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Driving without insurance in California

A car parked on the side of the road with a nice sunset in the background.
Calvin Bak/EyeEm/Getty Images
A car parked on the side of the road with a nice sunset in the background.
Calvin Bak/EyeEm/Getty Images
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Many states, including California, require drivers to carry auto insurance when operating a motor vehicle. Although coverage options can vary, car insurance exists to protect your finances in the event of an accident. Driving without insurance can be extremely detrimental to your finances in the event of an accident and because of this, driving without insurance can come with heavy penalties.

If you are caught driving without insurance in the Golden State, you will likely get a ticket and be required to pay a fine. However, you may also lose your license or risk having your vehicle impounded. We have provided an overview of what risks and penalties you face if you opt to drive without insurance in California.

California car insurance laws

First, let’s take a second to understand what it means to be driving without insurance in California. In this state, you only meet the legally required amount of coverage when you have:

  • $15,000 of bodily injury liability coverage per person
  • $30,000 of bodily injury liability coverage per accident
  • $5,000 of property damage liability coverage

Your policy might list these limits as 15/30/5.

Ultimately, having this much liability coverage gives you something to fall back on. If you cause an accident or hit a person or object with your car, you can rely on your liability coverage to pay for the damages up to the limits listed above (or more, if you opt for higher coverage limits).

In California, driving without insurance means not having the above amounts of liability coverage. But that’s not all. Per the state vehicle code, you’re also required to show proof of that coverage to a law enforcement officer when requested to do so. You could show a paper copy of your insurance card or pull it up on your phone. Either way, though, to avoid a ticket for no insurance, you’ll need to show proof of insurance when asked.

There are alternatives to carrying an insurance policy. In California, you have a couple other ways to prove financial responsibility. One way to ensure you are able to be financially responsible for an accident is that you could deposit $35,000 cash with the DMV or get a $35,000 surety bond. But in most cases, buying an insurance policy is the cheapest and easiest way to get the proof of financial responsibility that you need to legally drive in the state.

However, just because you are able to prove financial responsibility, it is important to keep in mind that if you are responsible for causing an accident, the damages could easily exceed $35,000.

Penalties for driving without insurance in California

California is a state that takes driving without insurance very seriously. Although the initial penalties for driving without insurance in California may not seem too hefty at first glance, it will still cost you in the long run and is not worth the risk. The associated fines can add up quickly, especially if California penalty assessments are added to your infraction. Additionally, the penalties are even more serious if you are a repeat offender or if you happen to get into an accident while you are driving without insurance.

First conviction

In California, getting caught driving without insurance once will probably not break the bank financially. You will potentially be fined an amount between $100 and $200. Penalty assessments may be added on top of this fine. The real risk is that the court could also decide to impound your vehicle, even if this is the first time you were caught driving without insurance.

Second conviction

If you are caught driving without car insurance in California a second time, the fine significantly increases to an amount between $200 and $500, plus any penalty assessments the court adds to your total. Again, you will also face the possibility of your vehicle getting impounded.

California penalty assessments

Ultimately, the fines for driving without insurance in California are not too steep. However, where the costs really add up is through penalty assessments. In California, a penalty assessment is a dollar amount added to the original baseline fine you are charged for any legal infraction. There are several penalty assessment codes on the books that pertain to driving without your license which means your $200 fine could quickly double or triple. Depending on where you live and what your local officials elect to apply, you could be subject to all of the additional penalty assessments:

Again, for some of these penalty assessments to be levied, your local official would have to elect to include them. But if you are subject to all of these penalty assessments, every $10 of your fine gets $29 added on top. So your $100 fine quickly becomes $390, for example. And if you get hit with the max $500 fine plus all the penalty assessments, you could be looking at $1,950 out of pocket. And that doesn’t even take into account the costs if you have damaged your own or other vehicles while driving without insurance.

Getting into an accident without insurance

If you’re in California driving without insurance, an accident means much more trouble for you. If you caused the accident, you’re on the hook for paying the damages. That means you’ll need to cover repairs to the other person’s vehicle and their medical expenses out of your own pocket.

In California, driving without insurance and causing an accident could leave you with so many expenses to cover that it could change your life — and not in a good way. Even if you can’t pay the money right away, the other driver could sue you and have your wages garnished until they get the amount you owe in full.

On top of that, getting into an accident without insurance or the ability to provide evidence of financial responsibility means license suspension. Usually, you’ll be without your license for one year, at which point you can get your license reinstated if your insurance company files an SR-22 on your behalf. You’ll need to keep that SR-22 in place for three years. And when you need an SR-22, your car insurance gets more expensive, so be prepared.

Even if you weren’t the at-fault driver, driving without insurance in California limits your recourse after an accident. The other driver’s liability policy can pay for your car repairs and medical bills, up to the policy limits. But because California is a “No Pay, No Play” state, you can’t try to get money for non-economic damages. So, for example, you couldn’t sue for pain and suffering money.

Frequently asked questions

Written by
Kacie Goff
Personal Finance Contributor
Kacie Goff is a personal finance and insurance writer with over seven years of experience covering personal and commercial coverage options. She writes for Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, NextAdvisor, Varo Money, Coverage, Best Credit Cards and more. She's covered a broad range of policy types — including less-talked-about coverages like wrap insurance and E&O — and she specializes in auto, homeowners and life insurance.
Edited by
Insurance Editor
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