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What Items Are Exempt From Sales Tax In California?

Jeff Gibson · June 6, 2024 · 5 min read

What Items Are Exempt From Sales Tax In California?

Groceries and Food Items

In California, groceries, most food items, tax-free items, and certain medicines fall under sales exemptions, a provision that aims to lessen the economic burden on consumers, though use tax may apply under certain circumstances. This includes staple foods such as bread, milk, fruits, and vegetables, but there are exceptions, including certain machinery used in food processing, which may depend on the actions of the purchaser.

For consumers, these tax-free items include various unprepared groceries, over-the-counter medicines, and certain health-related supplies. Knowing which items qualify for sales exemptions allows consumers to plan their purchases better and take advantage of the available tax reliefs, thereby reducing their overall expenditure on essential goods.

Foods prepared for immediate consumption, often termed as "hot prepared foods," are subject to sales tax. For example, hot sandwiches or meals bought at a deli or restaurant are not tax-exempt. Additionally, carbonated and alcoholic beverages, candy, and certain snack foods also fall outside the exemption, thus requiring sales tax to be applied.

Another important aspect of California's tax regulations is the nexus of use tax, especially concerning the resale of goods. Use tax applies to purchases made from out-of-state sellers that would have been subject to sales tax if bought in-state. This ensures that all consumers pay their fair share, regardless of where they shop. Use tax helps to level the playing field between in-state and out-of-state retailers while sales exemptions offer local businesses a fair competitive environment.

The nexus between food exemptions and use tax regulations has profound implications for the fiscal landscape. In California, this nexus ensures that regardless of the point of purchase, consumers and businesses face similar tax responsibilities, thus promoting fair market competition and tax equity. Understanding the nexus of these exemptions can help optimize financial practices for both consumers and businesses, ensuring compliance and efficiency in tax obligations.

Unprepared Food

In California, the sale of unprepared food is generally exempt from sales tax, supporting families and individuals by reducing the cost of essential groceries, but resale of prepared foods and certain food-related services remains taxable.

Unprepared foods refer to items like fresh produce, meats, bread, and dairy products that have not been cooked or prepared in any manner before sale, and these may require specific machinery for handling.

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Exemption and tax nexus considerations promote healthier eating by lowering the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables.

This tax exemption is crucial for small business owners in the food retail sector, enabling them to provide essential, healthy food options and tax-free items at competitive prices, just as exemptions on certain medicines support healthcare businesses. This supports both consumer welfare and market competitiveness.

For the fashion industry, the sales tax exemption on unprepared apparel items offers notable financial advantages. Retailers planning seasonal promotions or charity sales often benefit from these exemptions, which help them reduce operational costs and pass savings onto consumers. By harnessing these tax benefits, apparel businesses can better manage their retail strategies and enhance customer engagement.

In addition to these food-related exemptions, resale considerations are pertinent to businesses in California. For instance, businesses purchasing items with the intent to resell, including machinery for food production, rather than for consumption or use, can avoid paying sales tax on these purchases. This provision allows businesses, including those dealing in apparel, to manage cash flow more effectively by only collecting and remitting sales tax at the point of final sale to the end consumer.

Another industry that benefits from specific sales tax exemptions is the machinery sector. In California, certain machinery and equipment purchases used in manufacturing, processing, refining, and fabricating activities are exempt from sales tax. This provision aims to boost industrial productivity and reduce operational costs for manufacturers. For instance, machinery used in material handling or production-line equipment qualifies for this exemption, provided it meets the required criteria laid out by state regulations. Understanding and leveraging these exemptions can lead to significant cost savings and improved efficiency for businesses in the manufacturing and apparel industries.

For purchasers, understanding the nuances of sales and use tax regulations is critical, especially for business owners who make bulk purchases. These rules can significantly affect profitability and operational efficiency by ensuring that businesses do not overpay taxes on qualifying transactions. Staying informed about exemptions like the resale provisions and maintaining meticulous records can help optimize financial management.

Seeds and Plants

In California, certain seeds and plants are exempt from sales tax as they contribute to the production of food.

  1. Seeds and annual plants used to grow food crops intended for human or animal consumption.
  2. Fruit and nut trees that produce edible fruit or nuts.
  3. Perennial plants whose products are used as food.
  4. Legumes and grains used for producing agricultural goods.These exemptions aim to encourage agricultural production and support small farming businesses.
    For businesses involved in agriculture, the purchase of machinery used in farming operations can also be exempt from sales tax. Such machinery includes items like tractors, harvesters, and irrigation systems, which are essential for efficient farming practices. This exemption supports the agricultural sector by reducing the financial burden associated with acquiring high-cost equipment, thereby promoting sustainable farming and enhancing productivity.

