What Is Car Registration, And Why Is It So Important?

So you’re planning to buy a car—either new or used. Before slipping behind the wheel, a few details require your attention. Key among them is registering your car or truck with your state. 

Here’s how vehicle registration works and how to register your car

Key Takeaways

  • Cars and trucks must be registered in all 50 U.S. states.
  • Costs vary state by state and generally range from $30 to $50.
  • Registration expires after a year or two depending on the state. It’s your job to keep it current.
  • Penalties for not registering your vehicle range in the hundreds of dollars.
  • To register your car, you’ll typically need to show title or lien information, a bill of sale, and proof of insurance.

What Is Vehicle Registration? 

In the U.S. car owners must register their vehicles with their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or transportation department. You must do this when buying a vehicle, moving to another state, or renewing your registration before it expires. 

States use registrations to determine vehicle ownership and provide data when tracking a criminal or assessing taxes. A registration certificate and license plates are issued after paying a fee. 

Your vehicle’s registration certificate is essential and must be on hand whenever you’re behind the wheel. Law enforcement will demand to see it if you’re stopped. 

Cost of Registering Your Vehicle

The cost to register your new car varies by state but generally ranges from $30 to $50. Here are a few examples: 

  • Nevada: $33 base registration fee, renewed annually
  • Pennsylvania: $39 base registration fee, renewed annually
  • Hawaii: $45 state fee, plus registration fee based on weight of vehicle, renewed annually
  • Texas: $50.75 base registration fee which increases by weight of vehicle, renewed annually

Renewal is required every one to three years, depending on your state’s laws. 

Penalties for Not Registering Your Car

The vehicle must be registered for you to legally drive it. If you are in an accident or stopped by law enforcement, you’ll be asked to show your license, proof of insurance, and registration certificate. If you don’t have a current registration certificate with you, you may be fined or your  vehicle may be impounded. 

Fines may also apply for late registration renewal. Examples of penalties:

  • Maine: If you live in Maine, fines range from $200 to $1,000. You can also be issued a traffic infraction.
  • Vermont: Drivers in Vermont who fail to register their vehicles and present a current registration certificate when asked by law enforcement face penalties of $100 to $250 for a first offense. For a second violation, penalties range from $250 to $500.

How to Register Your Car

Though the requirements vary by state, you’ll generally need to present the following documents at the DMV when you register your vehicle: 

  • Title or lien: If you own the vehicle outright, you’ll be asked to show its title. If the car is financed, you’ll have to show the lien agreement. 
  • Bill of sale: When you buy a new car from a dealership, they issue a bill of sale. This document must be presented to register the vehicle. 
  • Odometer reading: In some cases, a DMV representative will check the odometer when you bring in the car to register it. Other states permit the owner to report the vehicle’s mileage.
  • Proof of insurance: Most states require car insurance that meets state-minimum liability requirements. Be ready to show an insurance card when you register. 
  • Identification: You need a current driver’s license in good standing to register a car. 
  • Method of payment: To pay registration or renewal fees, bring cash, check, or credit card. 

Visit your state DMV or department of transportation website for information about registration requirements, fees, and penalties for not having a current registration certificate. 

Article Sources
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  1. Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. "Vehicle Registration Fees."

  2. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles. "Payment and Fees."

  3. County of Hawaii. "Motor Vehicles-Fee Information."

  4. Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. "Schedule of Fees for Registration Classifications of Passenger Vehicle."

  5. Maine Legislature. "Title 29-A: Motor Vehicles and Traffic-Chapter 5: Vehicle Registration-Subchapter 1: Registration-Article 1: General Registration Requirements."

  6. Vermont General Assembly. "The Vermont Statutes Online-Title 23: Motor Vehicles-Chapter 7: Registration-Subchapter 1: General Registration."