Purchase your vehicle

Purchase your vehicle

In the previous step, we described the requirements for establishing a presence in a US state, which will allow you to own a vehicle in that state.

In this step, we explain how you can purchase a vehicle in the United States.

There are two different methods to buy a vehicle in the US:
Purchase from a dealer
Auto dealers offer a wide selection of vehicles for sale. They are inspected, any faults remedied, and serviced before being listed for sale.
Purchase from a private party
Buying from an individual can be cheaper and less of a hassle than buying from a dealer.

Purchase from a dealer

Auto dealers are a great vehicle purchase option. They inspect their vehicles, address any faults, and make them ready for sale.

Below is the process for buying a vehicle directly from a dealer in the United States.

Provide your details
The first thing that the dealer will ask you for is the buyer's details.

Provide your name, address, and items required to establish your presence (identity, proof of residency, and other) in the US state in which you will own the vehicle.

Sign the dealership's paperwork
Purchasing a vehicle from a dealership typically involves signing a number of documents.

Sign them all in blue or black ink. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask - your salesman's job is to help you understand everything that you're signing.

Most auto dealers require wet ink signatures on their documents - very few are set up to accept electronic signatures.

Pay for the vehicle
US auto dealers almost always require payment in US dollars; many require payment from a US bank account.

Sending funds to the United States from abroad is more difficult than it might seem, so planning for this step ahead of time will save you a lot of trouble.

Below are your options for paying for a vehicle in the United States.
International Wire Transfer
A wire transfer between your bank and the seller's bank will likely be slow and expensive.

Your bank may only charge you a wire transfer fee of $25 (or your local currency equivalent), but they will likely select an unfavorable exchange rate.

International wire transfers can take anywhere between 2 and 10 days to settle, a terrifying period during which neither your bank nor the seller's bank will be able to tell you where the money is.
Wise (formerly Transferwise)
If your home currency is EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD, or SGD, we recommend creating a Wise (formerly known as Transferwise) account. With a Wise account, you can create one bank account in your home currency and another bank account in US dollars with a few clicks of a mouse.

Ahead of your visit, fund your Wise home currency account with a domestic bank transfer from your local bank. Send a little bit of money to your Wise home currency account to make sure that your accounts are properly connected.

Transfer funds from your Wise home currency account to your Wise US dollar account - your US dollar account should be credited instantly.

Wise uses the mid-market exchange rate - the one you find listed on Google or xe.com - which is usually 3-4x cheaper than the exchange rate that traditional banks use.

When your funds are in your Wise US dollar account, you can initiate a domestic wire transfer or bank transfer to the seller (American banks use a system called Automated Clearing House, or ACH, for domestic bank transfers).

Domestic US dollar transfers from Wise accounts usually settle within one business day (sometimes, within the same day).

Using Wise to pay a seller is usually much faster and much cheaper than paying via an international wire transfer.

If your home currency is anything other than the currencies mentioned above, we recommend opening a Revolut USD account and funding it with your debit card. (These transfers are subject to Revolut's fees.)
Revolut
If your home currency is a currency other than EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD, or SGD, we recommend opening a Revolut US dollar account.

You can fund your Revolut US dollar account with a debit card linked to your home bank account. (These transfers are subject to Revolut's fees.)

When your funds are in your Revolut US dollar account, you can initiate a domestic wire transfer or bank transfer to the seller.

Domestic US dollar transfers from Revolut accounts usually settle within one business day.
Cryptocurrency
A small but growing number of auto dealers accept payments in cryptocurrency.

If you have sufficient funds in cryptocurrency, and the dealer can and will accept cryptocurrency for payment, this is the cheapest and fastest way to transfer funds internationally.

While you and the seller can use any coin you want, you should document the sale price on the purchase agreement in the agreed coin to avoid under- or over-payment due to exchange rate fluctuations.

xIf you and/or the seller don't want to document the sale price in cryptocurrency, it might make sense to document the sale price in US dollars and make payment with a stablecoin such as USDC.
Provide the dealer with evidence of insurance (where required)
Many states require auto dealers to capture evidence of insurance for all retail buyers before releasing the vehicle to them.

It's legally required everywhere to maintain liability (third-party) insurance, and a good idea to obtain comprehensive and collision (first-party) insurance for your vehicle.

Collect a temporary registration from the dealer
Most US states allow auto dealers to provide buyers with temporary registration - a paper or plastic document displayed on the rear of a vehicle - that allows the buyer to drive while their registration is in process.

Note: The state of Massachusetts does not recognize temporary registrations issued by any state. Do not drive in Massachusetts without metal plates.

Issues purchasing a vehicle directly from a dealer
As you go move through the dealer purchase process, you may encounter the following issues:
Dealer Purchase Issue 1: They've never sold a vehicle to a non-US resident before
Almost every American auto dealer (except visitor.us) sells 100% of their vehicles to US residents. They know all the steps to help a US resident buy, register, and insure a vehicle. But if they've never sold to a non-US resident before, they might be a bit lost, and might therefore lose interest in you.
Dealer Purchase Issue 2: In-person sales process
Most auto dealers are (still) set up to sell vehicles to in-person buyers. Their game plan is to get you into the showroom, get you excited about the vehicle, and then close the sale. Selling over the phone or over email is not how they make their money. If you can't come to the showroom, many salespeople lose interest.
Issue Dealer Purchase 3: Wet ink signatures
Every dealer has their own procedures set by the store, or by the chain they're a part of. Many dealers' procedures require them to collect wet ink signatures on their purchase documents. Many won't accept electronic signatures, and won't ship purchase documents overseas.

Purchase from a private party

The perfect vehicle for your visit might be for sale by an individual (also known as a private party), not a dealership.

Below is the process for buying a vehicle from a private party in the United States

Check the vehicle's Prior Title
Before buying a vehicle from a private party, it's best to establish that the seller owns the vehicle, and that the title is free from liens, brands, and defects.

Prior Title

The vehicle's ownership document is called a title. The title belonging to the seller is the vehicle's Prior Title.

Make sure that the seller is the registered owner named on the front of the title, and the title is free of liens, brands, and defects.
You should think twice before completing a purchase if the vehicle's title has any of the following issues:
Title Issue 1: The vehicle has a "branded title"
If a vehicle has been significantly compromised, it will be assigned a "branded title" by a US state agency, and tied to its Vehicle Identification Number.

The type of brand indicates how the vehicle is compromised. If an insurance agency has declared a vehicle a total loss, its title will be branded "Salvage" or "Rebuilt." Other brands include "Flood damaged," "Hail damaged," and "Not actual mileage."
Title Issue 2: The vehicle's title has an unsatisfied lien
When a bank lends money to a person to buy a vehicle, the bank's name is recorded on the face of a title as a "lien holder." Ownership of the vehicle cannot be transferred until the lien is satisfied (i.e., the loan is paid off).

A vehicle with a lien recorded on the title can be transferred when accompanied by a lien release, written on the lien holder's letterhead and signed by an authorized representative of the lien holder.

If a vehicle's title has an unsatisfied lien - or the seller tells you that the title is "at the bank" - think twice before transferring funds to the seller. The seller must transfer your funds to the lien holder, the lien holder must produce a lien release, and the seller must sign and provide the title to you. These steps may take several weeks to complete, and this gap in time provides the seller an opportunity to "forget" about the deal they made to sell the vehicle to you.
Title Issue 3: The seller's name is not listed on the title
If you're buying the vehicle from Fred, and the registered owner listed on the title is named Mary, you should stop and ask why Mary isn't selling the vehicle herself. Perhaps Mary has left the job of selling the vehicle to her son, Fred. Or perhaps Fred is up to no good.

Seek to understand why the owner isn't selling the vehicle, and if you don't get a good feeling, walk away.
Ensure that the final sales price does not include sales tax
Private parties are not required to withhold sales tax on a vehicle. Buyers of vehicles sold by private parties will pay sales tax when they register the vehicle.

