When Do You Need a Smog Check in California

Use this guide to find out how the California smog check program applies to your vehicle.

CA Smog Check Program - 2024 Quick Guide

California Smog Check Program
The Smog Check Program is an important part of the State's efforts to protect public health. Challenging environmental conditions have pushed California into implementing various emissions reduction programs. The smog check inspection, is designed to identify vehicles which produce excess emissions. The California Department of Motor Vehicles requires that a vehicle which produces excess emissions obtain repairs and pass a smog check prior to being issued California registration. Launched in 1984, the smog check program has greatly reduced air pollution created by millions of California drivers.

When is a smog check required in California?

a. Initial California Registration - Diesel powered vehicles 1998 model year and newer with a GVWR rating of 14,000 lbs or less, and gasoline powered vehicles five or more model years old require smog certification in order to obtain initial California registration. Specially constructed vehicles 1976 and newer are no longer smog check exempt and may require a smog check referee inspection. Call (800) 622-7733 to obtain an appointment with an official referee station.

b. Registration Renewal - Vehicles nine or more model years old, and registered in counties which are subject to the biennial smog inspection program, will be required to submit proof of valid smog certification every other renewal period. Owners of vehicles eight or less model years old are exempt from the smog check program until their ninth year of California registration. These vehicles will be assessed an annual smog abatement fee instead of being required to undergo a smog inspection. To determine the first year your vehicle will need a biennial smog check, add an eight to the model year of the vehicle.

Your registration renewal notice will indicate whether your vehicle requires smog certification during this renewal period. If certification is required and you have concerns regarding passing the inspection or perhaps personal time constraints, you may still pay your registration fees to avoid late charges. NeedTags can post your fees with the Department of Motor Vehicles and mail your new registration card and sticker on the same day your vehicle passes the smog inspection. Our system monitors the DMV vehicle information database for smog certification updates daily.

c. Title Transfer - Most title transfer transactions will require a smog certification. Only when buying or selling a vehicle that is four or less model years old will a smog certification not be required to transfer title to the new owner. Diesel powered vehicle's are exempt from the four or less model years old rule. Vehicles which are not required to undergo a smog inspection will be assessed a smog transfer fee. To determine the first year your vehicle will need a change-of-ownership smog check, add four to the model year of the vehicle. Learn about Online DMV Title Transfer.

Who is responsible for providing a smog certificate? California Vehicle Code section 24007(b)(2) states sellers must provide evidence of a current smog certification when the vehicle being sold is more than four model years old, except when one of the following occurs:

  • The transfer occurs between a domestic partner, spouse, child, sibling, grandparent, or grandchild. Other family members or domestic relations are not exempt and are required to obtain a smog check.
  • A valid biennial smog certificate was submitted to the CA Department of Motor Vehicles within 90 days prior to the vehicle transfer date.

TIP-1 Smog certifications are valid for 90 days from the date of issuance. If you plan on selling or buying a used vehicle which is required to undergo a smog inspection keep in mind the time frame you have to work with. The DMV will not accept an expired smog certificate and you may be required to endure the cost of a new inspection.

Which vehicles are exempt from the smog check program?

  • Diesel powered vehicles 1997 year model and older
  • Diesel powered vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Weight (GVWR) of more than 14,000 lbs
  • Electric powered vehicles
  • Natural gas powered vehicles over 14,000 lbs
  • Motorcycles
  • Trailers
  • Gasoline powered vehicles 1975 and older

Smog History Lookup - Find out when your vehicle passed its last smog inspection.

NOTE: For smog check exemption purposes age calculation is based on the model-year of the vehicle, not the date of manufacture.

How much does a smog check cost?

Expect to pay around $50.00 including the state certificate fee. Pricing heavily depends on the supply and demand factor. You're more likely to find a lower price in the part of town that's most saturated with smog stations. We recommend calling around and comparing prices at different shops. The Department of Motor Vehicles nor the Bureau of Automotive Repairs regulate smog inspection pricing. Smog check stations are privately owned businesses contracted with the State of California to provide motorists with smog inspection services for a fee.

TIP-2 You may find SmogTips.com helpful. Along with "How to Pass" tips they offer money saving coupons from hundreds of smog check stations throughout California.

