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How to Get a Liquor License in California

Learn all about how to apply for a liquor license in California, plus the different types of liquor licenses, and all the costs and fees you’ll need to pay.

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Liquor License By State

DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.

The liquor license process can take anywhere from 40 days to six months — learn about the types of liquor licenses in California and how to apply for them.

Selling alcoholic beverages is one of the most profitable revenue streams for restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and even cafes. And since many alcoholic products are shelf-stable, investing in a full bar, plus a beer and wine program is a safe bet to help bring in greater profits and increase average check sizes. Ultimately, consumers are willing to pay more for their overall restaurant experience if you give them the option to add a beer, cocktail, or glass of wine to their meal. 

But because alcohol is a regulated product, and one that can lead to severe consequences, the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control requires all businesses that sell alcohol to be licensed to do so before they serve their first drink. Getting a liquor license can be complicated, and it’s an expensive part of the opening process, but many businesses see it as an initial hurdle to overcome so that they can bring in greater profits down the line. 

And once your liquor license comes through, it’s also important to ensure that all staff that serve liquor are SmartServe certified, and can spot (and intervene) when a customer is approaching their limit.

To get an alcohol license in California, they’re state-administered, so you’ll have to go through the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC). We’ll get into the various types of liquor licenses available to California restaurateurs, the costs of each of them, and the process to apply. 

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What are the types of liquor licenses in California?  

There are more than 70 types of liquor licenses in California, identified with numbers 1 through 99 (but some numbers are skipped, which is why there are fewer than 99 types). 

The licenses most relevant to restaurants are as follows, split up into General licenses (that allow any alcoholic beverages to be sold) and Non-General licenses (that allow only certain types of beverages to be sold). 

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General California Liquor Licenses

47 - On-Sale General - Eating Place / 49 - On-Sale General - Seasonal

This license is one of the most common options for restaurants. It allows restaurants to sell beer, wine, and spirits to be consumed onsite. The restaurant must serve substantial food (whole meals, not just snacks), “operating as a bona fide eating place,” with suitable kitchen facilities. Guests under the legal drinking age may enter. 

The difference between License Types 47 and 49 is that 49 is seasonal. It has the same stipulations as 47, but will only be valid within the time frame specified on the license. 

48 - On-Sale General - Public Premises

This is the most common license choice for bars and nightclubs. It lets these nightlife businesses sell beer, wine, and spirits to be consumed onsite, as well as for consumption offsite (to be taken away). You do not need to sell food on the premises, and minors are not allowed inside. 

51 - Club

This license is only for private clubs, and it allows them to sell beer, wine, and spirits to members and their guests only. The drinks may only be consumed onsite. Minors are allowed in. 

58 - Caterer's Permit

As its name would suggest, this license is for caterers to be able to serve beer, wine, or spirits at an offsite event. It’s a slightly different kind of liquor license, so read more on the Caterer’s Permits page of the ABC website

75 - Brewpub-Restaurant

Made for brewpubs, this license allows a business to sell beer, wine, and spirits, as well as brew and sell a limited amount of beer, for consumption onsite. This license does not permit offsite consumption, and the brewpub must be a bona fide eating place that sells meals and has proper kitchen facilities. Minors can be on the premises.

77 - Event Permit

This permit lets existing license holders to sell beer, wine, and spirits in a space adjacent to the licensed business for a limited time. To learn more about event permits, check out the ABC Event Authorization page.

Non-General California Liquor Licenses

40 - On-Sale Beer 

Meant for bars and taverns, this license allows a business to sell only beer, not wine or spirits, for onsite and offsite consumption. Wine and spirits may not be on the premises. As for food, the business doesn’t have to provide full meals, but sandwiches or snacks must be available. Those under the legal drinking age can be on the premises. 

41 - On-Sale Beer & Wine - Eating Place / 59 - On Sale Beer & Wine - Seasonal

This license works for restaurants that wish to sell wine and beer, but they will not be allowed to sell spirits of any kind (or even have them on the premises, unless they’re used exclusively for cooking, like brandy). Beer and wine will be allowed to be consumed on- or off-premise. It must be a bona fide eating place, with proper kitchen facilities, and providing substantial meals for onsite consumption. Minors can enter the restaurant.

