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What You Need to Know About Buying a Car Out of State

Buying a car across state lines should be a slam dunk, right? After all, cars that are okay to sell in the United States should meet the same criteria regardless of where you are domiciled. Or so the thinking goes.

Unfortunately cars that are registered in one state, purchased by a buyer who lives in another state, and then registered in the owner’s state may not automatically be accepted by the receiving state. Indeed, in all states you will have to follow certain official procedures before the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will issue you a registration and tags, as well as allow you to transfer title. And in some states there are extra steps to take before your vehicle is approved.

In Most States

Keep in mind that the information being shared here is general to most states. Given that the states are responsible for setting the rules regarding motor vehicles, the procedures may differ somewhat from where you live. Ultimately, you need to contact your state’s DMV or equivalent department and carefully follow those procedures.

If you do buy a vehicle in another state and plan to register it in your state, you usually have about 30 days to complete that transition. In some states, you will be required to have your vehicle inspected first and pass that inspection. You will also be required to obtain insurance and pay fees or taxes to your tax assessor before having it registered and titled in the new state.

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When visiting the DMV, bring the required documents with you. Typically, these will include the proof of inspection, an insurance document that meets your state’s minimum liability requirements, an odometer reading, the title from the previous state, a valid registration and proof of taxes or fees paid. Usually, there is a document or an application that must be filled out and a list of fees to be paid. That form should be available at your DMV office as well as online. Most states, however, require you to take the completed form, related documents and your payment to the DMV for personal review and approval by a clerk.

California, USA

Residents of California have additional hurdles to jump through when buying a vehicle from another state. Beside the California DMV, the California Air Resources Board (ARB) has a say in how this feat is accomplished.

For example, if you are a California resident and are buying a new car from another state, it must be certified to meet California’s rigorous smog laws before it can be registered in the Golden State. A new vehicle is defined as any vehicle with fewer than 7,500 miles on the odometer when it was purchased.

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What the state of California wants to ensure is that the vehicle you are bringing to the state is California certified. Fortunately, this is easy to verify by lifting the hood and reviewing the emissions label fixed to the inside of the hood. That label will state one of two things. If the label says that the vehicle is 49-state certified, that means it meets federal emissions standards, but not California’s tougher standards. Alternatively, the vehicle may be 50-state or California-certified, which means that no additional work beyond the normal registration procedure is required.

However, if your new car is not California certified, then you will need to have it tested by a smog station. If it fails the test, then expect to pay for whatever modifications are required before it can be certified. You can only hope that you won’t be replacing one of the pricier parts on your car to make it compliant, such as the catalytic converter.

Fortunately, there are some exceptions that California residents should be aware of. First, 50-state certification is exempt if the new vehicle was obtained as part of a legal separation, a divorce or an inheritance. Second, if your car replaces your California-registered vehicle that was stolen when operating it out of state, then that vehicle is exempt too. Other exemptions apply to California-registered vehicles that are destroyed while traveling out of state, as well as emergency vehicles or vehicles that are registered by you in another state while in military service.

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Buying a used vehicle and registering it in California should not pose as much of a challenge for the new owner, but keep in mind that it may need to pass a smog inspection. This is required for gas-powered vehicles from the 1975 model year or newer, as well as for diesel-powered vehicles from the 1997 model year or newer. Electric and natural gas-powered cars are exempt from this requirement.

Local Emissions Requirements

California may be leading the way in strict emissions requirements, but they are not alone. Eleven other states have since adopted California’s Motor Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards, and another six may follow suit.

So, the bottom line is this when buying any passenger vehicle outside of your state: know your local emissions requirements to ensure that the car, truck, van, SUV, pickup or other passenger vehicle you are considering is already compliant. If not, you may have to jump through additional bureaucratic hoops to get it certified and pay the costs related to meeting said compliance.

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37 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Buying a Car Out of State”

  1. I’ve been hesitant about buying cars from people who live in other states. I’m not sure of all of the registration requirements, but I’m sure they’re somewhat similar. As you mentioned in your article, “A new vehicle [in California] is defined as any vehicle with fewer than 7,500 miles on the odometer when it was purchased.” Does that mean cars with greater than 7,500 miles don’t have to pass smog laws?

