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Car Registration: Everything You Need to Know

License Plate, Keys, and Papers Proving Evidence of Auto Insurance
Photo Credit: Getty / Double_Vision

How to Register Your Car

Buying a new car or truck is fun, but sorting through paperwork can be a daunting and time-consuming process. It’s also, however, unavoidable: Car registration is a necessary step in buying and owning a vehicle.

Related: Why You Should Never Leave Your Registration In Your Car

Rules and requirements vary from state to state, and even by vehicle type. Generally speaking, however, the bulk of the process of registering a car is the same wherever you go. This guide explains everything you need to know to make it a seamless, simple-to-understand endeavor.

What Is Car Registration?

Car registration allows a state to keep track of the vehicles driven by its residents. Typically, you pay a fee to the state you live in, give them information about yourself and your car, give proof of ownership and proof of insurance coverage, pass any necessary safety and emissions inspections, and receive proof that your car has been registered – usually a registration card, registration stickers, and license plates. Registration usually expires every year or two, at which point you’ll need to renew. It is illegal to drive an unregistered vehicle on public roads.

Car registration refers to both the act of registering your car, and the documents that prove the car is registered.

What Does a Car Registration Look Like?

Sample California Registration Card / Credit: California DMV
Sample California Registration Card / Credit: California DMV

A vehicle registration card looks similar to the driver’s license tucked in your wallet, but instead of containing information about you, it includes details about you and your car. Like your license, you must always have it when you’re driving.

Here’s some of the information you’ll find on a typical vehicle registration card:

  • your full name and home address
  • car title ID number
  • vehicle identification number (VIN) (see our VIN Lookup page)
  • license plate number
  • make, model, and year
  • registration expiration date

How Much Is Car Registration?

Every state sets its own fees for vehicle registration. The fee may factor in the vehicle’s value, weight, and age, as well as whether the vehicle owner has other cars registered in their name. (The National Conference of State Legislatures provides a quick overview of every state’s registration fees at this useful link.)

In California, for example, the base registration fee is $46, plus additional costs based on the type of vehicle, the county of residence, the registrar’s driving record, and the type of license plate being ordered. New York’s two-year registration fee uses a sliding scale based on the vehicle’s weight: The heavier the car or truck, the higher the cost. Additional county fees and taxes might also be included, depending on where the vehicle is being registered.

What’s the Difference Between Title, License, and Registration?

When a police officer asks you for your license and registration, they’re usually referring to your driver’s license and registration card.

It’s important to understand the difference between a car title, a driver’s license, license plates, and registration:

  • Car title: Your car’s title is written proof that you own the vehicle outright, similar to the deed for a house. It doesn’t expire like a driver’s license or car registration, and you shouldn’t carry it in your car with you. Learn more about car titles here.
  • Driver’s license: Your driver’s license lets officials know you’re a qualified driver. Driver’s licenses also serve as the main form of identification for most Americans.
  • Registration: Like a car title, registration connects you to your vehicle. Unlike a car title, it expires every year or two. Safety and emissions inspections, proof of ownership, and proof of insurance may all be part of the registration process.
  • License plates: When you successfully register a car, whether because it’s new to you or because you’ve moved it to a new state, you’ll get license plates. You usually keep your license plates when you renew your registration. To prove your registration is up-to-date, your state provides you with an updated registration card and new registration stickers to place on your license plate.

What Do You Need to Register Your Car?

Check your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website to find what documentation you’ll need to register your car, as well as what information about the vehicle is required and how much the registration fee will be. Here are some of the more common items you’re likely to need when registering a new or used vehicle:

  • The car’s title, to prove ownership. If the vehicle is being leased, a copy of the lease agreement is required.
  • A certificate of origin or bill of sale. A certificate of origin is needed if you’re the first owner of a brand-new vehicle. This document will be provided by the dealership. If you bought the car from a private seller, you’ll need a bill of sale.
  • Odometer reading stating the vehicle’s current mileage.
  • Emissions and safety certificates. Applicable primarily to used cars, these prove a vehicle has met its state’s emissions standards, and that the vehicle is mechanically sound. These are not required in all states.
  • Proof of insurance. State requirements vary, so be sure you have the coverage you need to meet the standard wherever you live.
  • Some general information about the vehicle. Much of this will be on the title, but in case any information is missing, you might want to make note of details such as the vehicle’s make and model, the model year, the exterior color, and the VIN. Use our VIN check to learn more about your car; the number is usually located at the base of the windshield, on the driver’s side, between the dashboard and glass.
  • Identification and proof of residence. A driver’s license usually covers both these requirements. If you’ve moved to a new state, you may need to prove residency with other documents, such as a lease or utility bill.
  • Money. You’ll need to pay all necessary taxes and fees.

State of California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)
Photo Credit: Getty / StellaMc

When Do You Need to Register a Car?

There are several reasons why a vehicle may need to be registered:

  • You’ve purchased one (new or used) from a dealer. Dealerships typically complete the steps required for registration. They may charge you an additional fee, though this varies widely depending on where you live and who is selling the vehicle. If you buy from a private party, check your state’s requirements for registration.
  • You move to a new state. You’ll have a limited period of time to register your car or truck in your new state, depending on the state’s rules.
  • It’s time to renew. Generally, a vehicle needs to be registered every one or two years. Among other things, the Carfax Car Care smartphone app will alert you when your vehicle registration needs to be renewed.

Looking for a car? Carfax used car listings include a free Carfax Report with every vehicle.

Car Registration Renewals

Renewing a vehicle’s registration is simple and can often be done online. If you’re just bringing your current car’s registration up to date, all the previously supplied information – minus an odometer reading, if one is necessary – should carry over. You might also need new inspections to verify the car still meets any emissions and/or safety requirements. Check online with your state’s DMV to see if you can renew your registration online or via mail. If not, a visit to your local DMV will be necessary.

The Carfax Car Care smartphone app will alert you when your vehicle registration needs to be renewed.

How Do You Get a Copy of Your Car Registration?

If you need a copy of your car registration, or to replace a lost registration, start with your state DMV. Provided your name and address haven’t changed, getting a replacement registration should require just a few pieces of information, including your license plate number and VIN. You’ll also likely have to pay a fee. It may be possible to get a replacement online.

Can You Register a Car If You Don’t Have the Title?

The short answer is yes, but you’ll need to get a replacement title. Titles can get lost or become damaged, but getting a replacement title carries its own fees.

To get a replacement title, you’ll need the vehicle’s basic information (make, model, etc.), plus the VIN, which can be found on a metal plate at the base of the driver’s side of the windshield, or perhaps on a rectangular plate in the driver’s door jamb.

If your title is missing, you might be required to purchase a certificate of title surety bond to prove you own the vehicle. Fees for surety bonds vary depending on the state, a vehicle’s overall value, and the issuer of the bond.

Looking for a car? Carfax used car listings include a free Carfax Report with every vehicle.

If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com