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How to Register a Car: Everything You Need to Know

The bottom line is this: If you are driving a vehicle in the United States, it needs to be registered.

Registering a vehicle may seem like a real hassle and many people have a "horror story" or two, but it doesn't have to be difficult. As long as you have everything you need before you begin the process, it can be a lot less miserable than typically imagined. Let's take a look at everything you need to know about how to register a car.

What Is It?

The term "car registration" typically involves both the registration process and the documentation you keep to prove your car is registered. Car registration provides the state with the ability to maintain records of car ownership, and without any exceptions, it is illegal to operate an unregistered vehicle on U.S. roads. Of course, registration also aids law enforcement if the vehicle is involved in a traffic infraction or a larger criminal matter.

In general, car registrants provide personal information, insurance information, and emissions and safety inspection information (as applicable to each state). They are then issued a license plate, a registration sticker, and a sheet of paper outlining the registration information. A fee is required, but the overall price varies greatly between states.

The law varies from state-to-state, but car registrations generally need to be renewed every year or two years.

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When Is Car Registration Required?

Newly purchased vehicles will need to be registered, regardless if they are new or used. In many cases, dealerships and sellers will offer to go through the registration process for buyers for an extra fee, but other buyers need to go through the process individually. Individuals who relocate need to register their vehicles in their new states and there is normally a timeline in which this must be done. Of course, everyone also needs to re-register their cars when their current registrations expire.

Where Do I Go, and What Do I Need?

Most states refer to the relevant department as the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV, but various states have different names for it. Nevertheless, it is the same department and will be where you register your vehicle. An Internet search will show you where your local DMV's office is and, in some cases, there may be several to choose from in your area. The DMV's website will also tell you what you need to bring, but some or all of the following items are typically what is needed:


Ultimately, the key to registering your vehicle is to be prepared. Having everything you need on hand in a folder when you walk up to the desk at the DMV is critical to the simplification of the process. Not being organized can make the registration process longer and, in the worst cases, require you to come back at another time. Overall, having all of the necessary information and documents with you will make the DMV experience less unenjoyable for you, the DMV staff, and other customers.

Registration Renewal

So, you've gotten a notice in the mail that your registration is expiring and you need to renew it if you want to keep driving your vehicle. Luckily, renewing your registration is normally a breeze compared to the initial registration process and, in most cases, it can be done fully online or through the mail. The DMV, of course, already has your information (and your vehicle's information) from the initial registration, so there is no need to alter anything unless something about you (e.g., address) has changed.

If you do need to go into a physical DMV location to renew your registration, you will likely need to prove you have insurance and show the agent your renewal notice. As mentioned above, in some states, you may also be required to prove you have completed the local inspection requirements.

Most states give a "grace period" of 15 days for you to renew your vehicle, but it is usually best to do it right when you get the notice. Regardless of how you renew your registration, there will likely be a fee associated with it.

Clearing Up Confusion

Lastly, it is important to note that there is sometimes confusion regarding the differences between a car's title, license, license plate, and registration. Your vehicle's title is typically a sheet or two of paper showing that you are the owner of the car. Titles don't expire, and the majority of car owners keep these in their filing cabinets at home instead of in their cars. A driver's license, of course, registers an individual to drive - not a vehicle - and needs to be renewed every so often depending on the state. License plates are placed on the back of the vehicle and, in some states, the front as well, and they are a quick way to identify a vehicle. The registration helps the state track vehicle ownership, requires periodic renewal, and is typically kept in the glove box of a car.