Here are few things which may effect the cost of your vehicle's smog inspection:

  • STAR Certification - A smog check station may choose to apply an added fee for vehicle inspections which require STAR certification. The added charge may be used to subsidize the expense of maintaining equipment required to participate in the STAR certification process. Your registration renewal notice will indicate whether or not your vehicle requires a smog check inspection from a STAR certified smog center. State law requires that a percentage of vehicles have their smog inspection performed at a STAR certified station. Vehicles selected to undergo a STAR inspection may have been identified as being more likely than others to emit excess levels of harmful pollutants. Vehicles may also be chosen as part of a random selection for the purposes of evaluating the STAR certification program.
    STAR Smog Check Required

  • Accelerated Simulation Mode (ASM) Inspection - The transition to the BAR-OIS plug & play smog check system (which applies to vehicles 2000 model years and newer) has increased maintenance costs for the older dynamometer and tailpipe (BAR-97) smog test systems. Currently gasoline powered vehicles 1999 model year and older require a BAR-97 inspections. This inspection is also known as Accelerated Simulation Mode. Station owners may choose to charge additional fees to inspect these vehicles. A BAR-97 smog inspection is much more time consuming than a BAR-OIS inspection. The BAR-97 smog inspection utilizes a dynamometer on which a vehicle is driven while a collection of its tailpipe exhaust is analyzed for excess emissions.

  • EVAP System Test - During the ASM emissions inspection, vehicles 1995 model years and older may be required to undergo an EVAP test. The test is officially known as the Low Pressure Fuel Evaporative Test (LPFET). It is designed to check a vehicle's fuel tank and all related fuel/vapor lines to ensure the systems are well sealed. Harmful emissions from these systems must not evaporate into the atmosphere. Station owners may choose to charge an EVAP test fee in addition to the ASM inspection price.

  • Engine Cover Removal - A vehicle may require engine cover and/or panel removal to allow for a thorough smog inspection. The removal of the panel is mandated by the Bureau of Automotive Repairs and allows for the shop owner to charge an additional labor cost to perform the service. It is a requirement however that the shop owner have these additional charges displayed in plain view to the public. Panel removals are not too common and usually only required on some vans and a few exotic vehicles.

  • Oversized Vehicles - During your price comparison you may find that smog stations charge different prices for different vehicle sizes. For most business owners the math behind the added fees involve accounting for the cost of wear and tear. Larger vehicles weight more, place more stress on load bearing equipment, and are usually harder to maneuver around a smog station. The time and cost of providing service to larger vehicles may effect how much a smog station chooses to charge for the inspection in additional to the standard inspection fee.

TIP-3 We'll save you time by letting you know that older and heavier vehicles will likely have higher smog check prices. Rest assured knowing California state law requires all smog stations have their flat rate labor fees and all additional service charges prominently displayed in an area viewable by the public.

When will my car need its first smog check?

To determine the first year your vehicle will need a biennial (registration renewal) or title transfer smog check, either add an eight or four, respectively, to the model year of the vehicle. For example, a 2022 model-year vehicle will first need a biennial smog check in 2030 (2022 + 8 = 2030) and a title transfer smog check in 2026 (2022 + 4 = 2026). For smog check exemption purposes age calculation is based on the model-year of the vehicle, not the date of manufacture.

Will I need to mail anything to the DMV after the smog inspection?

No. Once your vehicle passes the smog check, the smog station will send electronic proof of certification to the DMV. A Vehicle Inspection Report (VIR) will be provided to you upon completion of the smog test and regardless of whether your vehicle passes or fails the inspection. The VIR will identity the vehicle which was tested and provide details on the tests performed during the inspection. You should keep the VIR with your registration paperwork as proof of inspection. In the event the DMV can not locate electronic record of your smog check, you may need to provide the VIR. (See sample below)
Vehicle Inspection Report

How long does a smog check take?

The average smog test takes about 10 to 20 minutes to complete. 2000 model year and newer vehicles have the shortest inspection time, averaging around 10 minutes. These vehicles undergo the BAR-OIS Plug & Play inspection system designed to increase inspection efficiency. 1999 model year and older vehicles, and others requiring the BAR-97 (ASM) inspection, average closer to 30 minutes. Our average time calculation does not take into account administrative duties which the technician might need to perform before you're able to actually leave the shop.

TIP-4 Pick a smog station located near a shopping center or restaurant and drop off your car. Enjoy lunch or shopping and come back to a job all done. If you choose while-you-wait service, we recommend the morning and mid-afternoon hours.

What happens if my vehicle fails?

