Guide to Laws About Alcohol in California

Here’s what you need to know about buying, selling, or drinking alcohol in the state of California. For other states and cities, see our Guide to Laws about Alcohol in the U.S., and Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

1. Alcohol and Driving

What are the laws about driving drunk or buzzed?

You can be charged with a DUI (Driving Under the Influence of alcohol) if you are found to be driving with a blood-alcohol level of .08% or more.1California Vehicle Code Sec 23152 You can most likely stay below this level if you drink no more than 1 drink per hour, but this varies by your body type and weight.

But even if you are below this limit, if you are found to have any alcohol in your system while driving, you could be charged with what is sometimes called “wet reckless” driving. See Guide to Laws about Driving for more on reckless driving.

Your blood-alcohol limit is even lower if you are:

  • Under 21= .01% or more.2California Vehicle Code Sec 23136
  • Driving a commercial vehicle (including Uber or Lyft)3one requiring either class A or B license, or C with “endorsement”; the normal noncommercial license is C without endorsement= .04% or more4Vehicle Code Sec 23152

What are open container laws in California?

In California it is illegal to:

  • drink alcohol in a car5California Vehicle Code Sec 23221
  • possess an open container of alcohol in a car,6California Vehicle Code Sec 23222, 23223 meaning any container, including a bottle, can, cup, etc, that has been opened, or where the seal has been broken, or when any alcohol has been removed in any way, even if the container is now closed
  • store or keep an open container in a car, except for the trunk.7California Vehicle Code Sec 23225, 23226 If the vehicle does not have a trunk and is not an “off-highway” vehicle as defined in Section 38012, the container can be kept in some other area of the vehicle that is not normally occupied by the driver or passengers. This could be considered the back part of a hatchback, but does not include a utility compartment or glove compartment. If the vehicle is not equipped with a trunk and is an “off-highway” vehicle defined in Section 38012, the container can be kept in a locked container, which is fully enclosed and locked by a padlock, key lock, combination lock, or similar locking device.

Do open container laws apply to buses, taxis, Uber, limo? Is it legal to drink alcohol in an Uber or Lyft?

The open container laws above do NOT apply to passengers in a privately chartered bus, taxi, limo, or pedicab (but these companies can have their own rules as to whether to allow drinking or not). It is not yet clear whether this includes Uber or Lyft.

California open container laws also don’t apply to the living quarters of an RV, housecar or camper.8California Vehicle Code Sec 23229

Are there any laws that apply specifically to people under 21?

A few more laws apply to drivers or passengers under 21.9California Vehicle Code Sec 23224, 23229.1

Do open container laws apply to marijuana?

Yes, see our Guide to Laws for Drivers.

What happens if I get into a car accident while under the influence of alcohol or drugs?

See our Guide to Car Accident Law.

2. When/where you can drink or be drunk

When are the hours I can get a drink in this town?

A licensed restaurant, bar, grocery store or other retail business in California may sell and serve alcohol only between the hours of 6am and 2am (the following day), 7 days per week. In other words, alcohol may NOT be served in the 4 hour period between 2am and 6am.10Cal BPC § 25631

In addition, these establishments are prohibited from even allowing people to consume alcohol on their premises during this 4 hour period.11Cal BPC § 25632

Can I drink alcohol in public?

Laws vary by city, but most cities do NOT allow you to drink alcohol in public. See Los Angeles Alcohol Laws.

Is it illegal to be drunk in public?

Yes. You may not be so drunk (or high on drugs) that you are unable to exercise care for your own or others’ safety. It is also illegal to be so drunk that you are blocking or preventing the use of the sidewalk or public street. This is called public intoxication12Cal Penal Code Sec 647(f)

Is it illegal to simply carry alcohol in public?

It varies by city. See Los Angeles Alcohol Laws, and San Francisco Alcohol Laws

Is it illegal to serve alcohol to a drunk person?

Yes. “Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”13California Business and Professions Code Sec 25602

3. Alcohol & minors

What are my obligations as to alcohol and children?

If you sell or give alcohol to a person under 21 years old, you could be found guilty of a crime, with a fine of up to $250 and 24 hrs of community service. If the intoxicated underage person then injures anyone, you could be found guilty of an additional crime, with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or jail time of up to 1 year.14California Business and Professions Code Sec 25658

If you allow your child and/or your child’s friends, who are under 18 years old, to drink alcohol or use drugs at your home, AND you then knowingly allow any of them to drive, AND any of them cause an accident, you could be guilty of a crime, with a $1,000 fine and/or jail time of up to 1 year.15BPC § 25658.2

Also check out our Guide to Laws for Parents.

4. Alcohol & events

Is it legal to serve or sell alcohol at events? Do I need a permit?

In general, for all events open to the general public where alcohol is served or sold, you generally must hire a catering/bartending service licensed by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). Or if you are a non-profit (see below), you can get a special 1-day permit from ABC.

If (and only if) all of the following apply, you do not need a permit or license to provide alcohol at an event:16Section 23399.1 of the California Business & Professions Code

  • It’s a private party (invited guests only, not open to the public);
  • You are providing the alcohol free of charge (not even indirectly selling alcohol such as charging for admission); and
  • The premises are not generally used for serving or storing alcohol (such as a bar)

So, if you have a cash bar at a private event (not open to the public), you need to hire a caterer or bartender licensed with ABC (unless you are a non profit – see below).

And if you provide free alcohol at an event open to the general public, you need to hire a caterer or bartender licensed with ABC.

What if we just ask for “donations” for the alcohol at our event?

You are entering a gray area with this. If it can be construed that the donations are really a way to charge for the alcohol, then you may have a problem.

Also, remember, if the event is open to the public at all, even if you are not charging for the alcohol, you need to hire an ABC-licensed bartender or caterer.

Can I get a temporary event permit to serve or sell alcohol?

Only if you are a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) non profit organization. You can get a special daily license authorizing the sale of distilled spirits, wine and beer for $25 per day.17California Business & Professions Code Sections 24045 and 24045.1 and Rules 59 and 59.5

If you are NOT a non-profit, and it is NOT a private party (see above), you will need to hire a caterer/bartender licensed with ABC.

Is it illegal to serve alcohol to a drunk person?

Yes (see above).

5. Alcohol & your business

Can my business provide alcohol to my customers?

Generally you must have a license from the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to sell or provide free alcohol to customers. The only current exception is for salons (see below). For example, if you are an art gallery, furniture store, clothing store, jewelry store, etc. you cannot legally provide any alcohol to customers unless you get a license from ABC.18California Business & Professions Code Section 23300; Sec. 25604

Do servers and bartenders need to be certified in order to serve alcohol?

Yes, as of July 1, 2022, bartenders, servers, waiters, and others who serve alcohol must undergo a 4 hour training and pass an exam in order to be certified. The training relates to how alcohol affects the body, consequences of over-serving, and how to deal with drunk customers. This new requirement comes from the Responsible Beverage Service Training Act, also known as Assembly Bill 1221, passed in 2017.

Is a salon allowed to serve alcohol without a liquor license?

As of January 2017, hair salons, beauty salons and barbershops are legally allowed to serve complimentary beer or wine without getting any special permit or license. Salons may serve up to 12 ounces of beer or 6 ounces of wine, but only until 10p.19Section 23399.5 of the Business and Professions Code

Also see our Guide to Laws for Entrepreneurs and Business Owners.

Further Information

See alcohol laws throughout the U.S.

Exercise Your Rights

See options for getting legal help regarding an alcohol related issue.

Related Pages

Public Spaces, Sidewalks, and Streets




See all Legal Guides


Share the Legal Info With Your Friends: