Did Used ‘Green Car’ Already Get a Clean Air Sticker?

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(Originally posted 2/21/19; updated 3/4/21 with active link for VIN listing of stickers issued prior to 2017 and a DMV phone number for checking on stickers issued in an after 2017.)

The question’s become a burning one since California kicked a few hundred thousand solo-occupant plug-in, fuel-cell and natural gas vehicles out of the carpool lanes at the beginning of 2019.

Did that used EV, plug-in-hybrid , fuel-cell or natural as car or truck I’m now looking to buy as a replacement ever have a California Clean Air Vehicle decal?

[Estimated Reading Time: Short Version, 15 sec.; Long Version, 2 min, 15 sec.]

Well, we can finally offer a way to find out! All you need is the VIN of the otherwise qualified vehicle you are thinking of buying.

New purple decals and red ones issued on or after Jan. 1, 2017, are the only valid single-occupant carpool lane stickers in California.

For those who know the background, or just can’t wait, go ahead and click here: Cars with Previously Issued California Clean Air Decals.

It’s a list of VINs that were isued stickers prior to Jan.1, 2017. If you are looking at a newer used EV – one that couldn’t have gotten a sticker until Jan. 1, 2017 or after, you’ll have to call the DMV’s overworked consumer line, 916-657-8035. It’s a soul-deadening task that can eat up hours of “on hold” time. Sorry.

If you’re not quite sure how this works, read on:

The clean air vehicle sticker is the decal that lets drivers of qualified vehicles use the state’s carpool lanes again without having a passenger along.

For a whole lot of commuters, being able to use the carpool lanes and shave big chunks of time off daily trips to and from work was the principal reason for owning a green car.

Getting one of the green or white California Clean Air Vehicle stickers also helped make the higher cost of those carpool-lane eligible vehicles a lot more palatable.

But cars and trucks with clean air stickers issued before Jan. 1, 2017, lost their eligibility on Jan. 1, 2019.

That affected an estimated 225,000 vehicles and those who drove them.

Many of those drivers are looking for cars that meet the clean air vehicle guidelines and can get them back into the carpool lanes.

To do so, the vehicle either has to be a new one or a used one – from within or out of the state – that never was issued one of California’s clean air stickers.

TheGreenCarGuy has received scores of emails from people wanting to know how to find out if a car they’re thinking of buying used ever had a sticker.

Until now, prospective buyers of pre-2017 vehicles had to trust the sellers’ word if the vehicle didn’t have a visible sticker or show signs of having had one that was removed.

That works if the seller is trustworthy and knows the sticker history of the car. But sometimes sellers don’t – or aren’t.

Several people have complained that when they applied for a sticker for a just-purchased used car that the seller said had never had a sticker, word came back from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that a decal had been issued, so the car wasn’t eligible.

That’s not a good situation – particularly if you’ve just shelled out $70,000 for a used Tesla you bought only because you thought you could get a decal.

Now, though, the DMV has put together a VIN list that let’s you check to see if a car or truck you are interested in – and that would otherwise qualify for a clean air sticker – ever had one.

The list is long – 222,937 entries at last count. Remember, this are for stickers that were issued prior to Jan. 1, 2017.

But if you copy down the VIN of the vehicle you are thinking or buying, you can scroll through it to see if you’ll be able to score a current sticker.

To get started, just click on this link: Cars with Previously Issued California Clean Air Decals. If you don’t find the VIN, chances are you’ll be able to get a new one.

We say “chances are” because the DMV notes that the list is not all-inclusive and is subject to change. So there’s no 100-percent guarantee that you’ll be safe if you don’t see your VIN there. But with almost 223,000 VINs, the odds in your favor seem pretty good.

If, however, the EV you are looking at is post-2017, the list won’t help.

You’ll either have to rely on the seller’s word that the vehicle never had a California Clean Air Vehicle sticker or you’ll have to call the DMV hotline and, when you finally get through, ask them to check the VIN to see if there’s a sticker associated with it.

20 thoughts on “Did Used ‘Green Car’ Already Get a Clean Air Sticker?”

  1. Thanks for this blog post, this info is surprisingly difficult to find. I had the simple question “can I purchase a used EV that has never had a CAV decal and apply for a new decal?”

    Shocking (but not surprising) the DMV doesn’t create a public-view of the VIN database. This would take a summer intern developer a few days and a cup of coffee to publish. They could at the least export an updated PDF each month…

    But the more I learn about this program the more I realize it’s all geared around encouraging wealthy Californians to buy new EV/PHEVs. Even the 3-year duration is tied to the most popular new car lease terms. I know it sounds a bit conspiratorial but keeping info like this away from used-EV buyers/sellers is a method of supporting this new-car cycle.

