California is a HUGE state. At 163,695 square miles, it is 3rd biggest state in the US. Most foreigners who visit California have this misconception that they can take a day trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back, not realizing how huge the state is. Renting a car in California is necessary, especially if you are going to be here for a week.
The only exception is if you are only staying in the Bay Area, then you can get away with taking public transportation. And if you are only staying in San Francisco, don’t even bother; it’s going to frustrate you to death (I can’t even count the number of times Cecilio has cursed the roads driving down the narrow, winding, and hilly streets of the City).
The age requirements for renting a car in the US vary by state. In some states, you can be as young as 18; but to rent a car in California, you need to be at least 21 years old or older. However, there are a few car companies that let you rent as young as 19. There are even alternative ways to rent a car as an 18-year-old without having to go through a traditional rental car company, which I will mention in a bit.
This post will give you all the info on the following:
- How old to rent a car in California
- Age requirements and surcharge fees from each rental company
- How to waive the young surcharge fees
- Issues and limitations that come with being a young driver renting a car
- Alternative ways to rent a car if you’re 18-24
Disclaimer: This post uses affiliate links, which means I make a commission if you book through this post. If you do decide to book using my links, thank you so much for your support!
- Renting a car in California as a 21-to-24-year-old
- Can you rent a car in California if you're under 21?
- Limitations of renting a car in California under the age of 25
- Tips for Young, First-Time Renters
- Where to rent a car in California
- Alternative ways to rent a car in California
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Wrapping up: How old to rent a car in California?
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Renting a car in California as a 21-to-24-year-old
In most US states, you must be at least 21 to rent a car. There are exceptions; in Arizona, Arkansas, New York, and Hawaii, you can rent a car once you turn 18. California requires you to be 21 to rent a car with extra stipulations (erm, I mean, surcharges). You can rent a car as an 18-year-old, but not through a traditional rental company; instead, you are going to have to go through a ride-sharing company.
Age requirements for renting a car in California by rental company
- Enterprise Rent-A-Car: Enterprise rents out cars to those ages 21 and older in California, and charges the Young Renter Fee of around $25 per day. It slightly varies depending on the location. Young renters between the ages of 21—24 can rent most compact, standard, and full-sized cars along with minivans, SUVs, and pickup trucks seating up to 5 passengers.
- Budget Car Rental: You need to be at least 21 to rent a car in California through Budget Car Rental. If you are 21—24, you will need to pay the underage surcharge fees, which are on average $27 per day. You also need to show a driver’s license and a credit card (not a debit card). Young drivers can rent most cars (including convertibles), minivans, and SUVs.
- National Car Rental: To rent a car in California through National Car Rental, you must be at least 21 years old. They also charge a Youthful Surcharge fee, averaging around $25 per day depending on the location.
- Alamo Rent a Car: You need to be at least 21 to rent a car in California through Alamo. They also charge a Youthful Surcharge fee, averaging around $25 per day depending on the location.
- Avis: Renting a car through Avis requires you to be at least 21. You will get charged the surcharge, although Avis doesn’t specify how much it is until you decide to make reservations through them. You are only limited to full-sized cars, premium cars, intermediate and standard SUVs.
- Sixt: To rent a car through Sixt, you need to be 21 and older. Underage fees apply, though they didn’t specify how much they are. It varies by location. Younger drivers are excluded from renting specialty and larger vehicles.
- Payless: Drivers ages 21-24 are subject to an underage surcharge. They can drive standard, economy, compact, intermediate, and full-sized cars along with minivans for a $25 daily surcharge.
Can you rent a car in California if you’re under 21?
Even though most major car rental companies require you to be 21, there are a few that let you rent as young as 19.
Car companies that rent out to those ages 19–20
- Hertz: You can rent a car in California from Hertz if you are 21, but you will be charged the Young Renter Fee of $19 per day, which is lower than the industry standard. However, you can get the fee waived if you are a AAA member, thanks to Hertz and AAA’s partnership. If you are 20—24, you can rent compact and standard-sized cars along with SUVs and minivans.
- Thrifty Car Rental: Depending on the location, the minimum age to rent a car in California through Thrify is 20. Thrifty charges a Young Renter Fee for 20-to-24-year-olds on top of the standard car rental rates. They don’t specify how much the fee is until you decide to make reservations with them.
