What is Vehicle Registration?

Vehicle registration is a legal necessity proving you have paid all the fees and taxes to drive your car on public roads. It is not the same as car insurance.
Written by Jacoba Bood
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
Vehicle registration is a fee paid to your local DMV to prove that you have paid the fines and taxes to drive your car on public roads.
If you own a car, you are legally required to register it with your local state DMV. You will also have to renew your registration on an annual or biennial basis to keep it up to date.
Driving without registration can result in costly fines or penalties, not to mention
car insurance premium increases
. Keeping your registration up to date will help you save money in the long run.
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How does vehicle registration work?

You will need to register your vehicle to drive it legally. Vehicle registration fees are paid through your state DMV or transportation board.

What is a vehicle registration number and registration card?

When you register your car with your local DMV, you will receive a vehicle registration number. This number can be found on your vehicle registration card.
Your registration card will be given to you by your DMV after you pay your registration fees. Some states also provide registration stickers to put on your car window or license plate to make it easier to identify your registration number.
Always make sure that your registration number is stored in a safe place and is easily accessible. You will have to provide your registration number if you get stopped by the police. You will need to have it handy to take out an insurance policy or make a claim as well.
Key Takeaway It's essential to have your vehicle registration number and card in your vehicle at all times.

When do you need to register your vehicle?

There are a few situations where you should be registering your vehicle.

Buying a new car

Before you can take ownership of a car, you will have to register that vehicle with your state DMV.
If you
buy a new car
from a dealership, they will handle the registration process for you before they complete the sale. However, if you
buy a car through a private seller
, you will be responsible for registering the vehicle and purchasing insurance before you get behind the wheel.

When your registration period ends

In most states, you will have to renew your registration every one to two years.
Each state sets its own requirements for how often you have to renew your car’s registration. Be sure to check in with your local DMV if you want to find out more about the registration requirements specific to your state.
You could be subject to fines if you are caught driving with an expired registration, so be sure to stay on top of your renewal periods to avoid snags.

If you move across state lines

If you move to a new state, you will need to register the car in your new location.
Exceptions are usually made for active military members or full-time students, but be sure to check in with your new state DMV to find out for sure.

How do I register my vehicle?

You will need to contact your state DMV or transportation agency to find out how to register your car.
Most states will provide multiple options for handling your registration, whether it be by phone, online, or in person. If it is your first time registering any particular car, you will probably have to head to your local DMV branch in person.
Visit your local DMV online or in-person to find out how to register a car in your state.

Documents for first-time registration

Your DMW will be able to tell you more about the documents you need to have on hand to register your car for the first time.
Depending on the state you live in, you might have to provide any of the following items.
  • A valid driver’s license or non-owner identification card
  • Proof of insurance
    and/or sales tax payment
  • Your
    car title
    or copy of a lease agreement
  • A safety inspection and/or smog test certificate
Be sure that you have gathered all relevant documents beforehand and have them with you during your visit to the DMV.
MORE: How to pass emissions testing

Online renewal documents

If you have already registered your car before, you can renew your registration online or by mail.
Your state DMV website will tell you exactly what you need to provide but it is common to ask for the following during the renewal process.
  • Your vehicle identification number and license plate number
  • Your driver’s license number
  • Your current vehicle registration card
  • Your car insurance details

How much will it cost to register your car?

Your vehicle registration fees and how they are calculated will depend on the state that you live in.
Some states charge a flat fee to register a car, while others will take the make, model, and other details of your vehicle into consideration.
Be warned that registration fees can differ significantly from state to state. Some states will charge as little as $21 per renewal, while others might charge hundreds for the same period. You will have to check in with your local DMV to better understand what to expect.
Registering your vehicle might seem like a pain, but the amount you will have to pay pales in comparison to the potential costs of not registering your car.
If you get caught driving an unregistered vehicle, you could be subject to hefty fees or fines, and your vehicle could even end up impounded. Your car insurance premiums will increase as well—all the more reason to use
to help you save.
Tip Depending on your state, registration fees could be anywhere from $21 to hundreds of dollars.

Is vehicle registration the same as insurance?

No. Vehicle registration is not the same thing as car insurance. The difference is that insurance will help cover the costs if you get in an accident—and vehicle registration will not.
Even if your vehicle is already registered, you will still need to purchase insurance before you can take it out on the road.
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