  2. Great information here!! exactly what I was looking for.. Unfortunately in similar predicaments as others have described… I am in process of trying to buy an applicable car, and come to find that the only list available to cross check is sort of out of date, and it may not be complete.. means you have to call the DMV and wait for hours and hopefully not get disconnected…. thanks for the next steps though!!

  3. Hi John,
    This is fantastic information. Thank you for sharing. Is it true you have to call DMV and provide them the VIN of a used car between years 2018-current to confirm a sticker was not previously issued? The report attached is for years prior to 2017.
    There isn’t an updated list somewhere within the DMV DB that can be accessed to confirm all VIN’s with stickers issued? It seems its quite a task when I ask the dealership to research if the 2018-2020 car has had a sticker issued and I’m not sure I trust their information.
    Thanks again. Great information.

    • Unfortunately, it is true. You’ve got to go through DMV phone-hold hell if you want to check on a car that was sold new after Dec. 31, 2016. The only consumer-searchable VIN list (see link in article) is for stickers issued before Jan. 1, 2017. Phone no. to call is the DMV consumer line: 916-657-8035.

  4. Thanks for this information. So, if I buy an eligible used 2017 vehicle out of state, I can get a blue sticker now, with 4 years of car pool lane access, right? And if I buy one in-state that currently has a red sticker, I get car pool access through the end of 2021 and then that’s it – I cannot renew even though I myself would be a first time applicant, the vehicle would not be, does that sound right?

    • Hi..if you get a sticker anytime in 2021 it will be good until Jan. 1 2025.
      Expiration is not as simple as “four years after being issued.” Newly issued stickers expire on Jan. 1 of the fourth year after the year in which they were issued…so, a sticker issued in 2021 is good for that year, plus 2022 – that’s the 1st yr after year of issue – 2023 – 2nd year – and 2024, the 3rd year. It expires on Jan. 1 2025, the 4th year after the year in which it was issued. Only the year of issue matters, not the month or day. So if you buy a qualified car and get a new stickers in Jan., you pretty much get four full years of sticker use. But if you get stickers in December 2021, you only get 3 years (plus whatever part of December 2021 is left after the stickers arrive) of use.
      You are correct about the red stickers – they all expire Jan. 1, 2022.
      And also correct is that stickers are not renewable under present rules.
      Hope this helps.

  5. One thing that isn’t clear to me is which model years qualify for used cars. The CARB site lists cars with model years 2017 and higher, but the DMV VIN number document lists VINs of cars that had decals prior to 1/1/2017. If I buy, for example, a 2016 used electric car that never had a sticker, can I apply for a current year sticker?

  6. Hi – can I buy a used Plug In Hybrid (say a 2018/19 Honda Clarity) from out of state (never had CA HOV stickers on it) and submit for new HOV stickers on January 2, 2021 (which would give me HOV access through the end of the program in September 2024)?
    I have 2 kids in college and cannot afford a new Plug In Hybrid right now. Most of the used cars in CA have already had stickers and I do not where an update VIN list to check if a 2018/19 had them previously.
    Thank you.

    • Yes. Just be sure that A) the car you want to buy never had a Calif. sticker previously (it’s possible, however unlikely) and that B) it is on the state’s present list of vehicles qualifying for a Calif. Clean Air (HOV) sticker.
      Use the VIN checker linked to in the article to see if a previous sticker was issued and use the Cal. Clean Vehicle Rebate Project’s official list (https://cleanvehiclerebate.org/eng/eligible-vehicles) to see if the one you want is on it.

    • Looks like this is it. I will replace link in article with this one and keep after the media office at DMV to see why they haven’t been responding to my inquiries (As for just about everything else, delays caused by Covid-19 prevention issues will be the culprit, I’ll bet.)

    • The article is now updated with the correct link AND with this caveat from the DMV about the VIN list:
      “It is not entirely inclusive. There are different circumstances that determine eligibility or ineligibility for vehicles. Some of these vehicles may not be included in the published list. A customer can contact DMV at 916-657-8035 in order to determine the vehicle’s eligibility.”

  7. I have been trying for the last 4 hours solid to search a VIN of a car we are thinking of purchasing. I have looked all over the DMV website and every link that leads me to a VIN search tool is broken. The sites all give a contact of [email protected] but they basically told me to call DMV and ask about my VIN. I have been on hold with DMV for exactly 3 hours and 2 minutes… and counting…. If I ever get an answer/link to a search database, I will post it here.

  8. Please let us know if you get an updated list. This is a very important article you wrote! Thanks so much!!

    • I’m trying to get an answer from DMV but Covid-19 has slowed them waaaay down. I’ll post new link, if there is one, as soon as I hear from the agency.

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