How vehicles work in the United States

There is not one single set of steps for buying, registering, and insuring a vehicle in the United States - there are 51.

The US states, not the national government, handle vehicles.

So, there are 51 different processes (one for each US state, plus Washington, D.C.) for buying, registering, and insuring a vehicle in the US.

The set of steps that apply usually depends on the US state where the buyer lives.

But as an international visitor, you don't live in any US state.

So your first step is creating a presence in a US state.

Create a presence in a US state

The national government of the United States does not handle vehicle ownership, the US states do.

In order to own a vehicle in any US state, you need a presence in that state.

Each US state has its own rules for the presence required to own a vehicle. These range from a simple address requirement to proof of residency (such as a utility bill) to a driver's license issued by that state.
Go to How vehicles work in the US, step 1: Creating a presence in the US

Buy Your Vehicle

Whether you buy your vehicle from a dealer or an individual (called a private party in the US), it makes sense to learn the process.

Vehicle ownership cannot be transferred online in the United States.

The seller must provide the vehicle's physical Prior Title, the vehicle's ownership document, to the seller. The Prior Title must be properly signed, and free from liens and defects.

The buyer must provide payment for the vehicle, and payment and Prior Title exchange must be coordinated to protect both the buyer and seller.

Because the US banking system doesn't link very well with the international banking system, international visitors must plan ahead for funds transfers.
Go to How vehicles work in the US, step 2: Buy your vehicle

Register Your Vehicle

You must register your vehicle in the US state in which you have created your US presence.

(In some states, you must register your vehicle in the county of the state of your US presence.)

First-time vehicle registrations must always be done in person, so you must bring your vehicle's Prior Title to the relevant DMV, along with the other documentation required.
Go to How vehicles work in the US, step 3: Register your vehicle

Insure Your Vehicle

If you want to drive your vehicle in the US, insurance is legally required (and a good idea!).

It's a good idea to learn the basics of auto insurance in the US, so you understand what you're buying.
Go to How vehicles work in the US, step 4: Insure your vehicle

Sell, Keep, or Export Your vehicle

All good things must come to an end. So what happens to your vehicle when your visit wraps up?
Sell
In order to sell your vehicle, you must provide the vehicle's Title to the new owner.
Keep
There are a number of options for storing your vehicle while you're away. Keeping some level of insurance on your vehicle while you're away is usually a good idea, too.
Export
In order to export your vehicle to another country, you must provide the vehicle's Title to the export authorities.
Go to How vehicles work in the US, step 5: Sell, keep, or export your vehicle

Next Steps

How vehicles work in the US

Learn how vehicle purchase, registration, and insurance works in the United States in general.