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Car Registration: Everything You Need to Know

License Plate, Keys, and Papers Proving Evidence of Auto Insurance

Buying a new car or truck is the fun part, but sorting through paperwork can be a daunting and time-consuming process. Car registration is a necessary element of vehicle purchase and ownership, no matter what you’re buying or where you happen to live.

Rules and requirements can vary from state to state, or change based on the type of vehicle you drive. Generally speaking, however, the bulk of what you need to do to register a car remains the same. We’ll explain everything you need to know to make it seamless and simple to understand.

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.

The Difference Between Title, License, and Registration

“License and registration, please.” Sorry, we wanted to get your attention with a phrase that often includes a pair of flashing lights twinkling in your rearview mirror. 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: A car’s title is written proof you own a vehicle outright, similar to the deed for a house. It doesn’t expire like a driver’s license or car registration. Learn more about car titles here
  • Driver’s License: While registration registers your car with the state, your driver’s license registers YOU. It lets anyone interested know that you are a qualified driver. Driver’s licenses also serve as most Americans’ main form of ID.
  • Registration: As mentioned before, registration lets a state keep track of the vehicles its residents drive. Like a car title, registration connects you and your vehicle. Unlike a car title, it expires every year or two. Safety and emissions inspections, proof of ownership, and proof of insurance are all a part of the registration process. After your car is registered, you’ll get proof of registration: usually a card you keep in your car’s glovebox, a license plate, and registration stickers.
  • License Plates: When you successfully register your car for the first time or register it in a new state, you’ll get license plates. Usually, you’ll keep your license plates when you renew your registration. To prove that your registration is up-to-date, your state will provide you with a new registration card and updated registration stickers for your license plate and/or window.

When Do You Need to Register a Car?

There are several reasons your new or existing vehicle will require registration:

  • You buy a new or used car. If the car is new to you, the dealership will typically complete the steps required for registration. Additional fees may be charged, though this varies widely depending on where you live, and who is selling the vehicle.
  • You move to a new state. Depending on the state’s rules, you’ll have a limited period of time to register your car or truck.
  • It’s time to renew your current vehicle’s registration. Once again, timing depends on where you call home. Generally, a vehicle will need to be registered every 1-2 years. Among other features, 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.

State of California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)

Photo Credit: Getty / StellaMc

What Do You Need to Register a Car?

Check your state’s DMV website to discover what documentation you’ll need, what information about the vehicle is necessary, and the registration fees you can expect to pay. Here are some of the routine items you’ll likely 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. The certificate of origin applies to someone who is the first owner of a brand-new vehicle. This document will be provided by the dealership. You’ll need a bill of sale if you bought the car from a private seller.
  • Odometer reading stating the vehicle’s current mileage.
  • Emissions and safety certificates. This applies primarily to used cars and is meant to prove the vehicle has met the state’s criteria related to exhaust emissions, and that the vehicle is mechanically sound. Not all states require this.
  • Proof of insurance. State requirements vary, so make certain the insurance you have meets state standards.
  • Some general information about the vehicle. Much of this will be included in the title, but in case any info is missing, you might want to separately note down details like the vehicle’s make and model, the model year, exterior color, and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Use our VIN check page to learn more your car, including where its VIN is located, usually at the base of the windshield, on the driver’s side between the dashboard and glass.
  • Proof of ID and proof of residence. Usually, your driver’s license will cover both of these requirements. If you have moved to a new state, you may need to prove your residence with other documents, such as a utility bill.
  • Money. You’ll need to pay taxes and fees.

Car Registration Fees

Every state has its own cost structure when it comes to vehicle registration. These can take in a variety of factors, including the vehicle’s value, its weight, its age, and if the person registering the vehicle has other cars in his/her name. For a quick overview of every state’s registration fees, the American Automobile Association provides this useful link listing tag, title, and registration charges.

In California, for example, registering a vehicle comes in at an affordable $46. However, additional costs are charged based on the type of vehicle, county of residence, the registrar’s driving record, and the type of license plate being ordered. In New York, the two-year registration fee uses a sliding scale that’s based upon the weight of the vehicle. 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 Does Car Registration Look Like?

Sample California Registration Card / Credit: California DMV

Sample California Registration Card / Credit: California DMV

A vehicle registration card looks remarkably similar to the driver’s license tucked in your wallet, except, instead of just giving information about you, it gives information about you AND your car.

Here is some of what you’ll find on a typical vehicle registration card (and yes, like your license, you always need to have it while you’re driving):

  • Your full name and home address.
  • The car’s Title ID number
  • The Vehicle Identification Number or VIN. (See also our VIN Lookup page)
  • License plate number.
  • Make and model year (for example, Honda Accord).
  • The expiration date for the vehicle current registration.

Car Registration Renewals

Renewing a vehicle’s registration is simple and can often be done online. If you’re bringing your current car’s registration up to date, all the information – minus an odometer reading, if one is necessary – will be largely carried over from before. You might need to have your vehicle inspected to verify it meets emissions and safety requirements. Check online with your state’s DMV, or similar state agency, to determine if renewing your registration online or via mail is possible. If not, a visit to your local DMV office will be necessary.

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

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

The short answer is yes, though you’ll need a replacement title. You can still register a car even if the title is missing. Titles can get lost over the years, or become damaged. 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. This is found on a metal plate located at the base of the driver’s side portion of the windshield, or occasionally on a rectangular plate in the door jamb of the driver’s door.

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

You can learn more about how to replace a car title here.

Looking for a car? Carfax Used Car Listings include a free Carfax Report with every vehicle.

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