Car Registration Process Step by Step
- by: Patrick Peterson
- October 15, 2020
Registering a car is pretty easy if you are well prepared with the proper documentation, and you go to the correct location (either your town office or local Department of Motor Vehicles office). The process is usually the same regardless of whether you bought a new or used vehicle.
What Is a Vehicle Registration?
Vehicle registration is an essential legal document that registers your car and you as the owner with your state of residence. Before you can drive legally on the roads, you must register your vehicle with your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Typically, a car registration is a small piece of paper or card that you must carry with you in the vehicle at all times.
If police stop you for driving infractions, they will ask to see the registration. Law enforcement has access to all driving records. Using your vehicle registration, they can pull up your record to see if you have any outstanding violations, parking tickets, or warrants. The information contained on a vehicle registration may include:
- Your name and address
- Car year, make, model, and color
- Trim level or class
- Driver's license number and class
- The date issued
- Expiration date
- VIN (vehicle identification number)
- State registration fees paid
- Town registration fees paid
- License plate number
- Lienholder (if applicable)
- Auto insurance information
What Is The Vehicle Registration Process?
Registering a vehicle is slightly different depending on where in the country you live in. Each state has laws dictating the frequency, requirements, and documentation you need to register a new or used vehicle.
Get Your Paperwork Together
Depending on whether you are registering a new car or used, you may need to bring different paperwork. However, the standard documents you will need are:
- Your driver's license or ID card
- Social security card
- Proof of residence (utility bill or lease agreement)
- Your current car registration
- Vehicle title application or pink slip from the dealer
- Transferred certificate of title
- Proof of insurance with insurance company information on it. Most states require liability insurance at least
- Proof of sales tax or property taxes paid
- A passed safety inspection (some states require this before registration)
- A passed smog or emissions test
- Odometer reading
- Current license plate number
- Completed registration application
- Additional information as needed
You can always call your local DMV office to find out what exact paperwork you will need to register your car, truck, or another type of vehicle like a moped. Every state varies in their insurance requirements so be sure to check on those as well.
Visit Your DMV Or Local Town Office
Some states allow you to register your vehicle by visiting your town office. In others, you must go to your local DMV location. Most allow walk-in service, but sometimes you need to make an appointment. Check with your state to determine the specific instructions on where and how you can register your car.
Bring all your paperwork with you and money to pay the fees. Some places require you to pay with a check or cash, and others take debit and credit cards. A quick call beforehand will ensure you have the right payment method before showing up.
Fill Out The Paperwork & Sign Your New Registration
You may be required to fill out paperwork, such as a title application or registration app. Sometimes you can find these forms online and print them to fill out before you arrive. You may have to request them at the DMV when it is your turn. Once you have signed the paperwork and filled out your forms, you will have to pay the fees. You will need the following information when filling out forms:
- Your name and address
- Your vehicle make, model, year, trim level, and color
- Driver's license number
- License plate number
Car Registration Fees
Each state charges different registration fees. The local town where you live will also charge a fee. Some portion of the cost goes to your license plates and tags (stickers) that go on them.
Put Your Stickers and Plates On Your Car
Upon completion, the attendant will hand you your car registration, license plates (if new), and stickers. You must put these on your car and keep your car registration in your vehicle at all times. Most people store them in the glove box.
Have Your Car Inspected
A few states like New Hampshire require you to have your car inspected by a state-authorized inspection station after getting your new registration. Other states may require you to have the vehicle inspected before registering. The smog or emissions test will be a part of this process.
How To Register a New Car
When you purchase a new car, the process will be the same except that you must have a completed title application and a bill of sale. Typically, a dealer will give this to you when you purchase the car. It is often pink and has all the information on it, and you can simply hand it to the person at the DMV. You will have to fill out the other required paperwork and pay the same fees.
The state tends to charge more for new car registrations than older cars. Sometimes the dealership can take care of the title and car registration for you, so you won't have to do a thing except drive home with your new car.
Vehicle Registration Renewal
Each state has a different process for vehicle registration renewals. Once you have registered your new vehicle for the first time, each year after should be quicker and easier. Some states allow you to register for multiple years and others require you to re-register every year.
Most states have an area on their DMV website where you can renew online and pay via a credit card. If they do not, they often allow you to renew by mail. Typically, every state will send you a reminder a few weeks or months in advance that your car registration is coming up for renewal and must be completed by a specific date.
Driving without a valid registration is illegal, and you may face fines, your car may be towed, and you'll have to pay to get it back, and you could even lose your license.
How To Check a Vehicle Registration Status Online
Some Department of Motor Vehicles websites (.gov) allows you to check your vehicle registration status online. In those cases where your state does not offer that, you can use third-party informational portals to look up either your VIN or your license plate number and see a ton of information, including whether or not your registration is valid and up to date.