A car registration is an essential task for all motorists who own vehicles. As a general rule, every state requires its residents to properly register any vehicles that will be driven on public roadways. The procedure of obtaining a new car registration is typically administered by a state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). On the other hand, there are often significant variations between states that regard the exact rules and requirements that apply to the vehicle registration process. For example, many DMVs restrict registration documents to residents who have valid drivers licenses that were issued in the states where they reside. Conversely, states like South Dakota do not require motorists to be residents or submit driving credentials in order to register a vehicle.

The DMV registration is often used as a gateway safety measure. States use their registration criteria to keep unsafe vehicles and motorists out of public roadways and to efficiently levy vehicle-related sales taxes and other fees. As a result, certain motorists can regularly expect to undergo safety checkups, emissions inspections and vehicle identification number (VIN) verifications as part of the registration procedure. To learn more about how to register a car in your state, read the sections below.

Car Registration Requirements

When registering a car, motorists can expect to encounter some or all the common requirements detailed below.

  • Proof of identity and/or state residency.
  • Proof of car insurance coverage.
  • Proof of vehicle ownership.
  • Safety inspections.
  • Emissions inspections.
  • VIN inspections.
  • Properly filled out registration application forms.
  • Registration deadlines.

Note: Motorists attempting to register a car on behalf of another person or to register a leased car may need power of attorney documents.

Car Insurance Requirements for Registering a Car

State car registration requirements typically include minimum auto insurance coverages. This requirement is designed to protect motorists from the potentially crippling costs associated with auto accidents. For the purposes of a DMV car registration, most states require residents to obtain an insurance policy that covers a wide range of liabilities. Thus, when a motorist is deemed at-fault during an accident, his or her insurer will be tasked with paying for the medical expenses of the individuals who have been injured. These policies may include one or more of the following options:

  • Minimum insurance coverage. On average, states require approximately $25,000 in single-person injury liability coverage, $50,000 in multiple person injury liability coverage, and $10,000 or more in property damage coverage per accident.
  • Uninsured motorist fees. Some states allow uninsured motorists to pay sizeable fees each year when they register their vehicles in lieu of obtaining an insurance policy. These fees are essentially penalties and cannot be used to pay legal or medical expenses for which motorists are responsible in the wake of an accident.
  • Self-insurance deposits. Motorists who do not wish to carry insurance for whatever reason often have the option of placing large cash or bond deposits as a substitute for insurance coverage. Policies regarding how these funds may be applied can vary.

In some cases, states work with the insurance industry to maintain electronic databases of covered vehicles, which can be accessed for verification when motorists apply for DMV registrations. In other cases, auto owners will need to bring hard copies of their policies or other proof of insurance when applying.

Vehicle Inspection/Smog Inspection/VIN Inspection Requirements

What you need to register a car varies not only by state but also by the characteristics of the vehicle being registered. Overall, states use a combination of procedures to verify the safety and legality of a car being registered. These include:

  • Safety inspections. Safety inspections review vehicles against lists of essential system functions (e.g. brakes and lights) and legal equipment limits (e.g. window tinting). Inspections must be performed by registered mechanics approved by the DMV. Inspection standards are intended to prevent unsafe vehicles from being operated on public roads for everyone’s safety, thus being essential for residents to obtain a car registration. Smog and VIN inspections can sometimes be performed at the same time as safety inspections, either as standard practice or upon request.
  • Smog or emissions inspections. Emissions inspection standards vary from state to state and even from county to county. As an example, California has some of the most stringent emissions standards in the country. Conversely, motorists in Virginia only need to pass emissions tests when registering a car if they live or store their vehicles in certain cities or counties.
  • VIN inspections. Vehicle identification number (VIN) inspections are most commonly required when motorists are transferring previously registered vehicles into a new state. These procedures are often conducted at DMV branches upon the application for a new car registration.
  • Salvage and Homebuilt Inspections. Salvage inspections apply only to vehicles which have been stolen, damaged or otherwise previously deemed permanently unfit for use on the road. In general, these vehicles are issued salvage titles. Homebuilt inspections apply to cars that were not produced by recognized and regulated auto makers. In any case, these inspections are intended to verify that all of the parts and processes involved in rebuilding the vehicles were up to safety code, and that the car can once again be operated without putting its owners and other motorists at risk.

Registering a Vehicle

You are typically allowed to request a car registration by visiting a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. In general, registrations are often handled at a local or county level. For that reason, additional local-level requirements, such as emissions testing standards, may apply.

Despite the fact that vehicle registration renewal procedures are generally offered through online methods, a new car registration must be obtained in person.

How to Register a New Car

Motorists who purchase brand-new vehicles can expect auto dealerships to include car registration services as part of the sale package. Applicants simply need to provide forms of identification and insurance information, leaving it up to the dealers to handle the rest of the paperwork.

Car dealerships may provide temporary registrations and plates so that motorists can begin driving right away. Permanent documents and plates will be mailed to the vehicle owners’ mailing addresses on DMV records.

Registering a Used Car

Registering a used car entails demonstrating to the DMV that the motorist legally owns the vehicle in question, and that this car meets state safety and emissions standards set by the state. This procedure may also involve proving an applicant’s identity, residency status, insurance status and authority to register the vehicle. Overall, drivers can expect to need the following during a DMV registration procedure:

  • A properly filled out car registration
  • A valid photo identification.
  • Vehicle titles or bills of sale to demonstrate ownership and document cost.
  • Proof of insurance either via electronic system, insurer statements or copies of insurance policies.
  • Passing safety and/or emissions testing certificates.
  • VIN inspection certifications.
  • Homebuilt or salvage inspection certifications, if applicable.
  • Power of attorney documents in the case of leased vehicles.
  • Acceptable forms of payment.

How to Register a Car in as a New Resident

On average, new residents have between 30 and 90 days to apply for a DMV registration. Like motorists registering used vehicles, new residents may need to get safety, emissions and/or VIN inspections before they can apply to get vehicle registrations.

Once these requirements are met, applicants generally only need to submit car registration application forms, photo identification cards and out-of-state registrations to the appropriate authorities in order to transfer these credentials to their new state of residence.

Vehicle Registration for Military Members

Certain states offer different car registration requirements for military service members. For example, military personnel may be exempt from certain fees, qualify for extended deadlines and have access to additional benefits. On the other hand, assessing the types of applicants who qualify for these privileges differs from state to state. Overall, motorists who serve in the military and veterans can benefit from contacting their state DMV authorities in advance for details.

Temporary DMV Registration

Temporary registrations are available in certain states. Motorists can apply for temporary tags in order to:

  • Relocate unregistered vehicles.
  • Legally transport newly-acquired vehicles for inspections and other tasks that are required for them to be properly registered.
  • Legally transport vehicles from one state to another for registration purposes.

Temporary tags are issued in a variety of timeframes. Overall, they must be requested in advance and often require evidence of insurance.

License Plates

The DMV may issue one or two license plates immediately after a vehicle registration is processed. Alternatively, they may issue temporary registrations and mail permanent documents and plates separately. Applicants may request specialty plates when registering if desired, but usually need separate or secondary applications to do so.

Car Registration Fees

The overall car registration cost is a composite of state and local registration fees, inspection fees and taxes. These fees typically vary depending on the duration of the registration, the age and weight of vehicle, as well as other factors.

Car Registration Forms

The particular type of car registration forms that motorists need to submit will be determined by their state DMVs and the types of vehicles they own. Furthermore, certain types of completion certificates related to inspections may be required as well.

Last updated on Friday, March 6 2020.