Difference between M1 and M2 Motorcycle Licenses of California! (Which one is RIGHT for you?)

Being an adult is hardly all fun and games.

But what is one good thing about it that stands out? Being able to drive legally. ????

Hence one of the rites of passage to adulthood is often buying a vehicle and getting a driver’s license. Moreover, many young adults’ first ventures into driving start with motorcycles. 

The motorcycle is much loved in the golden state, as California is called. In fact, as per iihs.org, California currently has the highest number of registered motorcycles in the country. 

But you need an M1 or an M2 license, before you hit the roads.

The California motorcycle driver’s license is of two types. They are Class M1 and M2. Depending on your need, you can get either of the two from your local DMV office. 

In California, driving a motorcycle without a motorcycle license is illegal. This is the case even if you already have a regular driver’s license. So, if you want to take your bike out on the road, you need to get one of the Class M licenses. 

What are M1 and M2 motorcycle licenses in California?

Both of these are motorcycle licenses, and everyone needs at least one of them in California to ride a bike. As mentioned above, you can choose to apply for either one.

The main difference between the two is the type of two-wheel motorcycle you will be allowed to ride.

Apart from that, there is not much difference. 

Class M1 license in California

An M1 license allows you to legally operate any two or three-wheel motorcycle.

California law defines a motorcycle as a motor vehicle with a seat or saddle for the rider and does not have more than three wheels. It should also have an engine capacity of more than 150cc.

Additionally, with an M1, you can also drive the following:

  • Motor-driven cycles. These have engines smaller than 150cc and so are not classified as “motorcycles.” 
  • Mopeds/Motorized bicycles. These bikes have two or three wheels and an electric motor. They must have an automatic transmission that produces under four gross brake horsepower. 
  • Motorized scooters. These bikes allow riders to stand on a floorboard and use grip handlebars. They are usually ridden only on bike paths and trails.

Class M2 license in California

This license allows you to drive a bike with an engine capacity of less than 150cc. Such bikes include a motorized bicycle, moped, or bicycle with an attached motor. 

As you can see above, the Class M1 And M2 licenses are about which kind of bike you can ride. In the long run, it does seem more practical to apply for M1, seeing as the process for application is the same for both.

Is there any kind of bike you can drive with a California Class C driver’s license?

If you already have a regular Class C driver’s license, there are some types of bikes you can ride without a Class M license. They include a motorcycle with an attached sidecar, a three-wheel motorcycle (called a trike), or a motorized scooter. 

Trikes and motorcycles with attached sidecars are more stable than regular motorcycles. So, similar to many other states, California allows motorcycle riders to ride them without additional tests or training.

However, you need a motorcycle endorsement if you want to ride other motorcycles. This applies even if you have a valid driver’s license already. 

When to apply for both the Class M1 and M2 motorcycle licenses in California

In California, you can consider applying for a motorcycle license if you have reached the age of 15 ½. You could start even earlier that if you have the consent of your parent/guardian.

However, there is a catch. If you are under 21 years, you need to apply for a learner’s permit first. It applies to all applicants under 21 years. But if you are above 21, then you can apply directly for a motorcycle driver’s license. 

Getting a learner’s permit if you are under 21

All applicants must first take and complete the California Motorcyclist Safety Program (CMSP). This motorcycle safety course is approved by the California Highway Patrol (CHP).

Once you complete it, you will receive a certificate called DL 389.

It is valid for 12 months from the issue date. 

If you are under 18 years, you also need a Certificate of Completion/Enrollment of Driver Education. Then you can move on with applying for a learner’s permit at the local California DMV office (department of motor vehicles). 

To get a motorcycle instruction permit, you must submit the DL 389 and a driver’s license application (Form DL 44). You must also present your Social Security Number (SSN) and proof of identity and pay the application fee. 

Then, there is a vision exam and a written test called a knowledge test you need to pass. You get three chances to pass them in a duration of 12 months. Then you get your learner’s permit that you must keep for six months.

Only then can you apply for a driver’s license. 

Applying for an M1 or M2 California motorcycle license above the age of 21 

If you are above the age of 21, you can bypass applying for a learner’s permit. For those under 21 years of age, follow the same process below. But only once your six months with a learner’s permit is up.

Once you decide whether to apply for an M1 or M2, you can go to the local DMV office. I recommend that you make an appointment first. It will save you from waiting in a long queue at the DMV. 

At the DMV office, you will need to complete an original form of the California Driver’s License or Identification Card Application (DL44 or DL44C). You can also do it online on the California DMV website

Then, along with it, you need to present your California driver’s license and SSN. Suppose you don’t have a driver’s license yet.

In that case, you can provide another official proof of identity, such as a U.S. passport. You also need to show proof of residency.

After this, they will take your photo and thumbprint. And you should pay the application fee of $39 (as per the DMV website). You also need to pass a vision test and a knowledge test.

