Register your vehicle

Register your Vehicle

In previous steps, we described 1) how to establish a presence in a US state in order to own a vehicle there, and 2) purchase and pay for a vehicle in the US.

In this step, we explain how to register your vehicle, which transfers ownership into your name, and allows you to drive on public roadways.

Vehicle registration requires inputs that feed into the registration process, which creates outputs.

Let's look at those three factors below.

Registration inputs

The key registration inputs are as follows:
Your presence in your desired US state
As discussed in the Create a Presence in a US State step, each US state has its own requirements for a person to establish a presence, allowing that person to register own a vehicle in that state.

The first registration input is evidence of your presence in the US state where you will register your vehicle.
Your vehicle's Prior Title
The second registration input is the vehicle's Prior Title, properly signed to you by its prior owner.

Prior Title

Vehicle ownership in the United States is evidenced by a legal document called a title. Titles are issued by the US states, and every vehicle has one title at a time.

While a vehicle title documents a vehicle's ownership, it does not give the owner the right drive the vehicle on public roads - that's the job of the Registration, which we'll see below.

A vehicle's Prior Title is the piece of paper that documents that the seller owns the vehicle, and has the right to transfer it to you.
Your registration application
The third registration input is the registration application.

Each US state requires a vehicle's new owner to submit a registration application. Most states have a specific registration application document; in some states, the vehicle's Prior Title is the registration application.

Registration Application

In order to register a vehicle in any US state, a new vehicle owner must submit a registration application form.

visitor.us populates a Registration Application with your vehicle's details and captures your signature on it.
Vehicle inspection (where required)
Many US states require a vehicle to be inspected in order to be registered.

Emissions (smog) inspections are the most common; other inspection requirements include safety and Vehicle Identification Number inspection.

Note that states do not recognize each others' inspections. Inspection must be done in the state in which the vehicle is registered.

US state

Emissions
Inspection

Safety Inspection

VIN Inspection

West Coast

Alaska

Not required
Not required
Not required

California

Smog inspection must be current to register a vehicle or renew a registration
Not required
Not required

Hawaii

Not required
Vehicles older than 2 years must undergo annual safety inspections
Not required

Oregon

Required upon new ownership and biennially for Portland and Medford metro areas
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Washington

Required for the following counties: Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish, Spokane
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Rocky Mountains

Arizona

Required biennially for the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas
Not required
Not required

Colorado

Required biennially for vehicles newer than 1975 and more than 6 years old in the Denver metro areae
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Idaho

Required biennially for Ada and Canyon counties
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Montana

Not required
Not required
Not required

Nevada

Required annually in Las Vegas and Reno if vehicle is older than 2 years and newer than 1968
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

New Mexico

Required biennially for vehicles newer than 1981 registered in Bernalillo county
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Utah

Required biennially in Cache, Davis, Utah, Salt Lake, and Weber counties until the car is 6 years old; annually thereafter
Safety inspections done when a vehicle is 4, 8, and 10 years old; annually thereafter
Not required

Wyoming

Not required
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Midwest

Illinois

Required for most gas vehicles every 2 years in the Chicago Metro Area
Required for most gas vehicles every 2 years in the Chicago Metro Area
Required for most gas vehicles every 2 years in the Chicago Metro Area

Indiana

Required biennially in Lake and Porter counties for vehicles manufactured after 1976
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Iowa

Not required
Not required
Not required

Kansas

Not required
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Michigan

Not required
Not required
Not required

Minnesota

Not required
Not required
Not required

Missouri

Required biennially in St. Louis city and county, Franklin County, St. Charles County, and Jefferson City
Biennial safety inspection required for vehicles 6 years and older
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Nebraska

Not required
Required only for out-of-state vehicles
Required for out-of-state vehicles

North Dakota

Not required
Not required
Not required

Ohio

Required biennially for Cleveland metro areas
Not required
Required in certain areas

South Dakota

South Dakota address required
Not required
Not required

Wisconsin

Biennial emissions inspections required for vehicles 1996 or newer in the following counties: Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Sheboygan, Waukesha, Washington
Not required
Not required

Northeast

Connecticut

Required biennially
Only required on commercial vehicles
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Delaware

Required biennially for vehicles 6 years old and older and newer than model year 1967
Required biennially for vehicles 6 years and older
Not required

Maine

Required annually in Cumberland County
Required annually
Not required

Massachusetts

Required annually
Required annually
Not required

New Hampshire

Required annually for vehicles newer than 1995
Required annually
Not required

New Jersey

Required biennially for vehicles 6 years and older
Not required
Not required

New York

Required annually for vehicles aged 2-26 years
Required annually for vehicles aged 2-26 years
Not required

Pennsylvania

Required annually for 25 of 67 Pennsylvania counties
Required annually
Required annually

Rhode Island

Required biennially
Required biennially for vehicles older than 2 years
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Vermont

