Tutorial: Vehicle and Vessel Licenses and Registrations
Licenses for drivers and for motor vehicles and marine vessels are issued by states, usually through a Department of Motor Vehicles or Division of Motor Vehicles.
You’ll need to check a state government website to find the DMV agency that handles the licensing to see what information is publicly available.
A private directory called Department of Motor Vehicles lists web addresses for motor vehicle agencies in all the states.
Very little driver’s license or vehicle registration information is available online.
Aircraft and some marine vessel licenses are issued by federal agencies.
There are federal online databases for aircraft owners and marine vessel registrations.
California Department of Motor Vehicles
The California Department of Motor Vehicles has databases of information on:
- Driver’s licenses, including the names of people with licenses or personal identification cards, their home addresses, dates of birth, photographs and descriptions of physical attributes like height, weight and hair and eye color, as well as vehicle code violations filed against them.
- Motor vehicle registrations, including the names and addresses of people registering motor vehicles, searchable by the vehicle registration number or a person’s name.
However, access to license and registration information has been severely restricted in California and other states in recent years because of privacy concerns.
You can request information from the California Department of Motor Vehicles in writing, but you must justify your request, the person about whom you’re requesting information will be notified of your request and can contest it, and it will probably take weeks at least to process the request.
A news media organization can set up an account to obtain some information on driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. But a person’s address and phone number are not available. You can only obtain information on whether the person has a license and their driving record, and whether the person owns a vehicle.
No California DMV database information is publicly available online.
For more information on the restrictions on release of DMV information, see the California Department of Motor Vehicles Web page on accesssing DMV information and the policies on release of personal DMV information.
Owners of aircraft and pilots must register with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA databases of aircraft owners and pilots are available online, searchable by the names of owners or pilots or by the registration number of an aircraft. Other reports are available on aircraft maintenance problems or accidents.
See our tutorial on Pilots and Aircraft Owners for help on accessing the FAA databases.
Federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and state agencies such as the California Department of Motor Vehicles have databases of registered ships and boats.
The National Transportation Safety Board also tracks accidents involving marine vessels.
Some of the federal databases are online.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a database of marine vessels that are registered with it or with which it has had contact. Vessels weighing 5 tons or more must register with the Coast Guard (such vessels are referred to as being “documented”). Go to:
You can search by the name or number of a vessel to get its dimensions, tonnage, and other documentation. The database does not include ownership information.
For information on shipwrecks and other major maritime accidents, try the National Transportation Safety Board’s:
In California, sail boats longer than 8 feet and any motor boat not documented with the U.S. Coast Guard must register with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
However, the DMV does not have a website at which you can access any of this information, and there are severe restrictions on what information you can request (such as restrictions on the home address of anyone who has registered a boat).
Here’s the DMV page describing their boat registration program:
Stories Using Vehicle Records
Aaron Schock resigns after new questions about mileage expenses – Politico, 3/17/2015
About this Tutorial
This tutorial was originally written by Paul Grabowicz for students in his Computer Assisted Reporting class, and later modified for public use.
This content may not be republished in print or digital form without express written permission from Berkeley Advanced Media Institute. Please see our Content Redistribution Policy at multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu/content_redistribution/.
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