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Do Teslas, other electric vehicles need front license plates?

A white Tesla Model 3 with no front license plate.
A white Tesla Model 3 with no front license plate drives up Seventh Street in San Francisco. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

The Standard’s Alex Mullaney answers a reader’s question about a common sight around the city: Are front license plates required for electric vehicles?

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Perhaps you’ve noticed it, too. The sleek front bumpers of electric vehicles on San Francisco streets—Teslas, for the most part—are often motoring around the city without license plates.

Are electric vehicles permitted to drive around with only a rear license plate?

While not all vehicles on California’s streets and highways are required to have front and rear license plates—motorcycles and trailers are the most common exceptions—passenger vehicles most certainly must have two tags.

“In California, all passenger vehicles are assigned two license plates, according to the vehicle code,” a spokesperson for the Department of Motor Vehicles said. “Assigned plates must be visible at all times, whether or not a vehicle is in operation.”

When two license plates are issued by the department for use upon a vehicle, they shall be attached to the vehicle for which they were issued, one in the front and the other in the rear, California Vehicle Code 5200 states.

A red Tesla Model 3 with no front license plate.
A red Tesla Model 3 without a front license plate is parked on Howard Street in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

Driving without license plates is an infraction that can result in a $197 fine, plus court fees. But what about driving without a front license plate?

The San Francisco Police Department is unequivocal on the matter.

“The department’s stance is the same as that of our [California Highway Patrol] partners,” police spokesperson Sgt. Kathryn Winters said. “Anyone operating or parking a vehicle without a front license plate may be cited for failure to display two license plates, whether in the form of a traffic citation or a parking citation.”

Between July 1, 2018, and June 28, 2023, San Francisco police made 9,733 stops for all types of vehicles under the license plate statute, traffic stop data shows.

The police aren’t the only agency responsible for making sure vehicles are properly tagged. Parking enforcement workers scuttling around in their Interceptors also do their part.

A white Tesla Model 3 with no front license plate.
A Tesla Model 3 without a front license plate idles at a red light in San Francisco on Thursday. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency parking control officers issued 5,447,059 citations in that same period, data shows. Of those, 123,674 were for no plates or missing one plate. 

Fines for drivers aren’t the only enforcement mechanism authorities have.

Car manufacturers and distributors cannot legally sell passenger vehicles that don’t have front and rear license plates, according to the vehicle code. If the car did not come with brackets for both front and rear plates, the seller is supposed to provide them. However, it is unclear whether any dealer has ever been penalized for failing to do so. 

San Francisco’s Tesla dealership, which does not represent the company, did not wish to comment. Tesla’s press team did not respond by press time.

Alex Mullaney can be reached at amullaney@sfstandard.com