Everything you Need to Know About Vehicle Registration

February 1, 2021

vehicle registration required when police pull over

Key Takeaways:

  • Vehicle registration is documentation that you have registered your car with your state’s DMV and paid the associated fees. The phrase “vehicle registration” can also refer to the process of registering your vehicle with the state.
  • You must register any vehicle you intend to drive on the road. Each state defines how long you have to register a car after purchase or after moving into the state.
  • You need to register your vehicle at an address in the state the car will reside most of the time, and you must have insurance coverage in that same state.

Questions, Answered:

What are the four words you never want to hear when you’re behind the wheel? “License and registration, please.” That’s the go-to introduction from a highway patrol officer who’s about to write you an expensive ticket. And if you don’t have both the license and the vehicle registration, that ticket gets even more expensive.


Every state in the U.S. requires you to register your car and keep that registration current. Registration provides funding for your state’s DMV. But more importantly, registration gives the state an accurate record of who owns that car. If states didn’t require all car owners to register their vehicles, police would have trouble tracking down drivers who’ve left the scene of an accident or crime. As well, they wouldn’t be able to collect on things like red light violations caught on camera or even parking tickets. When an officer asks you for your registration, he or she is requesting proof that your state has recorded that vehicle and that you have paid the associated fees.

The penalties you face for not registering your car or for failing to keep your registration current can be steep. The exact consequences vary by state, but you can expect fees that rise over time. In Missouri, for example, you have to register your car within 30 days of purchase. On the 31st day, you owe a penalty of $25. Wait long enough and the penalty rises to $200.[1] If an officer stops you and you don’t have proof of current registration, that officer will cite you for driving an unregistered motor vehicle.[2]

How and when to register your vehicle

Most commonly, you need to register your car with your home state’s DMV right after you buy it. Depending on where you live, you may have a grace period of 30 days, after which the DMV will start charging fees. You can’t try to fudge on the date of the purchase to save on fees, either. To register the car, you have to present the title. That title generally will indicate the date you purchased the car. The DMV will use that date to determine if you owe any extra fees. If you do, you must pay the tab immediately to finish the registration process.  

You will also need to register any cars you own if you’ve recently moved to a new state.  The grace period in that scenario begins on the day you become a resident.

Necessary vehicle registration documents

If you purchased your vehicle from a dealer, the dealer normally packages up the documentation you need for registration. Unfortunately, you won’t get that service from a private party seller. And that means you’ll have to get organized on your own. Here are the documents you may have to supply to the DMV to register your car:

  • Vehicle title or copy of signed lease agreement: The vehicle title, also known as the pink slip, is the document that shows who owns the car. If you’ve leased the car, you don’t have the title because you’re not the owner. In that case, the DMV will accept a copy of the lease agreement instead.
  • Your driver’s license.
  • Registration application: Your DMV will provide the registration application.
  • Proof you are current on state taxes: If you live in a state that charges personal property taxes, the DMV will ask for your current property tax statement. You may also need to show proof that you’ve paid sales tax on the car, unless your DMV collects the sales tax when you register.  
  • Proof the car has passed an emissions test or smog check. This will depend on the age of the vehicle and the laws in your state. California, for example, requires smog checks on all vehicles model year 1976 or newer.[3]
  • Proof the car has passed a safety inspection, if required in your state.
  • Your insurance card. The DMV needs to verify that you have secured insurance for the vehicle.
  • VIN and odometer inspection. This requirement may apply if you’ve just moved into the state.[4]

Cost of vehicle registration

Every state has its own registration fee structure. Your DMV might charge a registration fee, license plate fee, and title fee. Your DMV may also collect big ticket items like sales tax or property tax on the vehicle when you register. If you don’t owe any taxes, your registration costs could be less than $100. Otherwise, your tab could be several thousand dollars. Arkansas, for example, charges up to $30 for the actual registration, but then you’ll also pay a $1 license fee plus state sales tax at 7.5% of the car’s value. There’s also personal property tax of 0.65% of the car’s value, but the state collects this amount later. On a $30,000 car, you would owe more than $2,200 at the time of registration.[5]

Compare.com provides a nice overview of car ownership fees by state here.

Vehicle registration FAQs

As life would have it, you may be in a situation where you don’t want to register your car in your home state or you don’t have access to some of the required documents. This FAQ section covers those less common vehicle registration scenarios.

Can I register a car in another state?

Yes, but only if the car will remain at an address in that state for more than half of the year. Otherwise, if you try to register the car in a different state from where you live currently, or plan to live soon, you are committing fraud.

Do I have to register and insure my car in the same state?

Yes, you do have to register and insure your car in the same state. You might temporarily have your car registered and insured in two different states because you’ve moved, although this is unlikely. But if it happens, you have to fix it within the new resident grace period defined by your state — usually 30 days. Your registration, driver’s license, and auto insurance all must reflect your home state.[6]

If you spend time in two states, register and insure the car in the state that’s your primary residence according to your tax returns. Be sure to discuss your situation with your auto insurer, though, to make sure you have coverage when you’re traveling.  

Can I register a car without the title?         

No, you cannot register a vehicle without a title or title application prepared by a dealer. If you or the car’s former owner has lost the title, you can get a Bonded Title or Lost Vehicle Title Bond. Ask your DMV for the required bond amount and then contact a bonding agency that’s licensed in your state for next steps.[7]

Can I register a car without a license?

Usually, you need a valid driver’s license to register a car. An exception would be if your business will use the car and your employees will drive it. In that case, you’d register your business as the owner and  require your drivers have licenses.

Vehicle registration can be tedious and even expensive. But it’s a process you legally need to complete — that is, if you want to enjoy driving your new car. Remember, proof of registration is one of the first things an officer will ask you for roadside — and that’s not a situation where it’s acceptable to say you hadn’t gotten around to it.



Motor vehicle titling. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://dor.mo.gov/motorv/titling.php


Driving or parking unregistered motor vehicle, $54. (2020, December 9). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.avvo.com/legal-answers/39-3-4–driving-or-parking-unregistered-motor-vehi-5050431.html


California smog check exemptions & requirements. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.dmv.org/ca-california/smog-check.php


 Motor vehicle titling. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://dor.mo.gov/motorv/titling.php


Vehicle title, tax, insurance & registration costs by state for 2021. (2020, December 22). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.compare.com/auto-insurance/coverage/vehicle-costs


 Can my car be registered In one state and Insured In another? (2020, December 10). Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.motor1.com/reviews/408677/can-my-car-be-registered-in-one-state-and-insured-in-another/


Bonded titles. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.suretybondsdirect.com/surety-bond/certificate-of-title-bond

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