Register a Car

Registration is legally required for every car, truck, trailer, and many other vehicles that are owned throughout the United States. Vehicles must be registered before being driven on the streets in the US. Keeping a motor vehicle registered is a law in each state. Some states require registration renewal every year, and other states only require initial registration, or mandate renewal every 2 or 3 years. While most states have their own procedures and requirements for registrations, the basic steps are fairly similar across the country. For new purchases or leases from commercial dealers, the dealer will probably take care of the registration for you. This article is designed to address the times when you need to take care of registration on your own.


Contacting DMV for Instructions

  1. Start at the source. Every state has an agency called either the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Motor Vehicle Bureau, or some other similar name. Whatever the name, this will be the agency that controls your car registration. A quick Internet search for “car registration” and “<State Name>” will probably get you right where you need to go.
  2. Review the website. The official website will usually tell you all the documents that you will need to provide to register your vehicle.
  3. Call the office for personal assistance. If you cannot find all the answers that you need online, or if you still have questions that remain unanswered, locate the telephone number for the office nearest to you and call for assistance.

Collecting the Necessary Documents

  1. Bring proof of ownership. In most states, you will need to bring the Title Certificate or some other proof of ownership.[1]
  2. Be prepared to show proof of identification. This is mostly likely your current driver’s license, or some other identification card.[2]
  3. Bring proof of sale. An acceptable bill of sale must generally include a description of the make and model of the car, the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), date of sale, purchase price, and the names of the both the seller and buyer.[3]
  4. Have proof of insurance. You will need to check with the agency ahead of time to find out just what form of proof of insurance they require. Some will have a particular form; some will require a sticker, seal or stamp. Some will have certain timelines that the proof of insurance can be no more than a certain amount of time before the date of the registration. Plan ahead and follow the instructions.[4]
  5. Have proof of inspection. An inspection is not required in all states, while other states may require very thorough inspections. Make sure you know what is required in your state. [5]

Completing the Application Form

  1. Print the form. Most states require a completed registration application form, which you can print from the website or pick up in a registry office.
  2. Complete the form carefully. Be sure to complete the portions of the form that apply to what you wish to do. The New York State form, for example, uses a single form to Register a Vehicle, Change a Registration, Renew a Registration, Replace Lost or Damaged Registration, Get a Title Only, and Transfer Plates. Make sure that you mark only what you need.[6]
  3. Complete all the identifying information carefully and completely. Omitting information, or writing illegibly, will delay your application or could create errors on your registration form.[7]
  4. Provide all requested information about the vehicle. You will be asked to describe the year, make and model of the car, and provide the VIN. Be careful to provide this accurately. Errors on the application form can lead to errors on the final registration, which can be difficult to correct later.[8]

Submitting the Paperwork

  1. Find out if you can register online. Many states have a service that will allow you to submit your paperwork for registration through their website.
    • For example, New York has an “E-Z Visit” service that will let you start your application online, which will then reduce the time you need to spend at the registry office.
    • Another example, Pennsylvania will let you renew your registration online, as long as you meet certain qualifications.
    • You will want to check your own state’s site to learn your options.
  2. Register in person. Use the state’s website to locate the registry office that is closest to you. You may also be able to find out if appointment times are available, to reduce your wait time at the office. Take your completed forms and payment for all required fees to the office.
  3. Call ahead about fee payment. The registration fee is based on the value of the vehicle that you are registering. You may not know the exact amount of the fee before going to the office, but you can find out ahead of time what forms of payment are accepted. Most offices will accept cash, checks, money orders, or credit and debit cards. You should check with the office ahead of time to confirm which methods of payment will be acceptable and to get an estimate of the amount of the fee.

Maintaining Future Registration

  1. Keep up with registration renewals. States require various frequency levels for registration renewals. Some will have to renew every year, while others are less frequent. There will be a fee for renewal, and most renewals can happen online or through the mail. While in-person registrations are necessary initially, renewals are quicker and require less paperwork.
  2. Keep organized files. Keep copies of all registration materials, renewals, and fees paid. This will provide proof of registration and save time when the renewal date approaches on a regular basis.
  3. Keep your license plates current. With each registration renewal, many states provide a stamp, sticker or decal to affix to your license plate. If you forget to apply this when it arrives, you may be stopped and ticketed for having an expired registration.


  • Remember to allow enough time for the process. Motor vehicle agencies are traditionally busy and understaffed. Schedule at least 1 hour for the registration process.


  • Watch for unofficial sites that appear to be official. For example, the site appears very official and has information from every state. The information, here or at similar sites, is often credible; but the site carries a disclaimer that “this is a privately owned website that is not owned or operated by any state government agency.” Additionally, this particular site charges a “convenience fee” for most transactions over and above any official fee.


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