If you want to drive your car on public roads, you have to register it with your state’s motor vehicle agency (MVA). In most cases, you must do this within a month of acquiring it.
In order to do so, in most states, you will need proof of car insurance, the car’s title, and your driver’s license or other form of ID. You will also need to pay a fee and put a license plate on your car to show that it has been registered.
The requirements may vary, depending on whether you are registering a car for the first time or renewing. You can look for the specific requirements of your state's MVA on its website.
How Much Insurance Is Required?
All states except for New Hampshire require you to carry some level of liability coverage on your car. In Virginia, you can opt out of this coverage by paying an annual $500 fee as a "registered uninsured." Note that all 50 states do set minimum coverage amounts for certain auto insurance coverages.
In many states, including Oklahoma and Rhode Island, you must have insurance that pays at least:
- $25,000 for injury to, or the death of, one person;
- $50,000 for injury to, or the death of, two or more people in a single accident; and
- $25,000 covering damage to, or destruction of, property.
This level of insurance is sometimes called "25/50/25" for short.
Other states have similar requirements. In Wyoming, you must get 25/50/20 coverage. The first two amounts are the same, but you only need $20,000 in property coverage.
Some states require you to buy coverage that protects you in the event that an uninsured driver causes a crash involving you and your car. In South Carolina, for instance, you have to buy 25/50/25 coverage. This covers both your own liability and the uninsured driver's liability.
New Hampshire and Virginia
In New Hampshire, you must provide proof you have enough cash or other securities to pay 25/50/25-type liability coverage out of your own pocket.
In Virginia, if you wish to drive your car at your own risk without liability insurance, you must pay a $500 fee for being uninsured.
Should You Get Registered or Insured First?
In some states, you can provide proof of insurance within a certain amount of time after registering your car. In California, you have 30 days after registering your car to provide proof of insurance to the state department of motor vehicles.
If you fail to do so, your registration will be suspended. You will have to pay a $14 reinstatement fee, and you may not drive the car until the registration becomes effective again.
Note that you still need to have the insurance from day one, even if your coverage cannot be suspended until Day 30. In other words, if you get pulled over on your first day, you can still get a ticket.
What Is a Car Title?
The title to your car certifies that you are its rightful owner and is issued by your state's MVA. The title includes your name and address, the vehicle identification number (VIN), and the car's mileage at the time you got it. It will also include the car’s year, make, and model.
Whenever there's a change in ownership of the car, the seller has to sign over the title to the buyer.
Do You Need a Car Inspection?
Depending on the state you live in, you may need to have a car inspection for emissions, safety, or both before you can register or renew your vehicle.
Some states have done away with such inspections. New Jersey, for example, no longer requires an annual safety inspection, but the state does require an emissions inspection every two years after an initial five-year inspection-free period for a new car.
In Montana, neither type of routine inspection is required.
In addition to a paper registration certificate that you must carry in your car at all times, some states, such as Wisconsin, require you to affix a registration sticker to your license plate.
In certain states, law enforcement officers or employees of a state public safety department can require a motorist to submit their car for inspection if they have reason to believe that it is unsafe.
Alaska and Colorado are two of the states that permit these roadside inspections in place of regular inspections.
What Is the Registration Fee?
The cost of the registration fee can vary widely from state to state. The car's weight, age, and even fuel efficiency may affect the amount you must pay. The fee must be paid at the time of the first registration and each year at renewal.
What About License Plates?
Getting license plates for your car goes hand in hand with getting it registered. Thirty-one states require two plates—one for the front and one for the rear of the car. On the other hand, 19 states require a plate only for the rear.