Fundamentals of Buying a Car in America: Registration and Titling

 — 
 Min read
 — 
February 3, 2021

Are you trying to figure out how to buy a car in America as an international visitor?  Whether it’s a car, an RV, a motorcycle, or anything else that goes, you may be feeling like it’s harder than it should be to find answers.

That's why we're putting together this series, called Fundamentals of Buying a Car in America, to help de-mystify the subject.

This article focuses on the fundamentals of registration and titling, and it’s the second in our Fundamentals series.  This step follows ownership transfer, which we covered here.

Vehicle registrations in the United States are handled at the state (as opposed to national) level.  So each of the 50 United States, plus Washington, D.C., has its own process for vehicle registrations.  (This is why answers are so scarce - there isn’t one process, there are 51 separate vehicle registration processes in the US!)

The dedicated staff at visitor.us has spent dozens of hours pouring over all 51 vehicle registration processes, so you don’t have to.

visitor.us is an auto broker, an insurance agent, and a registration agent, focused exclusively on international visitors to the US.  We’re fully licensed, bonded, and insured.

We’ve been helping non-residents buy vehicles in the US since 2017.  If you’re looking for assistance buying, registering, and insuring a vehicle in America, we’re confident we offer the best solution.  

But if you just want to understand how the vehicle registration process works in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., you’re in the right place.

This page describes, generally, the items you need for the various vehicle registration processes, and the items you’ll receive after they’re complete.

This page is best used in tandem with visitor.us’ 50 States + DC Vehicle Registration Guide, which details to the key requirements in each state’s registration process.  To request access to this free, time-saving resource, please use the form below.

Once you have completed the ownership transfer process, you will need to register the vehicle in order to legally drive it on public roads.

In this post, we’ll cover…

Items Required to Register a Vehicle, which include

The Vehicle’s Title

Application for Title and Registration

Your Identification

Your In-State Address

Proof of Residency (where required)

Proof of Lawful Presence (where required)

Liability Insurance

Proof of Inspection (where required)

Taxes and Fees

Then, we’ll cover…

Items Received When You Register a Vehicle, which include

Registration Document

Temporary Tags (where applicable)

License Plates

Decals

New Title

So, let’s dive right in!

Items Required to Register a Vehicle in the US

In order to register your vehicle for the first time, you (or your appointed agent) must visit the appropriate state authority and submit your documents.  

Americans colloquially call anywhere vehicle registrations and drivers licenses are produced “the DMV” (short for the Department of Motor Vehicles).  While the Department of Motor Vehicles within the Department of Justice manages registrations in most states, several states administer vehicle registrations through their Department of Revenue, requiring applicants to visit the county treasurer.

Whatever the name of the office, applicants are required to present the following items in order to register a vehicle.

The Vehicle's Properly Assigned Title

The Certificate of Title (Title for short) is the vehicle’s official ownership document.  When the owner wants to sell, gift, or otherwise transfer the vehicle to someone else, the owner must assign (i.e., transfer) the title to the new owner.

If you don’t have the vehicle’s title, or the title has not been properly assigned to you, you may not register the vehicle.  We covered title assignments more in depth in our Fundamentals post on ownership transfer, which you can find here.

Each state and Washington, D.C. has its own requirements for proper title assignment.  For all 51 sets of requirements, click here.

Application for Title and Registration (Where Required)

In a handful of states, an assigned, in-state title serves as an application to register a vehicle.  However, most states require applicants to submit a separate application form.  

This application allows the state to capture key pieces of vehicle information, such as the vehicle’s make, model, year, and color; owner information, such as their name, address, and ID number; and security interest information such as a lien, if the purchase was financed.

visitor.us has compiled the registration and title applications for 42 states and Washington, D.C. in one easy place.  (Note: Applications for Alabama, Hawaii, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are only available in person, while Tennessee doesn’t have an application form.)  Request access to this free resource today!

Your ID

In order to register the vehicle, you must present a photo ID to the registration authorities.  Each state has its own ID requirements.  

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. require an in-state driver’s license or a social security number to register a vehicle.

Others states, like New York, have a point-based system, which allow a person to register a vehicle with an out-of-state driver’s license, provided that it’s supplemented with other proof of identity, such as a social security card or passport.  