Understanding the specific provisions under California's tax laws, sales exemptions play a crucial role for various industries, notably in sectors like healthcare, agriculture, and education. These exemptions help reduce the financial burden on essential goods and services, allowing small businesses to thrive while offering competitively priced products. Consumers and business owners alike should familiarize themselves with these exemptions to optimize their financial planning and ensure compliance with state regulations.

By reducing the tax burden on essential agricultural inputs, small business owners can focus on growth and sustainability, while also being mindful of any use tax obligations that might arise.

Prescription Medications

In California, prescription medications are exempt from sales tax, a policy designed to alleviate the financial burden on individuals requiring medication for health conditions. This exemption covers a wide range of prescribed drugs, including those addressing chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension.

Small business owners in the healthcare sector benefit from this by providing essential medications without the additional tax burden, which enhances patient access to necessary treatments.


In California, many pharmaceuticals are exempt from sales tax, which mitigates the cost of essential drugs for consumers and encourages better healthcare compliance.

  1. Prescription medications: These include drugs prescribed by a healthcare professional.
  2. Insulin: This is exempt even if sold without a prescription.
  3. Oxygen: Any oxygen equipment recommended by a licensed physician.
  4. Prosthetic devices: Devices prescribed for individual use by a licensed practitioner.These exemptions help reduce the financial strain on individuals who require ongoing medical treatments and essential medicines, thus promoting public health.
    Small business owners in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors benefit from these exemptions by ensuring more affordable access to essential medical supplies and medications.

Sales tax exemptions on medical devices, such as blood glucose monitors and customized wheelchairs, create essential savings for healthcare providers and patients alike. These exemptions are contingent on the items being prescribed for personal use, ensuring that only those in genuine need benefit. By understanding and applying these sales exemptions, healthcare businesses can offer critical medical technologies without the added financial strain on their clients.

Medical Devices

Medical devices hold significant importance.

In California, certain medical devices are exempt from sales tax. This exemption applies to devices that are defined as necessary for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of diseases.

California's tax policy also extends significantly to services, particularly in sectors like healthcare, education, and technology. Some services, which are essential for public welfare and economic growth, benefit from specific exemptions or reductions in tax rates. For instance, medical services provided by licensed healthcare professionals, certain educational tutoring and instructional services, and some custom computer software services may be exempt from or enjoy favorable tax treatment. These provisions aim to alleviate financial burdens on critical services, fostering better access and development within these sectors.

Specifically, medical devices like pacemakers, insulin pumps, and dialysis machines are considered exempt under specific conditions.

Sales tax exemptions for medical devices.

The key factor in determining tax exemption is - the device must be prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional, and it must be for the exclusive and personal use of the patient. This means that items such as blood glucose monitors and customized wheelchairs can qualify.

These exemptions facilitate greater access to life-saving and life-enhancing medical technologies, especially for patients requiring long-term care. Small business owners in the medical supply sector should stay updated on these regulations to properly advise clients and optimize their business practices.

Educational Materials and Textbooks

In California, the sales tax exemption extends to certain educational materials. Specifically, this applies to textbooks and other printed publications that support instructional activities.

To qualify, these educational materials must be required or recommended by educational institutions (such as schools, colleges, and universities) and intended for direct use by the purchaser. This exemption helps reduce the cost burden on students and educational institutions.

Such materials should be clearly delineated as “textbooks” or “required reading” for academic courses to benefit from the tax exemption.

Public School Purchases

Public schools operating in California benefit from a variety of sales tax exemptions on specific purchases, making educational budgeting more manageable and efficient.

When a purchaser acquires educational materials for resale at a campus bookstore, detailed documentation must be maintained to affirm the transaction qualifies for tax exemption. Ensuring that these textbooks are categorized correctly and all necessary provisions are met can prevent costly tax errors. Maintaining clarity in communication between purchasers and educational institutions is essential for compliance and financial accuracy.

The provision of services forms a significant aspect of California's tax regulations. Sales tax is generally not applied to services offered directly by individuals, such as labor on personal property or professional services like legal advice. However, some service-related transactions, such as those involving tangible personal property or digital goods, may impose use tax obligations. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for service providers to manage their tax liabilities effectively.