Type 59 has the same stipulations as Type 41, but it’s only valid for the dates listed on the license. 

42 - On-Sale Beer & Wine - Public Premises

Ideal for a bar or tavern, this license lets businesses sell beer and wine for consumption onsite or offsite, but spirits may not be sold or on the premises at all. Minors cannot enter, unless they’re musicians performing there, and food does not need to be provided. 

60 - On-Sale Beer - Seasonal

This license lets businesses sell beer for onsite or offsite consumption during a specific season, and is only valid for the time specified on the license. There can be no wine or spirits onsite, and minors can enter the premises. 

61 - On-Sale Beer - Public Premises

Ideal for a bar or tavern, this license lets businesses sell beer only for onsite or offsite consumption. There can be no wine or spirits onsite, food does not need to be provided, and minors may not enter. Warning signs about not letting minors in must be posted. 

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How much does a liquor license cost in California?  

There are several types of costs involved with getting and maintaining a liquor license in California: application fees, annual fees, and transfer fees. We’ll explain all of them and outline each of the costs for 2023. 

What are the California liquor license application fees?

Liquor licenses in California vary widely in price: just to apply, it costs between $110 and a whopping $17,335. Most of the licenses that apply to typical restaurants, bars, and nightclubs are in the thousands of dollars. Licenses 47 and 48 are the most common restaurant liquor licenses, so it’s critical to factor in the very significant expenses associated with applying for them into your pre-opening budget.

For 2023, these are the application fees for the different types of licenses:

  • General Priority Licenses, including 21, 47, 48, 57, 71, 72, 75, 83, 87, 88, and 99, cost $16,560 to apply for.

  • General Non-Priority Licenses, including 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 76, and 80, cost $945 to apply for.

  • The Type 47 – On-Sale General Eating Place on Public Property license costs $6,275 to apply for. (*Note that licenses 47 and 48 differ in being able to sell beer and wine off the licensed premises and may vary in cost when on public property.)

Non-General licenses, except Types 06, 26, 28, and 82, cost $945 to apply for. This includes types 40, 41, 42, 60, and 61, which are relevant for certain types of restaurants and bars.

What are the annual fees for California liquor licenses?

According to the ABC, the 2023 annual license fees for liquor licenses relevant to restaurants are as follows. Some have a tiered pricing structure based on how populous their city is, while others have one flat fee.

Type 47 annual fees

$1,355 for cities with 40k+ people
$1,100 for cities with 20k-40k people
$860 for cities and areas with less than 20k people.
 
If it’s a duplicate license:
$860 for cities with 40k+ people
$620 for cities with 20k-40k people
$495 for cities and areas with less than 20k people.

Type 48 annual fees

$1,355 for cities with 40k+ people
$1,100 for cities with 20k-40k people
$860 for cities and areas with less than 20k people. 

If it’s a duplicate license:

$860 for cities with 40k+ people
$620 for cities with 20k-40k people
$495 for cities and areas with less than 20k people.

Type 51 annual fees

$740 for cities with 40k+ people
$620 for cities with 20k-40k people
$495 for cities and areas with less than 20k people.

Type 58 annual fees

Flat fee of $250    

Type 75 annual fees

$1,355 for cities with 40k+ people
$1,100 for cities with 20k-40k people
$860 for cities and areas with less than 20k people. 

If it’s a duplicate license: 
$860 for cities with 40k+ people
$620 for cities with 20k-40k people
$495 for cities and areas with less than 20k people.

Type 77 annual fees

Flat fee of $240

Type 40 annual fees

Flat fee of $435

Type 41 annual fees

Flat fee of $495

Type 42 annual fees

Flat fee of $620

Type 60 annual fees

Flat fee of $295

Type 61 annual fees

Flat fee of $205

What are the fees for person to person liquor license transfers?

There are many situations where a business owner will need to transfer over (or sell) their liquor license to another person, but there are fees associated with this transaction. Here are the fees for the different types of person to person liquor license transfers, which can vary depending on whether or not the application includes a general license. To learn more about each type, see the application fee table for person to person transfers on the ABC website.

