E-bike Classes and U.S. Laws
E-bikes are generally classified into three performance tiers or “classes” in the U.S. — the key word being generally, as over a dozen states don’t use that system or use a variation of it. In truth, each state has its own peculiarities when it comes to e-bikes, with differences ranging from very particular regulations to almost none at all. Also, “street” e-bikes often have different rules than eMTBs or electric mountain bikes.
Finally, there is a “fourth” e-bike performance class that isn’t as well known that we will include.
Here’s a breakdown of generally accepted e-bike classifications for the US, followed by a closer look at some state-by-state exceptions. There are links below to more granular information on e-bike laws in any particular state.
The Three E-bike Classes
Let’s start with the commonly accepted e-bike “classes” or performance tiers that most states now use. Common to all Class 1, 2, and 3 e-bikes: A maximum motor power output of 750 Watts.
Class 1: Pedal Assist System with Assist Up to 20 mph and No Throttle
This is not the “lowest” tier of e-bike; it’s just the most simple. The only time the electric motor operates is when the rider pedals and the pedal assist system (PAS) tails off at 20mph, leaving it up to the rider if they want to pedal the bike above that speed. There is no “throttle” for activating the motor without pedaling as on a Class 2 bike.
Class 2: Pedal Assist System Up to 20 mph with Throttle Option
This mid-tier combines the assist level of Class 1 with a favorite feature: a throttle that lets the rider use only electricity to propel the e-bike, again up to a maximum of 20 mph. The throttle can be a “thumb throttle” slider on either handlebar grip and its power can vary according to the assist level chosen, depending on the e-bike.
Riders can also use the pedal assist system as on a Class 1 e-bike. This is perhaps the most popular e-bike category due to the throttle feature which lets riders use the e-bike like a very lightweight motorcycle.
Class 3: Pedal Assist System Up to 28 mph, No Throttle
Class 3 e-bikes are like Class 1 e-bikes, except they have a top pedal assist system speed of 28 mph instead of 20 mph. Like Class 1 e-bikes, they also do not have a throttle.
Note: Many e-bike makers offer “Class 2” e-bikes with throttles that can be “uprated” to 28 mph PAS Class 3 speeds, usually via an app. These bikes still retain the throttle feature, which is typically still limited to a maximum of 20 mph on just motor power alone.
Technically, these are “out of class” e-bikes from the start but are sometimes sold as Class 2 bikes with the caveat that the owner makes the ultimate call on how to set up the e-bike, legal or otherwise.
Class 4: E-bikes Above 750-Watt Motor Power
Classes 1 through 3 are by far the most common type of e-bike, but there is another tier recognized within the e-bike industry: Class 4.
This tier includes “Open” or “unlimited” e-bikes with throttles, no top speed limit and motor power beyond 750 Watts (often well beyond). While deemed illegal for street use in most states, the machines exist in a sort of legal gray area depending on where you live.
E-bikes in this category typically include those that can also qualify as mopeds or even motorcycles, yet they still have pedals and pedal-assist technology. They can look more or less like regular bicycles.
Some Class 4 e-bikes can be registered as motor vehicles and ridden in traffic like an electric motorcycle if they have the proper documentation (usually a VIN number) and DOT-spec equipment (horn, mirrors, turn signals, etc.), but again, it depends on local regulations.
Class 4 machines are also commonly sold as high-performance, off-road-oriented e-bikes. They may also be sold as machines used for rural farm work, not to be ridden on the street where they are typically not legal.
However, it’s a bit of a jumble around Class 4 (and even Class 3) bikes as to exactly what is “legal” and where. In all honesty, law enforcement in the U.S. is often well behind the curve on e-bike regulation and enforcement.
Check with your state and especially your city to see what regulations are in place around e-bikes. An excellent and often-updated source of e-bike laws state-by-state is PeopleForBikes.org, which keeps an organized, updated database of laws by state in handy downloadable PDFs.