Educational institutions often find a nexus between their operations and tax regulations vital for maintaining compliance. This connection is crucial particularly when purchasing educational materials for resale at campus bookstores, where precise documentation and adherence to fiscal policies are paramount. By understanding this nexus, schools can ensure smooth access to tax exemptions, thus promoting educational affordability and resource allocation.

Another key aspect is the resale of educational materials. Educational institutions and bookstores that resell textbooks to students can benefit from specific tax exemptions. To qualify, these transactions must be clearly documented as resale, making it crucial for such businesses to maintain transparent and accurate records to ensure compliance with California's tax regulations.

Essential commodities for public school operations are often exempt from sales tax.

Items such as textbooks, workbooks, and instructional materials fall under this exemption.

Awareness of use tax regulations can save businesses significant amounts in penalties and interest for non-compliance. Small business owners should keep detailed records of out-of-state purchases to ensure they meet their tax obligations accurately. Proper understanding and application of use tax rules can thus contribute to overall business sustainability.

Apparel businesses, particularly those engaged in the resale market, must remain vigilant regarding use tax obligations. When purchasing items from out-of-state vendors, these companies must pay use tax equivalent to the sales tax that would apply if the transaction occurred within California. Properly accounting for these taxes ensures compliance and financial accuracy, contributing to the overall sustainability of the fashion retail sector.

In addition to direct sales tax exemptions, businesses in sectors like manufacturing, agriculture, and apparel must also be aware of use tax obligations on machinery acquired from out-of-state vendors. Use tax ensures that all machinery purchased for use within California, regardless of the purchase location, is adequately taxed. This regulation helps maintain equitable tax practices and supports local competitiveness.

These exemptions apply when purchases are made directly by public schools or qualifying entities.

Exempted categories include supplies necessary for daily operations, instructional aids, and classroom essentials.

This tax relief helps public schools allocate more resources towards enhancing educational quality and improving student outcomes.

Required Textbooks

In California, certain items receive sales tax exemptions to support educational accessibility and affordability.

Since 2016, students purchasing required textbooks, a crucial academic resource, benefit from a specific tax exemption. This initiative was introduced to alleviate the financial strain on students, particularly those at higher education institutions.

To qualify, it's important that the purchased textbook is designated as "required" by the course syllabus. Without this designation, the textbook purchase would not be eligible for the sales tax exemption, regardless of where it is bought.

The exemption applies to both new and used textbook purchases, as long as these materials are specifically required for the course. Typically, students must provide proof of the textbook's necessity, such as a course registration or syllabus, to apply for this exemption.

This targeted tax policy aims to promote educational equity, helping students better manage the high costs associated with their studies.

Government and Charitable Organizations

Government agencies in California, as well as certain non-profit charitable organizations, enjoy specific sales tax exemptions. These exemptions cover various types of tangible personal property, which are essential for the functioning and philanthropic programs of these organizations.

To be eligible, non-profits must be designated as a "charitable organization." This status is often a result of a federal 501(c)(3) classification, which certifies their non-profit nature. For government bodies, the exemption applies to items used for governmental purposes. These measures are intended to support the financial efficiency and social impact of these entities.

Nonprofit Sales

Nonprofit organizations often qualify for specific sales tax exemptions in California, allowing them to allocate more resources to their cause, but they must still consider use tax requirements for certain transactions.

  • Food Products: Basic groceries and beverages are generally exempt.
  • Medical Supplies: Items like prescription medications and certain medical devices.
  • Fundraising Items: Products sold during fundraising events, under specific conditions.
  • Educational Materials: Textbooks and certain school supplies.
  • Publications: Newspapers and periodicals issued by nonprofits.

To qualify for these exemptions, a nonprofit must typically hold a 501(c)(3) designation, proving their charitable status.

Additionally, specific documentation and processes often need to be followed to ensure compliance with state regulations.

Nonprofit organizations frequently navigate the nexus of nonprofit status and tax exemptions, a critical juncture for financial stewardship.

In California, understanding the tax exemption for medicines is critical for small business owners in the healthcare sector. Prescription drugs, including insulin and oxygen equipment, are exempt from sales tax when prescribed by a licensed physician. This relief allows medical providers to offer essential treatments at more affordable rates, assisting patients in managing their health conditions effectively. Accurate documentation and thorough understanding of these exemptions facilitate compliance and optimize financial management for healthcare businesses.