If a private party seller adds sales tax to the purchase price, make sure they remove it before completing the purchase.
Sign a purchase agreement with the seller
Before initiating a payment to the seller, draw up a purchase agreement (also known as a bill of sale) with the seller that documents the seller's name and address; the buyer's name and address; the agreed purchase price, and the vehicle's year, make and model.

Produce two copies of the purchase agreement, one for you and one for the seller, and ensure that you and the seller sign both copies.
Pay for the vehicle
Paying for a vehicle sold by a private party can be tricky for an international visitor, so it makes sense to plan for this step well before you purchase your vehicle.
Typical payment process for buying a vehicle from a private party
For vehicles that cost a few thousand dollars, it's typical for a seller to pay a buyer with cash, Paypal, or Venmo.

For vehicles that cost more than a few thousand dollars, buyers and private party sellers typically use a process that follows these steps:
1) The buyer obtains a Cashier's Check from his bank in the amount of the agreed purchase price. A Cashier's Check is a form of payment (a physical check) that cannot be cancelled.
2) The buyer meets the seller at the seller's bank. When the buyer sees that the seller has the vehicle's Prior Title and its keys, the buyer provides the Cashier's Check to the seller. The seller deposits the Cashier's Check into his account.
3) When the bank teller confirms the deposit of the Cashier's Check, the seller hands the vehicle's Prior Title and the keys to the buyer. The buyer and the seller sign a Bill of Sale (if required by the seller) and the transaction is complete.
Issues with the typical private-party payment process for an international visitor
For vehicles that cost a few thousand dollars, you may be able to withdraw the purchase price in cash from an ATM. You may want to request an increase to your daily withdrawal limit from your bank, to minimize the amount of time it takes to withdraw the purchase price.

If you don't have an account with a US-based bank, you won't be able to get a Cashier's Check, so you'll have to think about other ways to pay the seller.
Your options for paying a private party for a vehicle
International visitors have a couple of options for paying a private party for a vehicle, and it makes sense to think through the pros and cons of each option.

You should balance the cost of the transaction with the time to settle the transaction.

The longer the transaction takes to settle, the higher the risk that the seller sells the vehicle to someone else. This would not only cause you to lose out on your desired vehicle, but could potentially cause you to lose your funds as well.

Imagine you agree to purchase a vehicle and initiate an international wire transfer on Monday, the seller finds another buyer and sells the vehicle on Tuesday, and your funds hit the seller's account on Wednesday. If the seller refuses to return your funds, your only recourse would be to take the seller to court to enforce the purchase contract (that you hopefully required the seller to sign before initiating the wire transfer). That's not how you want to spend your visit to the US.
Paypal
Paypal transactions have the benefit of settling within minute or so, and Paypal payments can include buyer protection.

However, Paypal does charge a fee for some types of purchases. It can also charge a fee for exchanging funds from one currency to another. And it can hit you with a hidden cost by using an unfavorable exchange rate.
International Wire Transfer
A wire transfer between your bank and the seller's bank will likely be slow and expensive.

Your bank may only charge you a wire transfer fee of $25 (or your local currency equivalent), but they will likely select an unfavorable exchange rate.

International wire transfers can take anywhere between 2 and 10 days to settle, a terrifying period during which neither your bank nor the seller's bank will be able to tell you where the money is.
Wise (formerly Transferwise)
If your home currency is EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD, or SGD, we recommend creating a Wise (formerly known as Transferwise) account. With a Wise account, you can create one bank account in your home currency and another bank account in US dollars with a few clicks of a mouse.

Ahead of your visit, fund your Wise home currency account with a domestic bank transfer from your local bank. Send a little bit of money to your Wise home currency account to make sure that your accounts are properly connected.

Transfer funds from your Wise home currency account to your Wise US dollar account - your US dollar account should be credited instantly.

Wise uses the mid-market exchange rate - the one you find listed on Google or xe.com - which is usually 3-4x cheaper than the exchange rate that traditional banks use.

When your funds are in your Wise US dollar account, you can initiate a domestic wire transfer or bank transfer to the seller (American banks use a system called Automated Clearing House, or ACH, for domestic bank transfers).

Domestic US dollar transfers from Wise accounts usually settle within one business day (sometimes, within the same day).

Using Wise to pay a seller is usually much faster and much cheaper than paying via an international wire transfer.
Revolut
If your home currency is a currency other than EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, CAD, or SGD, we recommend opening a Revolut US dollar account.

You can fund your Revolut US dollar account with a debit card linked to your home bank account. (These transfers are subject to Revolut's fees.)

When your funds are in your Revolut US dollar account, you can initiate a domestic wire transfer or bank transfer to the seller.

Domestic US dollar transfers from Revolut accounts usually settle within one business day.
Cryptocurrency
If you have sufficient funds in cryptocurrency, and the seller can and will accept cryptocurrency for payment, this is the cheapest and fastest way to transfer funds internationally.

While you and the seller can use any coin you want, you should document the sale price on the purchase agreement in the agreed coin to avoid under- or over-payment due to exchange rate fluctuations.

If you and/or the seller don't want to document the sale price in cryptocurrency, it might make sense to document the sale price in US dollars and make payment with a stablecoin such as USDC.
Ensure that the seller signs the Prior Title correctly
In order to transfer ownership of a vehicle to a new owner, the vehicle's Prior Title needs to be properly signed by its owner.

The US states, not the federal government, issue vehicle titles, and each state's title has its own format.

It's a good idea to Google "How to sign a [state] vehicle title," where [state] is the name of the state that issued the vehicle's Prior Title.

While we can't list each state's title signing requirements here, we can summarize the rules.
All owners must sign the Seller's Section of the Prior Title
All owners listed on the face of the title must sign the Seller's Section of the Prior Title in blue or black ink.
Cross-outs, white-outs, or write-overs can potentially void the title
Everyone signing the title should complete their section with care.

If anyone crosses anything out, writes over anything, or uses white-out on the Prior Title, it could become void, requiring a replacement. Replacement titles can take several weeks to generate and send.
Sellers must attest to the odometer reading for vehicles 2011 or newer
A vehicle's seller must write the odometer reading on the title, and note if the odometer reading differs from the vehicle's actual mileage.

Most states' titles require the seller's signature once. A handful of states' titles require a signature in one field to transfer the vehicle, and a signature in another field to attest to the odometer disclosure. If the vehicle's title requires multiple signatures from the seller, ensure that the seller has signed everywhere required.
Some titles must be notarized
Titles from Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania must be notarized to be transferred to a new owner.

If the vehicle's Prior Title was issued by one of the states listed above, the seller must appear before a licensed notary public, who will verify the seller's identity and witness their signature.

Only after the notary signs and fixes their seal to the title can it be transferred to a new owner.
Collect the Prior Title and complete the buyer's section
Upon paying for the vehicle, the seller should provide you with the Vehicle's Prior Title.

In the buyer's section of the title, write your name and the address where you will own and register the vehicle.

Completing the buyer's section of the title ensures that your title cannot be transferred to a new owner if the document is stolen, lost, or intercepted.

A thief would have to cross out, write over, or white out your details, and this would cause the title to become void.
Register your vehicle or obtain a temporary registration
In order to drive on public roads, your vehicle must be registered.

If you want to hit the road immediately after purchasing your vehicle, you must either register your vehicle or obtain a temporary registration from the authorities in the state that issued the vehicle's Prior Title.

Temporary Registration

Most US states provide temporary registrations, documents that allow a vehicle buyer to drive the vehicle while registration is in process.

Temporary registrations have different names depending on the state that issues them (for example: temporary registration permits, one-trip permits, and drive-off permits).

They are generally called "temp tags."

Temp tags must be displayed on the rear of the vehicle.

Next Steps

How vehicles work in the US

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

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