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California Finally Has Temporary License Plates

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author photo by Doug DeMuro January 2019

For many years, newly purchased cars in California could drive around with no proof of registration -- instead, they'd just have a paper plate, often advertising the dealership, where the license plate was supposed to go. Obviously, this was exploited, and many people used only the paper plate for years, rather than the 60 to 90 days they were legally allowed to -- but, finally, this is no longer allowed.

Indeed, California has finally ditched its ridiculously flawed system of temporary registration and adopted true temporary license plates, ending one of the most commonly exploited loopholes in the entire North American car world. As of Jan. 1, 2019, newly purchased cars in California drive around with an actual paper license plate as you see above -- complete with a QR code, an expiration date and plate numbers -- indicating with the temporary registration expires. If that date passes and you don't have a real license plate, expect to get pulled over.

First, a little overview of exactly what happened before temporary plates in California. What happened was, you'd get the dealer license plate insert, you'd stick it where the plate would go, and then you'd drive around forever. And I mean forever. You're supposed to have a temporary registration for about two months while the state processes your paperwork, at which point they mail you real license plates, which you're then supposed to put on your car.

But instead, many drivers went a year or two without actually sticking on their real plates -- sometimes out of the sheer laziness of not wanting to take the time to put them on the car, and sometimes out of a desire to avoid tolls, parking tickets, red light camera tickets and more. The general feeling in California, for years, has been that if your car looks new enough to have the dealer plate insert, then a police officer probably wouldn't bother pulling you over, since there's no way to tell if your registration is valid or not.

And, indeed, I know many people who really exploited this, driving around for months or even a year or more with no license plate, knowing that nobody was really going to check. In the past, the only way to find out if the temporary registration was valid was that a police officer had to pull you over, then physically examine the temporary registration document on the front windshield, which has no print larger than what you see on this page. Enforcement, as a result, was limited.

Well, all that is finally over, and real temporary plates are here, meaning people can no longer drive around without registering their cars and skipping on registration fees. An enormous portion of the exotic cars you see in Southern California have dealer plate inserts, and within a few months they'll all be operating illegally -- so it'll be interesting to see exactly what happens with those cars. Will owners cough up sales tax, assuming they've never paid it? Or have they paid all their taxes, and they just didn't want to put plates on their cars?

We'll find out soon enough, because I suspect the police will soon start cracking down on violators with no license plates -- meaning one of the easiest and most commonly exploited loopholes for driving in the U.S. is finally coming to an end.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
California Finally Has Temporary License Plates - Autotrader