Additionally, they will need you to provide proof of motorcycle insurance as required by California law.

Once the documentation is complete, the next step is to schedule a Motorcycle Skills Test at the DMV. You will get your license after you pass it. 

What test do you need to pass to get an M1 and M2 motorcycle license in California?

The DMV conducts a Motorcycle Skills Test to see how skilled you are at riding your motorcycle. It also checks how well you know the rules of the road. 

Once your examiner is satisfied with your performance in this road test, you will pass. You can take the driving test 3 times. If you don’t pass on your third try, you need to re-apply.

The DMV will also conduct an observation test if you are applying for a motorcycle-only license. 

The California DMV recommends that all applicants should familiarise themselves with California Motorcycle Driver Handbook. You can get it online or at your local DMV office. This handbook is available in several languages.

It is a useful guide to getting your motorcycle license without hassle.

Getting your motorcycle license after passing the skills test

Once you have passed the skills test, you will get a temporary motorcycle driver’s license that is valid for 60 days. Your permanent license will arrive by mail at your address before the 60 days are up.

Your license expires on your birthday five years after issuance. You should receive a renewal notice approximately two months before your license expires.

You can renew it by mail, online (if you are younger than 70 years), or in person. 

To renew the license, you need a completed Driver’s License application, proof of identity, and proof of legal presence. You will also need two documents proving that you’re a resident of California.

The renewal fee is currently the same as a new motorcycle license fee. 

Once all this is done, you should get your new license in two weeks.

Alternatives to passing the motorcycle skills test for a license

You do not need to take the skills test at the DMV if you already have a valid DL 389 certificate. This certificate shows that you have passed the California Motorcyclist Safety Program (CMSP).

The only difference is that while the DMV’s skills test is free, you might have to pay a small fee for the CMSP.

Alternatively, you can also get a learner’s permit even if you are above the age of 21. After six months, you can upgrade your learner’s permit to a motorcycle license. 

The importance of motorcycle insurance in California

In California, adequate motorcycle insurance is crucial to getting your motorcycle license. California law requires motorcycle riders to meet the same insurance requirements as car drivers. 

The insurance policy you need to get should have $15,000 coverage for bodily injury or death for one person.

And $30,000 coverage for two or more people.

The policy should also provide $5,000 coverage for property damage. This is the minimum level of insurance protection legally required.

So, you can see California is very strict on motorcycle insurance. In fact, you even need to show proof of insurance before you can take a motorcycle skills test. Or before you take the California Motorcyclist Safety Program. 

This law differs from some other states, such as Florida, where motorcycle insurance is not mandatory. 

Getting a motorcycle license as a new resident of California 

If you just moved to California, you must get a California motorcycle license within ten days. It is illegal to drive a motorcycle on California’s public roads using another state’s motorcycle license. 

Driving a motorcycle without a valid California motorcycle license is punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and up to six months of jail time.

Only military personnel stationed in the state are exempt from this law.

So, once you have settled, you can choose whether you need an M1 or M2 license and apply accordingly. You will have to pass the motorcycle skills and knowledge tests to get your license.

You also have to show documents to prove your birth date, legal status, residency, and Social Security Number. 

Another state with different classes of motorcycle licenses 

California is popularly known for its two types of motorcycle licenses. After all, most states usually have only one type. 

But this is not unique to the state. Alaska also has different Class M licenses for motorcycles. In fact, it has three classes of motorcycle licenses, namely, M1, M2, and M3. They allow a motorcycle driver to operate different types of bikes. 

The M1 license allows the rider to operate all two-wheeled vehicles with an engine displacement of over 50cc. Anyone above the age of 16 can apply for it.

The M2 license is a special permit for 14 or 15-year-olds only. It allows them to operate a motor-driven cycle with an engine capacity of less than 50cc.

The M3 license allows anyone above the age of 16 to operate a three-wheeled motorcycle. But it should have an engine capacity of over 50cc. 


Deciding whether you want an M1 or M2 motorcycle license in California is like knowing yourself. Let me explain. 

The difference between the two licenses is about what kind of bike you can drive with a particular license.

If you are currently feeling indecisive, get the M1

The M1 license will cover your bases and help avoid the hassle of applying for another license in the future.

That is, should you change your mind about the kind of bike you want to ride later.

I am happy to take questions, if you have any. Shoot. ✌️

Photo of author


Mike, the motorcycle enthusiast behind SuperBike Newbie, fell in love with superbikes during his college years. He owns a diverse range of motorcycles and offers valuable insights into motorcycling advice, maintenance, safety gear, and laws. Despite two decades of riding experience, he continues to learn and shares his knowledge on his website. Mike also has a keen interest in motorcycle club culture. While not a club member, he aspires to be one someday.

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