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Driving without insurance in California

A cop at a traffic stop getting necessary information from a driver he stopped.
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As you’d probably expect from California, driving without insurance in the Golden State comes with a whole mess of fines and other potential penalties. If you do get a ticket for having no insurance while in California, you’re looking at quite a bit of headache from trying to calculate the fine alone.

On top of that penalty for driving without insurance, you could lose your license and have your vehicle impounded, too. All told, driving without insurance in California probably isn’t worth it. To help you confirm that’s true, let’s do the math on what you’ll pay if you’re caught without the state-required coverage.

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.

One quick aside just to complicate matters a little bit: if you don’t want to buy liability insurance, California gives you other options for proving financial responsibility. You could deposit $35,000 with the DMV or get a $35,000 surety bond, for example. 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.

Penalties for driving without insurance in California

The penalty for driving without insurance in California doesn’t seem too painful on the surface, but it gets more serious if you’re a repeat offender or get into an accident.

First conviction

In California, driving without insurance once isn’t too bad. You’ll get a fine of between $100 and $250 plus penalty assessments. But the court could also decide to impound your vehicle.

Second conviction

If you’re caught driving without insurance in California a second time, the fine is $200 to $500 plus penalty assessments. And, again, your vehicle could get impounded.

California penalty assessments

Ultimately, the fines for driving without insurance in California aren’t too steep. But where they really get you is on penalty assessments. 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 — right around the same amount you’d pay for a full-year robust auto insurance policy.

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 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

What is the best car insurance in California?

The best policy for you depends on your wants and needs, plus factors that are unique to you like the car you drive, where you primarily park it, how much you drive and your driving history. To help you get quotes from insurers so you can find the right policy at a price that fits your budget, we rounded up the best car insurance companies in California.

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.