If you're at smog station that's Test & Repair certified you may choose to ask the inspector to explain the reason for the failure. To tell you with 100% certainty the inspector might need to run additional tests. This may cost a diagnostics fee; usually two (2) hours of labor. Based on the smog inspection (VIR) results alone however the inspector may have a good idea of the emission system responsible for causing the smog check failure. The next step is to confirm the suspicion.

Different Types of Smog Check Stations

Now's a good time to explain the three (3) types of smog stations which exist in California.

  • Test & Repair - We mentioned Test & Repair stations in the paragraph above. The benefit of these stations is their ability to not only perform the smog inspection but repair the vehicle if needed as well. All under one roof and saving consumers time. Ultimately, you'll need to visit this type of smog station if your vehicle fails at a Test Only station.

  • Test Only - These smog stations may only provide inspection services and are not allowed to perform repairs. Their purpose is to provide fair and un-biased smog inspections. Consumers enjoy knowing these facilities do not offer nor sell repairs and have no interest in providing such services. Per California BAR regulation a Test Only smog inspector is not allowed to comment on, express opinion, or offer repair advice regarding a smog check failure. Though giving free advice can be a gray area, charging for diagnosis and/or repair(s) is not. If your vehicle fails at one of these types of smog stations you'll need to seek diagnosis and repairs at either a Test & Repair station or Repair Only station.

  • Repair Only - There are a few Repair Only smog stations in California as well. These stations, as their name implies, are allowed to repair vehicles but not allowed to provide smog check certification. They will have all the proper diagnostics equipment to efficiently diagnose and repair vehicles and even an inspection machine to ensure the vehicle passes the smog check after repairs, however they will not posses the California licensing required to perform an official smog inspection. Most repair shops with this certification serve a specific clientele and not usually the general public.

  • STAR Certified - This is not a "type" of smog station. Rather think of it as a badge of honor. Only the highest emission test standard holding smog stations, both Test & Repair or Test & Only, can be awarded this certification. The status is issued by the State of California Bureau of Automotive Repairs. Being a STAR certified smog station means the station is allowed to issue smog certification to a vehicle which has been directed to a STAR certified facility. Test & Repair stations which are STAR certified may also provide free emissions related repairs up to $500.00 through the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP). This is important to know if you are participating in CAP. If you pay anything out-of-pocket at a non-STAR certified Test & Repair smog station, the BAR may not be able to reimburse your costs.

What if my car is temporarily out of state?

We've prepared a highly informative guide explaining exactly what is required if you're in this situation. Do not obtain a smog check in another state. California will not accept it. A vehicle temporarily located out of state can be issued California registration without a smog check if the vehicle owner promises to obtain a smog inspection as soon as the vehicle is returned to California. Here's all you need to know about filing an Application for Temporary Smog Exemption the right way.

Do I need a smog check if I'm going to file a Planned Non Operation?

No, but if you register your vehicle as non-operational and then at a later time wish to bring it back to operational status, a smog inspection may be required. A vehicle which will not be operated in California does not need a smog inspection. Non-operation vehicles which are driven or parked on public roadways may be cited and/or impounded. Parking on public property in California is considered the same as "operating" a vehicle.

What does a "Notice of Incomplete Registration" from the DMV mean?

The Department of Motor Vehicles sends motorists a Notice of Incomplete Registration when it cannot locate proof of a passing smog certificate for a vehicle. If you've received one of these notices, and have since had your vehicle inspected, please allow up to 30 days to receive your new registration card and sticker from the DMV. If, after 30 days, you still have not received your registration card and license plate sticker, please contact the DMV at (800) 777-0133 for further assistance.

If you have not yet completed a smog check, we recommend doing so now. The smog station which inspects your vehicle will send the DMV electronic proof of smog certification once your vehicle has passed the inspection. The DMV database will be updated once this information is received, and a new registration card and license plate sticker will be issued to you. No further action will be required on your part. Please allow up to 30 days to receive your registration.

TIP-5 If time is of the essence and you need your new registration now, consider ordering a replacement registration card and sticker through NeedTags. Our system will check your vehicle's eligibility before accepting your replacement order, and we'll guarantee our shipment will arrive before the DMV's. We ship to any address in the United States and as fast as next-day.

Who can I contact if I have a complaint about a smog station?

If you have a complaint about a smog check station or are concerned about how your vehicle was administered a smog inspection or received emissions related repairs, please visit the Bureau of Automotive Repairs complaint page or contact the Department of Consumer Affairs at (800) 952-5210.

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