Plates and documents to register a car at the DMV

How to register a car at the DMV

Everything you need to know for registering your car at the DMV hassle-free.

In order to drive any vehicle, you have to register and get license plates for it. And if you buy a car from a private party or a relative, you'll very likely have to take on the responsibility of doing this yourself. Vehicle registration is what this process is called, and it typically includes getting the title of the vehicle in your name as well as license plates for the vehicle itself. Generally, this is done at a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. In some instances, it can be done online or through the mail — something that's become common with the current pandemic — and there's a process for renewing every year. It's not the most enjoyable experience in the world, but it can be straightforward if you're prepared. So, hey, not to worry... We're here to help.

The DMV 101

If we're being honest, not everybody likes going to the DMV. Many people may feel intimidated just thinking about going to the DMV for a transaction. It's understandable. As long lines may be common, being prepared is paramount. In addition, if you need a language interpreter to assist, you should check beforehand to see if translation services are available.

But first, we should clarify something: While it's generally known as the "DMV," that's not always its official name. But in any case, it always refers to the state department, division or commission that oversees the regulation and registration of cars and other vehicles. Additionally, each state has a different process. We've provided here some general guidelines together with the most common requirements. However, to get into specifics, you'll have to check with the DMV in your state (see list below).

How do I register a car at the DMV for the first time?

If you purchase your car at a dealership, or from a used car dealer, there's nothing to worry about. They'll usually register the vehicle for you at an affordable price. Things change, however, when you purchase a vehicle from a private party or a relative: then you need to register the vehicle yourself. Remember that the title of the vehicle, which you should obtain from the seller during the sale transaction, is the starting point for everything and that it has to be signed by the seller in order to confirm that you officially purchased the car.

Although not all of the following may apply in your case, these are typically the requirements for getting new license plates:

  • Vehicle transaction application or registration and/or title application
  • Signed title or certificate of title containing the name of the seller
  • Payment of the title (or title transfer) and license plate fees
  • Valid identification (either a driver's license or state ID)
  • An insurance card under your name (if your state requires proof of insurance in order to register the vehicle, a State Farm® agent can help you)
  • Payment of the sales tax on the purchase price (in some states, like Texas)
  • Payment of the vehicle use tax (some states)
  • Certificate of vehicle inspection (some states)
  • Mileage reflected on the vehicle odometer (in some states and depending on the year of the vehicle)

What else should I consider when registering a vehicle?

  • If the vehicle's documentation is from out-of-state, it's nothing to worry about as that's pretty common. The important thing is that it be signed by the seller, dated and all in order.
  • Once you have completed the transaction and made the related payments, they will give you proof of registration allowing you to drive the car. It's possible that they will also give you the license plates right there, which you will then need to put on the vehicle.
  • Some states, like Florida, issue just one plate for the back of the vehicle. Others, like Illinois, issue two: one for the front, and one for the back. Pay careful attention to the rules for your state.
  • If it's a new vehicle registration, they'll send the new title with your name on it to your mailing address within a few weeks.

How do I renew my registration?

If you've already registered your car and have plates, renewing your registration is much easier. Every year, you will have to pay a fee and place a sticker on your plates, indicating that you completed the required transaction. Typically, this will be the month of your birthday, an assigned month based on the first letter of your last name, or the month of the date you initially registered the vehicle depending on the state that you live in. For this purpose, you'll receive a renewal reminder, via mail, from the DMV about a month before your registration expires. Many states allow you to renew online or through the mail. That's one less thing you'll have to worry about!

Carrying out the transaction typically is pretty fast since the renewal reminder, in general, contains all the necessary information. You'll have to take it with you to the DMV, pay the renewal fee and — in nearly all cases — show them the insurance card with both your name and the vehicle's VIN (the VIN is the ID number that every vehicle has). In some states, like Texas or Virginia, you might also need proof of a successful vehicle inspection.

Typically, they give you 15 days to a month to renew your registration after it expires, but don't take our word for it — be sure to check yourself with your local DMV.

If you didn't receive a reminder to renew, or if you moved to a different address, we recommend that you call the DMV or simply go there with your documentation when it's time to renew. Or, even easier: Go to your DMV's website (see list below).

Insurance? Certainly

On a final note, remember that when you buy a car, you have to register it as soon as possible. What's more, in many states, a private party seller is required to remove the plates from the car when they sell it. If you will need to use the car before registering it, be sure to always take your new vehicle's documentation with you along with your insurance card. Even if the card is for the car you got rid of, insurance companies typically give you a grace period to update your policy with any new vehicle information.

Having an insurance card may be the key to avoiding trouble. We recommend that you talk to a State Farm agent prior to finalizing the purchase of your new car so that they can assist you. And while you're at it, the agent will be able to better inform you about local registration requirements for the state that you live in.

Buying insurance for the first time can seem overwhelming. If this is your situation, or if you just moved to the U.S., we can help you get up to speed with this article. Also, if you're thinking about buying a car from a dealership and letting them process everything for you, we have additional tips to help you save as much as possible for that moment when you're finally ready to make a purchase.

Information on registering a car at the DMV, by state:

The information in this article was obtained from various sources not associated with State Farm® (including State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and its subsidiaries and affiliates). While we believe it to be reliable and accurate, we do not warrant the accuracy or reliability of the information. State Farm is not responsible for, and does not endorse or approve, either implicitly or explicitly, the content of any third party sites that might be hyperlinked from this page. The information is not intended to replace manuals, instructions or information provided by a manufacturer or the advice of a qualified professional, or to affect coverage under any applicable insurance policy. These suggestions are not a complete list of every loss control measure. State Farm makes no guarantees of results from use of this information.

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