    Alex Jennings |

    1. My understanding is that any vehicle needs to pass smog to be registered in California. But California will NOT register a car from out of state with less than 7500 miles that is not California certified. The CA DMV website has info.

  2. Good article… Would you mind if I get in touch with you
    on Twitter?

  3. A friend of just recently moved away to another state, and said that the process for having his vehicle inspected was a lot different than previously. He did not go into a lot of detail about what exactly that meant, but it is important to know that if moving states. The worst thing to have happen is to go to the DMV (at all) and then have to wait, only to find out that you needed a new inspection. This happened to us and it was not fun!

  4. Different states have different rules about things like auto emissions and so forth. I am wondering if different states have varying rules about car parts and their qualities. If I want to get a used auto part because it is cheaper, I feel like the standard of quality of that part should be the same across all state borders.

  5. so my question is driving a vehicle, purchased in georgia and driven to Colorado. already checked Reg. requirements, my question is what do I put on the vehicle between Georgia and Colorado plate wise… I am flying into Atlanta on saturday and driving out on sunday so no chance to go to DMV. will I be fine?

    1. So what did you end up having to do?To get the car from GA to CO?

      I’m curious, because I’m looking at a car in IL & trying to figure out how to get it back to CO,

      Thanks,
      Greg

      1. Did you figure this out? I also am looking for a car in IL and I live in Cali. It’s a new car and no Lexus dealers are willing to broker the deal with an out of state Lexus dealer. Trying to figure out what to do that won’t cost me an arm and a leg

  6. Does anyone know if i can purchase a vehicle that i am not a resident in and then sell it in the same state, even though i am not a resident of that state? cheers,

  7. This is some great information, and I appreciate your point that a car purchased in another state needs to be registered in yours. I bought a car a couple of months ago, but I’m now moving to a different state. I’ll definitely look into having it registered in the new state right away so it gets done before the thirty day limit. Thanks for the great post!

  8. Hello everyone! Currently I am holding California driver license but staying in North Dakota college dorm. I am planning to buy a used car from Minnesota. What would I need to do? I am really confused here because there are 3 states involved in this. Do I need to change my license? or car? Please help me!

  9. I help customers registers cars in California from out of state. It is not to terribly difficult to register a vehicle from out of state in California. Emission is the main issue. If you have more than 7500 miles on the car then emissions does not apply.

    1. I just bought a 1999 vehicle with 92,000 miles and it does not have the “California” qualification on the label.

      Since it is not new and it’s over 7500 miles, would you think it can be registered in California?

      Really appreciate whatever you know on the topic.

      Thanks!

    2. What about purchasing a vehicle in California and registering it in another state? I’m doing g travel nursing in Cali, but want to purchase here and register in GA where I own a home

      1. Fyi to anyone thinking of moving to Ga or registering, there is now an ad valorum tax charged when you register your vehicle! It used to be an annual tax paid on the vehicle’s value upon renewing registration, but now it is a 7% (thru 2018) tax, one time only. So buying out of state to get a good deal becomes less of a good deal with that new tax. sucks!!

    3. Hi Tommy,
      Just to be clear, if I buy a diesel truck with 27,000 miles from Michigan, I can register it in CA? How do I know that the vehicle will pass its smog?

    4. Tommy,
      I am thinking about purchasing a 2005 vehicle with more than 7500 miles on it in Chicago and I live in Orange County Cali. How big of hassel will this be in regards to emissions/smog? Thanks

    5. I just purchased a 2008 Honda Element that was last registered in California. But, I bought the car in Phoenix Arizona where it has been stored for almost two years. It has over 100, 000 miles on it. If I go to the DMV in L.A. where I live. Can I register the car with the California title as an out of state car I will be bringing back to California, without a smog certificate? I read you help people in Cali who buy cars out of state get them registered in Cali. Can you help me with this problem and how much are your services?

    6. Tommy,

      I live in NY State and want to purchase a preowned vehicle from a dealer in California, but register and operate it in NY State. They said I have to pay CA sales taxes. Does this sound correct? Thanks in advance

  10. The biggest surprise that I had when buying a car from out of state was that I had to re-title the car. I bought the car from my older brother so that I could have a car for college. Unfortunately we had to go through some extra steps because the original title had been lost. So, when I finally got the title I thought that was it and I just needed to register the car. Wrong, I had to get a whole new title for my state. So, be careful when buying out of state that you plan for the cost of possibly getting a new title.

