There was a well-known controversy about the late Steve Jobs, who never had any number plates affixed to his AMG, supposedly still being in full compliance with California law, by supposedly leasing a new AMG every six months, and, supposedly, California doesn't require licence plates on the vehicle for the first six months.

Whether or not law explicitly codifies the six months, it's indeed quite common in California to see cars without any sort of number plates (and, likewise, a lot of cars are also missing the front number plate, even though plates are almost always issued in pairs, and front plates are required to be affixed to most cars in California), thus they don't even arouse much suspicion. This is probably because even non-custom plates require processing, and are mailed through USPS after the processing, thus a lot of interns and such live in California for the whole summer only to receive their plate when they're already ready to sell their car and depart!

However, what would happen if you were to travel in such a plateless car across North America, can you be ticketed for not having the number plates?

  • 2
    What you describe sounds implausible. Are you sure there is no temporary tag or sticker that has to be displayed somewhere on the car, e.g., inside the rear window?
    – feetwet
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 23:21
  • @feetwet, yes, 100% sure. no 30-day paper plate is ever issued, no kind of tag for the rear window; you only get the registration receipt for the glovebox or whatnot. it's one of those things that's so Californian about it!
    – cnst
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 5:14

2 Answers 2


California Vehicle Code, division 3, chapter 1, article 1, section 4000:

A person shall not drive, move, or leave standing upon a highway, or in an offstreet public parking facility, any motor vehicle, trailer, semitrailer, pole or pipe dolly, or logging dolly, unless it is registered and the appropriate fees have been paid under this code or registered under the permanent trailer identification program, except that an off-highway motor vehicle which displays an identification plate or device issued by the department pursuant to Section 38010 may be driven, moved, or left standing in an offstreet public parking facility without being registered or paying registration fees.

(Section 38010 defines "off-highway vehicles", essentially agricultural, construction, and other vehicles that are never driven on state roads)

Article 2, section 4156:

(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of this code, and except as provided in subdivision (b), the department in its discretion may issue a temporary permit to operate a vehicle when a payment of fees has been accepted in an amount to be determined by, and paid to the department, by the owner or other person in lawful possession of the vehicle. The permit shall be subject to the terms and conditions, and shall be valid for the period of time, that the department shall deem appropriate under the circumstances.

Article 7, section 4850:

The department, upon registering a vehicle, shall issue to the owner two partially or fully reflectorized license plates or devices for a motor vehicle, other than a motorcycle, and one partially or fully reflectorized license plate or device for all other vehicles required to be registered under this code. The plates or devices shall identify the vehicles for which they are issued for the period of their validity.

Article 9, section 5202:

A license plate issued by this state or any other jurisdiction within or without the United States shall be attached upon receipt and remain attached during the period of its validity to the vehicle for which it is issued while being operated within this state or during the time the vehicle is being held for sale in this state, or until the time that a vehicle with special or identification plates is no longer entitled to those plates; and a person shall not operate, and an owner shall not knowingly permit to be operated, upon any highway, a vehicle unless the license plate is so attached. A special permit issued in lieu of plates shall be attached and displayed on the vehicle for which the permit was issued during the period of the permit’s validity.

Divsion 17, article 1, chapter 1, section 40000.1:

Except as otherwise provided in this article, it is unlawful and constitutes an infraction for any person to violate, or fail to comply with any provision of this code, or any local ordinance adopted pursuant to this code.

In short, yes, you need a license plate or equivalent temporary registration permit to drive on the highways; California is a bit unusual in that it requires license plates for parked vehicles as well.

  • 1
    Well, the 6 months must be codified somewhere, the story has received quite a public coverage back a few years ago. appleinsider.com/articles/11/10/27/… E.g. there must be a certain rule for the upper limit where the receipt for the attached upon receipt must happen, supposedly 6 months.
    – cnst
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 5:04
  • 1
    @cnst, I can't find anything about "6 months" or "180 days" in the current code. There may have been such a limit prior to 2011 that was changed to the current "first day of the second month" limit for registration, though.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 8:11
  • @Mark - it is not that unusual to require licence plates for parked cars. They are required in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa as well and I suspect other areas I just know these first hand.
    – Chad
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:02
  • what's "first day of the second month"? i'm not saying registration is optional, just that you aren't given the plates right away, and must wait for them in the mail, thus plateless cars are still very common and entirely normal in cali
    – cnst
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 5:32
  • Good question for Skeptics, maybe. I doubt any 'six month' rule ever existed. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 22:13

Vehicles on public roads in the United States have to be registered in some state, and comply with the laws and conditions of registration in that state. Practically, outside of their state of registration, I have never known police to care about compliance. For example, if you can keep it registered in a state that requires regular inspections, but you don't have it inspected as required, there is no incentive for another state to try to prosecute you for that non-compliance.

That said, if you drive around without a plate ("license plate" or "tag") on the rear of a vehicle, you shouldn't be surprised if you're pulled over by every police officer who sees you on the road. If you can provide proof of registration (or they can verify it) you might be back on your way without a ticket. But if the police think you're being a scofflaw they may well go out of their way to look for any violations they can charge you with, because driving an untagged car they almost have to assume it's stolen or that you're otherwise up to no good. (After all, these days the first thing a criminal looking to use a car during a crime would do to prevent tracking and ID by camera is remove the plate of his vehicle. More diligent ones steal plates, ideally from cars of the same make and model, to avoid exactly this sort of unwanted police attention.)

  • 2
    lol, i can tell you've never lived in california, nor had any friends intern there and buy a car locally. :-) yes, coming from the east coast, it was indeed weird that no 30-day paper plate is ever issued in Cali, nor any kind of other rear window sticker, other than a registration receipt (for the glovebox or whatnot). i personally have removed my old plate (well, asked dealer to do it, because it got stuck) and drove around without any sort of plate whatsoever for a few months, just to see if anyone would notice!
    – cnst
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 5:12
  • 1
    @cnst: So when there was that epidemic of red-light cameras why didn't everyone just remove their plates? Or rather, how do/did all those jurisdictions who tried red light cameras think they would ever work if any number of people could drive untagged cars?
    – feetwet
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 13:07
  • red light cameras are not that widespread in Cali; only certain counties and cities do have them (e.g., the biggest city in NorCal, San Jose, has none, in fact, the whole of Santa Clara County doesn't have any). Why would people not just remove their plates? I dunno, perhaps just common civility and compliance/conformance, maybe we should ask on cogsci.stackexchange.com?
    – cnst
    Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 21:34
  • 1
    Plus, California plates actually look very stylish and classy yet modern, you surely wouldn't want to hide that beauty! ;)
    – cnst
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 4:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .