Navigating the DMV to Become a Californian

Picture courtesy of  So Cal Metro

Picture courtesy of So Cal Metro

The week I moved to LA, I changed my area code, my address, my license, my registration, and my insurance—just to make sure that I wouldn’t chicken out and move back to Michigan. Here’s how you can do it too!

California is notorious for charging high fees for almost everything. There are even smog checks that have to be done on your car, which will run you around $40. Granted, almost no car fails it—but, it’s just a price we pay to live in the Golden State. I’m not sure how the DMV works in your town, but in LA it’s a pretty grueling process. You can make an appointment weeks in advance, or walk in and wait it out. Some people (i.e. me) line up well before the office opens to minimize wait times.

Getting your driver’s license in LA is a matter of going to the DMV, waiting approximately 32,849,230 minutes, filling out a form (know your social security number), passing a quick vision test, having your picture taken, and passing the California written driving test. It will cost you $31, unless you fail the written test 3 times—then you’ve got to pay up again. Don’t underestimate the written test…study the booklet at the DMV! You can find a full FAQ with more information straight from the DMV here. I may or may not have taken the motorcycle written test at least four times before finally passing.

SIDEBAR: Do not lose your license. I once lost mine in a NYC cab, and the new high-tech IDs take up to 60 days to process. Mine took exactly that long. Living without a photo ID for 60 days is no fun.

Registering your car can be kind of a pain. Here is a list of what you will need at the DMV. Also note that not all DMVs process vehicle registration, so make sure your office does before heading over. Use the Vehicle Registration Calculator to find out what it will cost you to transfer over your registration and get CA plates. Oh, and don’t forget that you’ve got to have the front and back plates on your car. It may not be the best look, but you will probably get a ticket if you don’t have both of them on.

Now, according to the almighty DMV, you must get a California driver’s license if you are living here for more than 30 days. If you plan on living here, you must also register your car within 20 days. I’m sure you’re wondering, “Why do I have to change everything over? Can’t I just say I’m just visiting if I get pulled over? They would never know.”

Of course you can do that, and I know many people who do. But let’s say you’re in a terrible accident. The insurance company will likely investigate what happened, and will find out you have never moved your registration or license over to California. You will have illegal insurance and it won’t be valid. Not a good time.

California’s DMV doesn’t play around. Don’t learn lessons the hard way—the money it will cost you to switch over is worth the peace of mind that comes with being a legal resident. Make sure your car is legit! Any other questions you have about the process, you can find me at

Kristen Creager

Kristen Creager is a marketer and musician, originally from Michigan. Her favorite thing about the city is the inspiring creativity and energy that flows through it. You can connect with Kristen on Twitter @kristencreag.


  • Reply August 22, 2011


    Thank you thank you thank you for this article. My friends who have been in California for over 5 years couldn’t give me a straight answer. This is a huge help.

  • Reply August 22, 2011


    You’re welcome! Any other questions you can find me on Twitter @kristencreag.

  • Reply September 1, 2011

    How I Beat LA Traffic

    […] what to do when I drove it off the lot, desperately trying to keep my balance. However, I got my motorcycle license (a necessary evil in California), an obnoxiously huge full motorcycle helmet, and started scooting […]

  • […] Money gets tight: fast. Even when you first get here, you will drop money like it is nothing. New registration, gas, new vehicle title, car maintenance, gas, apartment deposit, apartment rent, furniture, gas, food, gas, food, […]

Leave a Reply