What You Need to Register Your Car

In all but two states, you must provide proof of insurance coverage

Man giving girlfriend keys to car
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If you want to drive your car on public roads, you have to register it with your state’s motor vehicles agency (MVA), typically within a month of acquiring it. To do so, in most states you will generally need proof of car insurance, the vehicle’s title, and your driver’s license or other form of identification.  You will also need to pay a registration fee and put a license plate or plates on your vehicle to show it has been properly registered.

The requirements may differ depending on whether you are registering a car for the first time or renewing a registration. You should look for the specific requirements of your state's MVA on its website.

When you buy a new car, the dealer will typically handle its registration.

Insurance Requirement

All but two states—Virginia and New Hampshire—require you to carry some level of liability coverage on your car. And all 50 states set minimum coverage amounts for auto insurance.

25/50/25

In several 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 injury to or destruction of property in an accident.  This level of insurance is sometimes called 25/50/25 for short.

Other states have similar requirements. For example, in Wyoming, you must get 25/50/20 coverage; the first two amounts are the same, but you need only $20,000 in property coverage.

In addition, some states require you to buy coverage that protects you in the event an uninsured driver causes an accident that involves you and your car. In South Carolina, for instance, you have to buy 25/50/25 coverage for both your own liability and an uninsured driver's liability.

Virginia and New Hampshire

In Virginia, if you wish to drive your vehicle at your own risk—without liability insurance—you must pay a $500 uninsured motor vehicle fee. In New Hampshire, you must provide proof you have enough cash or securities to pay 25/50/25-type liability coverage out of your own pocket.

Registration First, Then Insurance

In some states, you can provide proof of insurance within a certain amount of time after registering your car. For instance, 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 vehicle until the registration becomes effective again.

Title Requirement

The title to your vehicle 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), the mileage on the odometer at the time it was acquired, and the vehicle’s year, make, and model. Whenever there's a change in ownership of the vehicle, the seller has to sign over the title to the buyer.

Vehicle Inspection Requirements

Depending on the state you live in, you may need to have a vehicle inspection for emissions, safety, or both before you can register or re-register a vehicle. However, many 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 vehicle. In Montana, neither type of routine inspection is required. 

In addition to a paper registration certificate you must carry in your vehicle at all times, some states, including California and 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 vehicle for inspection if they have reason to believe it is unsafe. Alaska and Colorado are examples of states that permit these roadside inspections in lieu of regular required inspections.

Registration Fee

The amount of the registration fee varies widely from state to state. The vehicle's weight, age, and even fuel-efficiency may affect the amount you must pay. The fee must be paid at the time of initial registration and every year at renewal.

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 vehicle—while 19 require one only for the rear.

Article Sources

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  7. South Carolina Department of Insurance. "What Is Auto Insurance?" Accessed April 10, 2020.

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  9. State of New Hampshire Insurance Department. "Your Guide to Understanding Auto Insurance in the Granite State," Page 1. Accessed April 9, 2020.

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