag and remove any sale, as well as revoke one’s membership to the Foundation should this occur.

How do I check on the status of my membership items?

COVID-19 Delays of Membership Items & Orders: Due to factory closures as a result of COVID-19, some membership items have become temporarily unavailable, causing delays in fulfillment of membership packages and/or store orders. We appreciate you bearing with us if it has taken longer than expected to receive your items, and will provide updates and fulfill orders as soon as we possibly can. Sugar sugar christmasgamerate. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Typical timelines: It typically takes around 8 weeks from when we receive a membership application for the membership items to be sent, provided the applicant(s) is/are formally approved.

For existing members ordering additional or replacement membership items, it typically takes at least 3-5 weeks to receive orders, depending on stock and if personalized.

Please email or call us 714.529.1199 for any additional questions about your application or order.

How do I update my contact info or address on file?

Please fill out this form to update your mailing address(es), email, phone, and provide us with any other necessary changes to our records. Note: Your information is kept strictly confidential and will only be used for Foundation emails, mailings, and promotions.

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