Still others, like Texas, accept foreign passports as identification.

Find out which states require US driver’s licenses and which accept ID from other countries by requesting visitor.us’ 50 States + DC Vehicle Registration Guide.  It’s free, comprehensive, and helpful.

Your In-State Address

Remember, the individual states, not the national government, manage vehicle registration and titling.  In order to register a vehicle in a particular state, you must provide an address in that state.

(The rare exceptions to this rule are people who live and work on opposite sides of a state line.  In such cases, state laws usually require the vehicle to be registered in the state in which it is principally garaged, or where it spends most nights.)

Besides legal requirements, there are logistical reasons for states to require a registration address.  Most states do not provide all documents at the time of registration; outstanding documents (usually the new title, which can take several days or weeks for the state to produce) are mailed to the registration address.

Each state requires its residents to register all of their vehicles in that state within 30 to 90 days (depending on the state) of attaining residency.  Therefore, if you register a vehicle to one state, then become a resident of another, you must re-register all your vehicles in your new state of residency.

Proof of Residency (Where Required)

Thirteen US states and Washington, D.C., require a registration applicant to prove residency in that state (or district).

These states usually require multiple pieces of evidence; bank statements, utility bills, and lease agreements are commonly accepted.

visitor.us has compiled the residency requirements for registering a vehicle in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.  Don’t commit to buying a vehicle in the US before checking our Guide!

Proof of Lawful Presence (Where Required)

Colorado and Massachusetts require applicants who do not have a US driver’s license or social security number to provide proof of lawful presence in America before registering a vehicle.  Both states accept a current, valid foreign passport with a current, valid US visa, accompanied by an US Citizenship and Immigration Form I-94 Record of Arrival and Departure.

Liability Insurance

All states and Washington, D.C. require drivers on public roads to maintain liability insurance at all times (although one state, New Hampshire, allows proof of financial responsibility in lieu of insurance).

Each state sets its own minimum limits for liability arising from property damage or bodily injury that you may cause to others while driving.

In some states, proof of insurance is a prerequisite to vehicle registration, while others require it to drive, but do not check it at the time of registration.

For details on insurance requirements for all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.), click here.

Vehicle Inspection (Where Required)

Each of the states sets its own inspection requirements, which fall generally into three categories: emissions, safety, and VIN.

Emissions inspections (also known as smog checks) are generally required in areas with high population density that are prone to smog.  While emissions inspections are required state-wide in a number of states, they are more often imposed at a county, city, or metro level.

Safety inspections vary from state to state.  Some states perform simple visual checks (lights, horn, signals), while others require more extensive inspections (brake and seatbelt functionality, etc.).  However, the majority of US states do not require safety inspections.

Finally, VIN inspections help control the registration of stolen vehicles.  Every vehicle has a unique Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, which is etched into its chassis as well as displayed on the dashboard under the windshield.  Some states require a state official to physically verify that the VIN on the chassis matches the VIN on the dashboard, and that both of those match the VIN on the application for registration and title.  This check is most common for vehicles brought from out of state.

visitor.us has pulled together a helpful guide to inspection requirements across the United States.  Request your Vehicle Registration Guide today!

Taxes and Fees

Taxes and fees are due upon registration.  Each state sets its own fees and levies its own taxes, and the costs vary widely from state to state (and municipality to municipality).  For instance, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, and New Hampshire do not charge sales tax on vehicles, while sales tax on vehicles in Seattle amounts to a staggering 10.4% of the vehicle’s value.

Each state has its own method for calculating the amount of tax due.  The most common method applies a tax rate (called a sales tax, an excise tax, or a personal property tax in various jurisdictions) to the market value of the vehicle.  Other methods, such as Hawaii’s tax based on vehicle weight, have also been implemented.

In addition to taxes, each state assesses fees for registering a vehicle.  Generally, states assess fees for registration, title issuance, license plates, and administrative services.  Like taxes, these fees vary wildly from state to state.  For instance, a vehicle title in North Dakota costs $5, while two states over, a Wisconsin title costs $164.50.

Important note: Taxes and fees are assessed by the state in which the vehicle is registered, not the state in which it was purchased.  (If vehicles were taxed where they are purchased, Seattle residents would simply hop over to tax-free Montana to buy vehicles, depriving Washington state of tax revenue.)