Required annually for vehicles newer than 1995
Required annually
Required for out-of-state vehicles

The South

Alabama

Not required
Required prior to sale or transfer of ownership
Not required

Arkansas

Not required
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Florida

Not required
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Georgia

Required annually for most vehicles if registered in Atlanta metro areas
Not required
Not required

Kentucky

Not required
Not required
Required for out-of-state vehicles

Louisiana

Required annually in Baton Rouge metro parishes.
Required annually
Not required

Maryland

Required annually for 13 counties for vehicles model year 1977 or newer
Safety inspection required before transfer of ownership
Not required

Mississippi

Mississippi address required
Only required on vehicles with tinted windows
Not required

North Carolina

Required annually in 48 of 100 counties for vehicles 4 years old or greater, and vehicles with less than 70,000 miles
Required for cars less than 36 years old
Not required

Oklahoma

Not required
Not required
VIN and odometer inspection required for used and/or out-of-state vehicles

South Carolina

Not required
Not required
Not required

Tennessee

Required annually for the following counties: Hamilton, Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson, Wilson for vehicles from 1975 or later
Not required
Not required

Texas

Required annually for vehicles ages 2-24 registered in the following metro areas: Austin, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, El Paso.
Required annually for vehicles older than 2 years
Not required

Virginia

Required annually for vehicles 25 years old or newer for the following counties: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford
Required annually
Not required

Washington, D.C.

Required biennially
Not required
Not required

West Virginia

Not required
Required annually
Not required
Every US state charges fees, and most charge taxes, to register a vehicle.
Proof of insurance (where required)
Every state except Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and Wisconsin requires proof of liability insurance to register a vehicle.

Liability insurance is required everywhere, even in those states that don't require proof in order to register a vehicle.

The registration process

Every US state requires a new vehicle owner (or their agent) to submit their registration inputs (your vehicle's Prior Title, your proof of presence documents, your registration application, your proof of inspection, and your proof of insurance) to the registration authorities in person.

In some states, a central department of motor vehicles is the registration authority. In other states, the Secretary of State's office handles vehicle registrations. In still other states, the counties are responsible for registering vehicles.

In states that use a central, state-wide authority, you can visit any office in the state; in states where counties handle vehicle registration, you'll need to visit the office of the county of your registration address.

In Massachusetts, you must obtain a registration application from a licensed Massachusetts insurance agent, who must stamp your application after issuing your insurance policy.
Taxes and registration fees
In addition to providing your registration inputs, you'll need to pay taxes and fees to register your vehicle and transfer ownership into your name.

Every US state charges fees, and most charge taxes, to register a vehicle.

If you purchase your vehicle from an auto dealer in the same state that you register your vehicle, the dealer will collect applicable taxes and fees on behalf of the state.

If you buy your vehicle from a private party, you will pay applicable taxes and registration fees upon registration.

Below are the tax rates and registration fees that you can expect when you register your vehicle.

US state

State + Local Tax
in largest city

Registration Fees

West Coast

Alaska

0%
$185-265

California

9.25%
$243

Hawaii

4%
$77.5 + $0.03 / lb

Oregon

0.5%
$205

Washington

10.7%
$45.50

Rocky Mountains

Arizona

10.7%
$45.50

Colorado

8.31%
$111

Idaho

6%
$45-69

Montana

0.7%
$48.30-237.30

Nevada

10.125%
$65.25-68.25

New Mexico

4%
$76-414

Utah

7.25%
$60-200

Wyoming

7.8%
$30

Midwest

Illinois

8.5%
$196

Indiana

7%
$63.35-593.35

Iowa

6%
$0.004 / lb

Kansas

9.775%
$14.50

Michigan

6%
$41-885

Minnesota

6.5%
$17-19

Missouri

7.738%
$57.25

Nebraska

5.5%
$80.55-2,003.8

North Dakota

5%
$71.50

Ohio

7.5%
$67

South Dakota

4%
$67.40-92.60

Wisconsin

5.5%
$299.50

Northeast

Connecticut

7.75%
$45

Delaware

4.25%
$75

Maine

7.9%
$65

Massachusetts

6.25%
$135

New Hampshire

1.8%
$42.20

New Jersey

6.625%
$35.50-84

New York

8.875%
$141-255

Pennsylvania

8%
$98

Rhode Island

7%
$90.50

Vermont

6%
$111

The South

Alabama

4%
$65-73

Arkansas

7.125%
$27

Florida

7%
$67.95-267.95

Georgia

6.6%
$38

Kentucky

6%
$41

Louisiana

5%
$46.50

Maryland

6%
$185

Mississippi

5.36%
$29

North Carolina

4.3%
$96

Oklahoma

4.3%
$96

South Carolina

5%
$101

Tennessee

7%
$201

Texas

6.25%
$74

Virginia

8.15%
$45.75

Washington, D.C.

