Whether it's your daily driver, a truck for work, a weekend motorcycle, or an antique automobile, if you intend to drive it on public roads, you'll need to have a valid state registration. Here's how to obtain one.

Key Takeaways

  • It's illegal to drive a car on public roads without a valid state registration.
  • If you're buying a new car, the dealer may handle the registration process for you. Otherwise you can register it yourself at your state's department of motor vehicles.
  • You will need to renew your registration periodically, such as every one to three years, depending on your state.

What Is a Vehicle Registration?

When you buy a car you're required to have at least the minimum amount of auto insurance mandated by your state and to register the vehicle in your name with the state's department of motor vehicles (DMV). All 50 states require that cars be registered if they are to be driven on public roadways.

Upon registering your car for the first time, you'll be given a set of license plates and a registration card. Depending on where you live, you will also receive a registration sticker to affix to either a car window or a license plate.

Your registration will expire after a certain length of time—such as one, two, or three years, depending on your state—and you will need to renew it. In many states you can renew your registration, and pay any required fees, online.

Failing to maintain a valid registration can lead to fines and could even result in your car being impounded. If that happens, you will need to renew your registration before you can get your car back.

What Documents Do You Need to Register a Car?

If you're buying or leasing a new car from a dealership, the dealer will typically handle the registration process for you. Any associated fees will be reflected in the vehicle's final cost.

Otherwise, you will need to register the car yourself. Different states have different registration requirements. For instance, motorists in California are required to provide proof that a newly registered vehicle passed a smog test meeting the state's stringent vehicle emissions standards.

Though some states may require more documents than others, these are some of the more common ones you may need to bring to the DMV, according to Hearst Autos Research:

  • A driver's license or some other form of identification
  • Proof of insurance
  • The car title or signed lease agreement
  • Proof that the vehicle passed a safety inspection
  • A completed vehicle registration application form
  • Payment for any registration fees

Depending on your state, you may also need to provide information like an odometer reading or proof that you paid sales taxes if they aren't exempted by the state. Though the entire process is usually easy, you can avoid any headaches by double checking your state's vehicle registration page online before you head to the DMV.

Important Note

If you move to a new state you will generally need to register your car there within a certain period, such as 30 or 60 days. You may also have to return your old license plates to your former state.

Can You Register a Car Without a Driver's License?

Though you can't do much with a car without a driver's license, you can buy and register one in your name. You can even purchase auto insurance without a driver's license, which is good since that's typically needed when registering a vehicle.

Someone might, for example, want to buy and register a car if they're unable to drive but have a caregiver who will use it to take them to appointments.

How Much Does It Cost to Register a Car?

The cost of registering a car also varies by state. Some states charge a flat fee, while others base their fees on factors like the vehicle's age, its market value, or how many vehicles you already have registered to your name.

According to this table of title and registration fees compiled by the American Automobile Association, registration fees range from $8 in Arizona to $217 in Montana, if the vehicle is under four years old.

Can You Transfer Your Registration to a New Car?

If you buy a different vehicle, you can generally transfer your registration and license plates from your old car to the new one. Once again, if you buy the new vehicle at a dealership, the dealer may handle that for you. If you don't, you'll need to make a trip to the DMV.