(The sole exception to this rule is California, where dealers must collect state sales tax if customer drives the vehicle off of the dealer’s lot.  However, if the vehicle is delivered to the customer outside of California, dealers are not required to collect state sales tax.)

Items Received When You Register a Vehicle in the US

The state provides a several items after registration.  Some of these items are provided at the time of registration, while others are mailed to the registration address after a period.

Registration Document

A current registration document demonstrates to interested parties (i.e., law enforcement) that you’re the owner of the vehicle, that you’ve completed applicable inspection requirements, and that you’ve paid the applicable taxes and fees.

Sample California vehicle registration card. Powered by dmv.ca.gov

Registration documents are usually provided at the time of registration to ensure drivers are in compliance with laws that require all vehicles on public motorways to be registered at all times.  Issuing the registration document at the time of registration allows you to drive home from the DMV.

Registration documents are valid for a specific period (usually one year).  After you meet your local renewal requirements (inspections where required, and payment of applicable taxes and fees), the state will send your updated vehicle registration document (often accompanied by decals, see below) to the vehicle’s registered address.

Temporary Tags (Where Applicable)

An Illinois temporary vehicle registration permit. Powered by cyberdriveillinois.com.

Temporary tags (also known as temporary registration, temp tags, or paper plates) are temporary license plates (usually paper or plastic) that certain states issue under certain conditions.

Some states provide temporary tags to all buyers (metal license plates are mailed to the vehicle’s registered address).

Others states, like Illinois, offer temporary registration for out-of-state buyers, giving them time to move the vehicle and register it in another state.

Still other states, like Massachusetts, do not issue temporary registrations at all.

Temporary tags allow you to hit the road right away, while your registration is in process.  So they can be a huge time-saver.

Don’t spin your wheels trying to figure out which states offer temporary tags, and which don’t - we’ve already done it for you.  Request your 50 states + DC Vehicle Registration Guide today!

License Plates

Texas license plate. Powered by txdmv.gov.

Each state issues its own license plates.  Driving a vehicle without any license plates is a sure-fire way to get pulled over in most states.

License plate procedures differ across (and even within) states.  Some states/counties issue license plates at the time of registration.  Others issue temporary tags valid for a limited time (often 30 days) at the time of registration, mailing license plates to the vehicle’s registered address.

Driving in one state with a license plate from another happens quite often in the United States.  If you’ve visited the US before, you know that it’s not uncommon to see a California license plate in New York, or a Florida plate in Texas.  Keeping a lookout for license plates from all 50 states is a common American road trip game.

Throughout North America, authorities require the vehicle’s rear plate to be displayed at all times.  Thirty states and Washington, D.C. require the front plate to be displayed as well.  

Decals

A Washington State license plate with decals showing registration expiration in April of 2017. Powered by Wikipedia.

Decals show the month and date of the vehicle’s registration expiration at a glance.

Most states require decals to be displayed on the rear license plate, while others (e.g., Texas) issue a decal that must be displayed on the windshield.

Decals are generally issued at the same time as the license plate.

After meeting your local renewal requirements (inspections where required, and payment of applicable taxes and fees), the DMV will send a new decal (along with the updated registration document) to the vehicle’s registered address.

New Title

A Pennsylvania Certificate of Title for a Vehicle. Powered by WheelsforWishes.org

Across the 50 States (and Washington, D.C.), your registration application actually does double duty as:

  1. An application to register your vehicle, and
  2. An application to title your vehicle.

Upon application, you must surrender the vehicle’s old title (the one issued in the previous owner’s name, assigned to you).  Your application kicks off a process to issue a new title in your name.

While several states issue electronic titles, most issue paper titles.

New titles take time to print and issue, and they’re often created by a different department than the vehicle registration department, so most states do not issue a new title at the time of registration.  Instead, they are mailed to the address listed on the application, usually within 2-8 weeks.

Conclusion

Buying a car in America is one thing, but figuring out how to register and title it in your name is quite another.

This is because the United States is just that - a collection of states, united under a national government, but which have their own governments.  The state governments are responsible for vehicle laws and regulations, so there are literally dozens of processes to register a car in America.

Like the article? Spread the word