Person to Person Transfers or Ownership Changes

Fee when Application Includes a General License

Fee when Application does not include a General License

Ownership transfer from person to person (or entity to entity)

$1305

$250

Membership or stock transfer in an LLC$835$350
Membership or stock transfers, multiple premises in the same application (after initial fee is paid)
$105$105
Update or change to a corporate entity$315$315
Transferring a license between partners, or dropping a partner$120$120
Fiduciary transfer for situations involving a surviving spouse and self-incorporation
$105$105

What are the fees for premise to premise liquor license transfers?

Licenses can also be transferred from location to location under a wide range of circumstances. Here are the current fees associated with those types of transactions. For more information, see the application fee table for premise to premise transfers on the ABC website.

Premises to Premises Transfers or Premises Changes

Application Fee

Premises to premises transfer, for changing from one location to another or making extensive changes to an existing premises
$815
Intercounty transfer for general license, for a new premises in a different county
$6275
Exchanging a license from one type to another (common with 47 and 48)
$105
Converting seasonal general license (49) into a year-round license (47)
$6275
Substantial physical changes without footprint expansion
$360

Premises expansion

$395

What is the process for getting a liquor license in California?  

Fill out forms and collect documentation

What documents will you need to get a liquor license in California?

The list of ABC forms to fill out is extensive and varies widely by what kind of business entity is applying: an owner, an LLC, a partnership, a corporation, a limited partnership, or a trust. Local offices provide this information in person. 

Additional documents will also be needed and will vary depending on the type of business entity, but for all types of applications,

  • You will need to show a state-issued ID, a driver’s license, or passport for the person applying at the ABC office. 

  • You will need to show a copy of your conditional use permit or a receipt that shows your application has been submitted, which can be obtained from a city or county planning department.

  • You may need to show proof of the source of your funds, including bank statements, loan papers, financial statements, gift letters, real estate papers, and more.

Learn about the additional requirements for each application type at the ABC New License Application page.

Go to the nearest ABC office

In California, getting a liquor license involves finding your nearest ABC office and making your way there. Going in-person is the only way to apply for a California liquor license — there is no online application system. 

You’ll be asked to provide the above documentation about you and your business. 

Notify the public

Once you’ve filled out all your forms and collected your documentation and submitted it all in person, you’ll be required to notify the public about your business’s intent to secure a liquor license, usually with a sign pasted visibly on the premises. Some areas will require you to take out a newspaper ad announcing it, or pursuing other avenues. 

ABC investigation and decision

Then, the ABC will notify officials in your area and ensure the liquor license wouldn’t constitute a public nuisance or contradict zoning laws. Then, the ABC will investigate you and your potential business for any red flags, they may also investigate the physical business location, and then they do a final review of your whole application. That’s when you’ll hear if you’ve been approved or not. If you have, you’ll receive your liquor license and be able to start using it. If you have been denied, you can initiate a hearing and appeals process.

What are some common challenges in the application process?

According to ABC, the most common issues that delay the approval of liquor license applications include the premises still being under construction and not ready to open, fee mistakes or omissions, document mistakes or omissions, or liens placed against escrow by The Board of Equalization, the Franchise Tax Board, the Employment Development Department, local cities and counties, or local health departments. 

Some of the common reasons for being denied include having a disqualifying police record, being under 21, finding fraud in the application, or location-based issues like the premises being too close to a school, hospital, church, or other type of business that could experience problems with a liquor-license business nearby,  zoning issues, tenancy issues, or if the area has problems with crime which could be made worse by a liquor-licensed business. 

You can learn more about the whole liquor license application and approval path on the ABC page on the liquor license application process.

How long should you expect the liquor license process to take?

The California liquor license process typically takes between 40 and 55 days, but if there are issues that come up throughout the process, it can go up to 175 days or longer.

When to start the liquor licensing process

To be safe, start your liquor license application process 4-6 months before you plan to open. If you want to be all but certain that you’ll be able to have your liquor license in hand at your grand opening — and be able to toast with champagne, not Martinelli’s sparkling apple juice — start six months in advance. You never know what kind of issues your case may spark, so leaving a longer amount of time is a smart idea.

The work continues!

The first thing you’ll need to do when working to open a restaurant is write up your restaurant business plan. But shortly after that comes the licenses and permits process, including your liquor license application — which, as mentioned above, can take anywhere between 40 days and six months. So get that part started as early as possible.  

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