6%
$98

West Virginia

8%
$66.50
Receiving registration and license
In addition to providing your registration inputs, you'll need to pay taxes and fees to register your vehicle and transfer ownership into your name.

Every US state charges fees, and most charge taxes, to register a vehicle.

If you purchase your vehicle from an auto dealer in the same state that you register your vehicle, the dealer will collect applicable taxes and fees on behalf of the state.

If you buy your vehicle from a private party, you will pay applicable taxes and registration fees upon registration.

Below are the tax rates and registration fees that you can expect when you register your vehicle.

Registration outputs

When you complete the vehicle registration process, you will receive the following documents.
Registration Document
Your registration document is a piece of paper that lists your vehicle's key attributes, its license plates, its owner, and the period of valid registration.

Your registration document is usually provided to you at the time of registration, and it must stay with the vehicle.

Your Registration document is evidence that you own the vehicle, but it is not a legal ownership document, so it cannot be used to transfer the vehicle to a new owner.

Registration Document

Your registration document allows you to drive your vehicle on public roadways.

You must keep your Registration in your vehicle at all times, and provide it to law enforcement upon request.
License Plates
In most US states, a vehicle's owner must remove its license plates upon transferring it to a new owner, and the new owner is responsible for obtaining new plates.

Most states issue license plates to you at the time of registration, but a handful of states mail them to the registration address a short time after registration.

Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C. require license plates to be displayed on the front and rear of a vehicle; the other 19 states only require a vehicle to display a rear license plate.

Vehicles have to follow their home state's plate rules - in other words, vehicles registered in a state that does not require front license plates don't have to display a front plate if they drive into a state that requires a front plate.
Decals
Most US states use a license plate decal to indicate the year and month that a vehicle's registration expires. Decals must be displayed on the rear license plate.

Two US states (Texas and New York) and Washington, D.C. require a registration expiration decal to be displayed on a vehicle's windshield. Three US states (Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) don't require a registration expiration decal at all.

License Plates

A license plate must always be displayed on the rear of your vehicle; many states require a front license plate as well.

Most states require a decal, indicating the vehicle's registration expiration date, to be displayed on the rear license plate.

Most states require a vehicle's license plates to be removed upon transfer to a new owner.
Title
A title is a vehicle's official ownership document. A new title, bearing the name and address of the new registered owner, as well as the vehicle's attributes, will be issued by the state where the vehicle is registered.

The state will generally mail a vehicle's new title to its registered address a few days to a few weeks after registration.

Title

Your title documents that you own your vehicle.

Your title is not required for traffic stops, storing your vehicle, or temporarily crossing international borders with your vehicle.

Your title is required to sell or export your vehicle.

Special Cases

The inputs and processes outlined above cover most vehicle registration cases. Occasionally, additional documents come into play.

Temporary Registration
You may want to hit the road right away, while your registration is still in process.

This is why Temporary Registrations exist.

In all states except Massachusetts, and in Washington D.C., dealers can issue a temporary registration - a paper document in place of license plates.

In some states, buyers of vehicles sold by private parties can obtain a temporary registration.

Temporary Registration

A Temporary Registration allows a vehicle to be driven for a limited period of time (usually 30 - 60 days) while its Registration is in process.

This document is usually printed on paper, and must be displayed on the rear of the vehicle.
Important Note: The State of Massachusetts does not recognize temporary registrations issued by any state. Don't drive in Massachusetts without a metal license plate.

Power of Attorney
Occasionally when buying a vehicle from a dealer, you may be required to sign a document that is not physically present during the purchase process.

A document called a Power of Attorney authorizes an agent to sign a document on your behalf.

In order to be valid, a Power of Attorney must be notarized. A licensed notary public will verify your identity, witness your signature, and sign and stamp the Power of Attorney.

The State of Montana accepts Remote Online Notarizations, in which a notarization session occurs via a video conference.

Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney authorizes another party (the agent) to sign documents on your behalf, in case a wet ink signature is required, and distance or timing makes it difficult or impossible for you to sign.

This Power of Attorney authorizes the agent to sign documents related to a specific vehicle, and grants no further authority.
New Vehicles
If your vehicle is fresh off the assembly line, it doesn't have a Prior Title.

Vehicle manufacturers issue a Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin, or MCO (some call it a Manufacturer's Statement of Origin, or MSO), with every vehicle produced.

This is a new vehicle's ownership document.

Manufacturer's Certificate/Statement of Origin (For New Vehicles Only)

A vehicle's manufacturer issues a Manufacturer's Certificate of Origin (or Manufacturer's Statement of Origin) with every new vehicle that it builds.

The Certificate of Origin is a new vehicle's ownership document.
Important Note: US customs authorities will not release a vehicle with a Manufacturer's Certificate/Statement of Origin for export. In order to release a vehicle for export, it must have a title issued by a US state. In other words, a vehicle must be registered to be exported.

Next Steps

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