  11. I got a Carfax that reported “Structural Damage” can you please define what that would indicate, frame damage, or unibody damage or just a fender bender? I had a pre purchase inspection done by the Audi dealer and they cannot tell me, please advise. Thank you

    1. Hi Del,

      Structural damage is described as damage to any part of the main structure, or any component that is designed to provide structural integrity. Additional parts that are bolted on are not considered part of the vehicle’s structure.

      Hope this helps – You can read more about structural damage by clicking the link below:

      http://www.carfax.com/blog/structural-damage-101/

  12. If I move from Georgia to California and bring my car with me (a 2007 Lexus), will I be able to sell the car in California a year later? Or in order to sell it Cali will I need to upgrade it so meets CA emissions standards and will that be very expensive? (Say over $500)

    1. If you do not want to upgrade it to meet the CA emissions, you will be better off selling the vehicle unless you get an exemption from the DMV to register it as your vehicle for normal use by you. CA is very strict in that respect as when I came from NY with a vehicle with NY license, I sold it because of the CA Emission requirements.

  13. You would think by now there would be some type of federal standard and you wouldn’t have to go thru all of this baloney and extra cost.

    1. There ARE federal standards for the emissions requirements – it’s just that CA and a few other states have chosen to impose even stricter standards within their borders.
      As far as titles and transfers and taxes and registrations, those are individual state matters. And yes, if the states wanted to give that licensing power to the feds, they could ask their citizens for permission to do that (extremely unlikely), and even if they did, there would still be the issue of differing sales tax rates between the states, and that won’t be changing either. Some states have zero sales tax and others have exorbitant sales tax – It’s doubtful that the feds would even want to get in the middle of that paperwork without taking a substantial cut.

  14. If I purchased a vehicle in GA and want to bring it to my current state KY is there any special requirements I need to do ?

  15. I bought a car with an out of state title and the California DMV won’t allow me to register it under my name, the previous owners had moved here and were able to get the California plates, even tho they too had lost the title, what do I do ?

  16. I bought a car in Colorado and am driving it to Oregon. In Colorado the owner keeps the plates after the sale. So do I need to get temporary tags? Or can I drive the car to Oregon with insurance alone? Thank you!

  17. I want to go to Arizona to buy a car and drive back to Colorado what do I need to do in order for me to register my car in Colorado?

  18. hi there,

    i’m buying a car in dallas, texas and will be driving it back to philadelphia, pennsylvania. i am registering it in philadelphia so will it be illegal if i drive it back without insurance and registration?

    1. Firstly, I think you need some sort of basic insurance to buy the car from the dealer in the first place. Else the cannot legally sell the car to you.

      Secondly, the car would have dealer tags which are valid for about 30-60 days. They’re proof that the car has been temporarily registered. So, I think you can drive it back legally.

      Just ensure you have proper insurance, though!

  19. I am buying a 1973 MGB in Oregon with Oregon plates and title. I will immediately be bringing that MGB into California. I realize I’ll have to pay California sales tax, title and registration fees. My question is: Does the California smog exempt exception for 1975 model year cars and older apply to me? In other words, do I need a California smog certificate because the car is an out of state car? I realize it would be smog exempt if it had California plates.

  20. my daughter, currently in the military, will be buying a car in Montana from a dealer in Montana and the car she currently drives there, which she will be trading in, is insured in Indiana, if her current insurance doesn’t cover Montana does she have a grace period before she has to get insurance in Montana and will the car she buys be covered somehow when she drives it off the lot

  21. I just purchased a certified used car out of state from a reputable dealer, and I’m having it shipped to me. it was financed through a national bank, and the car will have title and registration from a third state where I own property and live part of the year. Everything went fairly smoothly. The bank checks cleared. I procured insurance etc. However, the dealership is dragging their feet on the actual shipping of the car. How long, after the dealership receives full payment, should I patiently wait for the dealership to ship said automobile? Thank you.

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