Understanding and documenting this nexus, including exemptions on both goods and services, allows nonprofits to maximize the benefits of tax exemptions while adhering to regulatory requirements. This facilitates greater allocation of resources towards their philanthropic missions, enhancing their impact within the community.

Non-profit organizations, when acting as purchasers, need to maintain thorough records of tax-exempt transactions to ensure they comply with both state and federal regulations. This includes documenting that items bought are directly related to their charitable activities and not for resale or personal use. Proper record-keeping by purchasers within non-profits ensures that they can substantiate their tax-exempt status during audits, safeguarding their financial health.

Furthermore, certain services connected with the sale of tangible personal property, such as repair, installation, or maintenance services, may have tax implications. These services are often bundled with taxable goods, necessitating a clear separation between taxable and non-taxable components for accurate tax reporting. Such clarity ensures compliance with California's intricate sales tax laws while supporting fair commercial practices.

Government Purchases

Government purchases are exempt from sales tax in California under certain conditions. This includes purchases made by federal, state, and local government entities when used for official business.

In 2016, California introduced a significant clarification, ensuring that government agencies are automatically exempt from paying sales tax without needing additional justification. This move streamlined the procurement processes for these entities.

However, it’s not just about proving the government's identity. Agencies must ensure that purchases are strictly for governmental purposes to qualify for this tax exemption, avoiding misuse and maintaining fiscal responsibility.

The exemptions cover a wide range of items, from office supplies to construction materials, provided they’re used in furtherance of government operations. Contractors working with government entities also need to be aware of these exemptions when billing for materials.

Further extending the resale concept, government bodies that procure items for resale as part of their operations can also qualify for tax exemptions. This is particularly relevant for entities that manage government-run bookstores or commissaries. Understanding and applying these exemptions diligently not only simplifies the procurement process but also upholds fiscal responsibility.

Understanding these exemptions helps government bodies enhance their financial efficiency while focusing on their core missions, ensuring that the purchaser benefits from targeted tax relief.

What is exempt California sales tax?

Exemptions to California sales tax pertain to transactions not subject to the state's standard sales tax rates.

For instance, many goods and services that are “necessities of life” are often exempt from sales tax. This includes most groceries, prescription medications, and certain medical devices.

Additionally, non-profit organizations may also qualify for exemptions depending on their activities and IRS code status. It's crucial for businesses to understand these distinctions to ensure compliance and optimize tax benefits.

Sales tax exemptions can also apply to specific industries. For example, certain agricultural products and machinery used directly in agricultural production are not taxed.

Understanding California's sales tax exemptions requires an intricate familiarity with the state tax code. Consulting with a tax professional is advisable.

What items in the US are not subject to sales tax?

Certain medical supplies are tax-exempt.

In many states, medical supplies such as prescription medications and medical devices are not subject to sales tax. This exemption primarily aims to reduce the financial burden on individuals requiring long-term medical care. Furthermore, most health-related products that are necessary for the treatment of chronic conditions are also exempt from sales tax.

Grocery items often receive tax relief.

Many states offer tax exemptions or reductions for grocery items. This category generally includes unprepared food products, such as fruits, vegetables, and bread. Basic grocery items designed for home consumption help ensure affordable nutrition for all socioeconomic groups.

Educational materials often qualify for exemptions.

Books, textbooks, and other educational materials may be exempt from sales tax. This is particularly true for those items explicitly required for a course at an accredited institution. The goal is to mitigate the costs associated with obtaining an education.

Clothing and footwear can be tax-exempt in some jurisdictions.

Several states provide exemptions for essential clothing and footwear items. These exemptions usually specify limits on the cost of the item for the tax break to apply. These measures aim to make everyday essentials more affordable for all consumers.

What items require sales tax in California?

In California, sales tax is mandated on many goods and services. This tax is applied at the point of sale and varies depending on the location.

Consumer goods such as electronics, clothing, and furniture are generally subject to sales tax. Items purchased for use in construction, such as building materials, are also taxable. The tax rate is determined by the local jurisdiction where the sale takes place, encompassing both state and local sales taxes.

Certain services, like those rendered by dry cleaners, auto repair shops, and personal trainers, may also be taxed. The services must involve the creation or fabrication of a tangible product, as purely labor-based services are often exempt.

Exceptions to this policy include food and prescription medications, which are typically exempt from sales tax. It's essential for small business owners to be aware of these distinctions to ensure compliance with state regulations and to accurately price their goods and services.

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