- Fox Rent a Car: Fox has the youngest age requirement for car rentals, which starts at 19. They are a budget rental car company that is only available in airports. Their surcharge for those under 25 is $20 per day, and for those under 21, it is $25 per day.
- Dollar Car Rental: The minimum age to rent a car through Dollar is 20. They didn’t mention anything about a young renters’ fee.
Limitations of renting a car in California under the age of 25
Young Renter Fees
Young Renter Fees, Youthful Surcharges, whatever you want to call them…almost all rental car companies charge an extra $20–$30 per day for drivers under the age of 25. The reason younger drivers are charged this extra fee is because statistically, they are more inexperienced drivers and more likely to get in an accident, which increases the costs of car insurance rates.
There are a few ways to get around paying the young renter fees. If you are an AAA member, you can get the fee waived if you rent a car through Hertz due to their partnership.
You can also check with your employer or university to see if they have a partnership with rental car companies that will waive the fee.
Current or former members of the military can join USAA (United Services Automobile Association), in which they and their spouses can get the underage fee waived if they’re under 25 (it’s worth noting that most military couples marry as young as 19).
You’re limited to fewer vehicle options
Notice another pattern above in the list of rental cars listed? Not only do you have to pay that extra surcharge, but you have fewer vehicle options. Sorry, but you won’t be able to rent most luxury cars wherever you go to rent. You’re limited to most standard cars, trucks, minivans, and SUVs.
For example, Hertz has the Dream Car® collection, which includes sports cars and premium vehicles like the Range Rover and brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. Those under 25 are excluded from renting from the Dream Car® collection.
Some rental car companies won’t let you rent with a debit card
Most rental car companies prefer that you use your credit card rather than a debit card. This is especially true if you are under 25.
Budget Car Rental and Avis only lets you rent with a debit card if you are 25 or older.
With younger drivers more likely to get in an accident or a ticket, a debit card won’t have enough funds to pay those bills. Insurance companies don’t cover damages from a minor ding to a head-on collision, and rental car companies do not want to foot those bills.
Rental car companies are more comfortable charging from a credit card since they can get a larger amount of money (as long as it doesn’t exceed the credit limit).
Lastly, a lot of them run credit checks and want to make sure that they aren’t taking a risk renting out to you lest you don’t have credit history or worse, a low credit score.
As a whole, Enterprise allows young drivers to use a debit card, but it depends on the location. Some Enterprise locations require a credit card.
While Hertz requires you to be 25 to rent with a debit card, they make some exceptions if you have a Hertz Gold Plus Rewards account and your card is on file.
Tips for Young, First-Time Renters
Research rental car companies near you.
Whether you’re renting through your nearby airport or a standalone location, make sure you research the cost of cars in each company, along with the different policies. Make sure you read the fine print before you click that “Reserve” button.
Rent a car similar to the one you currently have.
Don’t rent a big-ass SUV if you drive a sedan on the regular. You’re going to have a difficult time getting used to driving while traveling, and driving in an unfamiliar area is already stressful enough trying to navigate everything. Don’t pick something super expensive in case you get a small ding (not like you will be able to rent a luxury car if you’re under 25). Pick something you’ll be comfortable driving around; you can’t ever go wrong with the Honda Civic or Nissan Altima!
Consider other modes of transportation.
If the thought of looking at hundreds of cars on the screen and squinting your eyes to read the rental policies is enough to make your head spin, you don’t need to rent a car! Even though California is a car-centric state, it’s still possible to take other modes of public transportation.
For example, Davis has a robust bus system because it’s a college town and most students didn’t bring their car (they also model their buses after the London double-deckers!). Davis is also one of the most bike-friendly cities in the US; they have bikes more than people!
Even though LA has a huge car culture and its public transportation system is pretty bad, it’s still there for those who need it.
Sign up for rental car rewards programs and travel credit cards for extra perks
Almost every rental car company has a rewards program where if you sign up and reserve through them frequently and hit certain milestones, you can get discounts or free rental days!
You can also sign up for a good travel credit card to earn miles per dollar on car rentals. Once you hit a certain amount of miles, you can redeem them for a car rental (though I’d personally redeem them for flights, but that’s beside the point).
I have the Capital One VentureOne credit card, which earns me 5 miles per $1 on rental cars and hotels. I’ll be honest, it doesn’t have as many perks as Capital One Venture or Venture X, but it’s a great card for those who are new to the travel hacking world and are hesitant with credit cards. Best of all, there’s no annual fee!
If you sign up to get the Capital One VentureOne card, you have a pretty good chance of getting approved. And if you use my referral link, I earn more miles. It’s a win-win for both of us!
Sign up for the Capital One VentureOne card today!
Where to rent a car in California
At the Airport
Most rental car companies are available in all of the California airports. While they may be more expensive than renting a car in a standalone building, you are paying for that convenience.
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Sixt, Hertz, National, Thrifty
- Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Fox, Sixt, Hertz, National, Thrifty, Zipcar
- Sacramento International Airport (SMF): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Payless, Thrifty, Zipcar
- San Diego International Airport (SAN): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Fox, Hertz, National, Payless, Sixt, Thrifty, Zipcar
- Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Fox, Hertz, National, Payless, Thrifty
- Palm Springs International Airport (PSP): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty
- Santa Barbara Airport (SBA): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National
- Oakland International Airport (OAK): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Fox, Hertz, National, Payless, Thrifty
- John Wayne Airport (SNA): Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz, National, Thrifty
You can also make reservations through RentalCars.com or DiscoverCars.com. All you need to do is select the car you want and choose your pick-up location, date, and time. Both sites have the option to type in your age, then give you the cars you can rent.
The widget below is from DiscoverCars.com, and all you need to do is click on 30–65 underlined to change your age.
Alternative ways to rent a car in California
Gig Car Share
Gig is a car-sharing service that operates in the Bay Area and Seattle. You can be 18 or older with a valid driver’s license and a credit or debit card.
All you need to do is download the app, find the car you want to drive, unlock, and go. You don’t even need to drop it off at the same place you picked it up. You can drop off the car anywhere as long as in the “Home Zone”.
Zipcar is another car-sharing service, but unlike Gig, you have to return the car to the same area you picked it up. You also have to return it at a specific time, otherwise, you get charged for extra time in addition to a $50 fee.
The good news is that Zipcar is ALL OVER California, not just in the Bay Area.
You must be 21 to rent a car in California through Zipcar, BUT, if you are a university student, you can use Zipcar as an 18-year-old. You would need to sign up for Zipcar University for $15 a year, which includes free gas, secondary insurance, maintenance assistance, roadside assistance, and 180 miles per day.
You can also sign up for Zipcar University as an alumni or a staff member.
Signing up for Zipcar University gives you the ability to pick up any car near your campus.
Touted as the Airbnb for cars, you can download the Turo app and browse through their available listings. Hosts rent out their cars for those who need one in a pinch or for their trip. You need to be 18 or older with a valid driver’s license to rent a car on Turo, although some hosts only rent to 21+.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you rent a car at 18 in the US?
No, you cannot rent a car as an 18-year-old in California through a traditional car rental company. The minimum age for most car rentals in California is 21, but there are some exceptions. Fox allows you to rent a car if you are 19. Hertz, Dollar, and Thrifty allow 20-year-olds to rent.
18-year-olds CAN rent a car through car-sharing services such as Gig, Zipcar, and Turo.
What do I need to rent a car in California?
You will need a valid driver’s license, a credit or debit card (preferably credit), and car insurance.
You can purchase rental insurance upon booking or use your own car insurance.
This is called a collision damage waiver (CDW) and covers you in case there is some damage to the car from an accident. RentalCars.com gives you the option to book your car with Collision Damage Coverage, which gives you $35,000 coverage, covers damage and theft, and covers authorized drivers. And while it may be an annoying extra expense, it does give you peace of mind.
Can my own car insurance cover a rental car?
If you already own a car and pay for auto insurance, then yes, they do cover rental insurance. If you want to make sure, then call your auto insurance company first. That way, if it does cover rental cars, you don’t need to pay extra upon booking.
Wrapping up: How old to rent a car in California?
Renting a car in California sounds complicated, especially if you are under 25, but it doesn’t need to be! You may need to scour through the rental listings to find the perfect car within your budget, and it may sound like a hassle to go through your employer or university, or sign up for AAA, but I promise you it’s worth it. Happy travels and welcome to the Golden State!
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Hannah is a travel writer, graphic designer, and the founder/editor of Hannah on Horizon. She is based in Sacramento, California, living with her husband and two adorable dogs. She shares tips on how to experience luxury travel on any budget, and how to maximize time at each trip or destination, no matter what your budget or amount of vacation time at work. She enjoys making you feel like you have visited each destination with her through her storytelling and informative writing style.