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California’s DMV lets drivers use sticker-like license plates. Here’s how to get one

A wrapped sticker license plate adhered to front bumper on a vehicle with a California license plate.
A traditional front license plate, left, can be replaced by a vinyl license plate, right, manufactured by License Plate Wrap. | Source: Courtesy License Plate Wrap

Jun Mendoza, a car enthusiast and Southern California entrepreneur, was driving his Mercedes on the freeway when a highway patrol officer pulled him over for not having a front license plate. Not having a front plate is against the law in California, and the infraction is punishable by a fine of $197.

The citation miffed Mendoza. “I sat there, and I looked and said, ‘I'm not going to drill holes in my car,’” he said.

But the ticket also sparked a business idea for the Midway City owner of a graphic design business. What if, instead of metal plates attached to cars with screws or nuts and bolts, license plates could be more like stickers?

READ MORE: What Do San Francisco Police Do When Vehicles Don’t Have License Plates?

A sticker or a vinyl applique-like plate would appeal to car owners like Mendoza, who were reluctant to self-install a plate on the front bumper where the manufacturer apparently never intended one to be (front plates are not required in all states).

Moreover, sticker-type plates would be less prone to theft. Stolen plates are a serious issue in California, with many criminals installing pilfered tags on the cars they are using to commit crimes.

Mendoza went to work in his shop to perfect a vinyl license plate that looked authentic. After applying for a patent, he brought the idea to California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. As it turned out, the agency had launched a pilot program for “digital” license plates—screens that display a license plate number and allow motorists to automatically renew their registration—and agreed to incorporate vinyl front license plates into the pilot. The startup License Plate Wrap was born.

While the program launched in 2015, it didn’t begin in earnest until new legislation was passed in 2022. And, as of Dec. 1 this year, 7,866 vehicles are participating in the program, according to the DMV, which is gathering input regarding the development of proposed regulations governing the use of alternatives to license plates.

A wrapped sticker license plate adhered to front bumper on a vehicle with a California license plate.
A wrapped license plate manufactured by License Plate Wrap is placed on a Tesla's front bumper. | Source: Courtesy License Plate Wrap

“License Plate Wrap is the only company authorized to sell wraps at this time,” a spokesperson for the DMV said, adding there is no direct funding allocated to the program.

A vinyl plate costs $131.60 on top of standard license plate fees and takes four to five weeks to fulfill.

“When I get an order, that information gets submitted to DMV, and they clear it,” Mendoza said. “Whatever is registered with the DMV, that's the only thing I can issue.”

A participant’s registration must be current, and they must provide Mendoza with the installation date and vehicle mileage.

The vinyl wrap plate, which is reflective and scannable by license plate readers used by law enforcement, comes with a letter declaring the vehicle is part of the program in the event any questions about the authenticity of the tag are raised.

Taking one of the license plate wraps off of a vehicle is extremely difficult for thieves because the vinyl would stretch and tear, Mendoza said.

These sticker-like plates conform to bumpers and don’t require screws, allowing discerning motorists to keep the front sides of their vehicles pristine. The DMV only allows vinyl plates on the fronts of cars; rear plates must still be metal.

California is the first state to try them out, and polls on online forums indicate Tesla owners seem happy to spend extra to keep their Model X SUVs pristine—much more than the $25 for traditional plates.

Mendoza is actively pitching all of the states in the union to embrace vinyl license plates and says North Dakota is showing keen interest along with Texas. He’s working to persuade more drivers in California to try out his product. He’s now giving car dealerships posters to market his product.

“Everybody loves it,” Mendoza said. “They just love the whole thing: that it's out there and that there's an alternative.”

Correction: The cost of the license plate wrap has been updated.