When you buy a new or used car, you are responsible for making sure it is registered in your name with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in your state. Driving an unregistered car can result in severe fines and penalties.
How to register a vehicle depends on where you buy it: Dealership sales differ from private sales. There is also a difference between not registering a vehicle at all after purchase and not having or providing proof of valid registration if you are pulled over by police.
Registration at a Dealership
Most of the time, when you buy a vehicle through a dealership, the dealer handles the title and registration paperwork for you. Before you drive off, the dealer gives you a temporary registration card to carry in the vehicle until DMV sends you the new registration card.
At most dealerships, you receive your updated title and registration without having to do anything after signing the purchase agreement. This applies to buying either a new or a used car at an auto lot. However, you are ultimately responsible for making sure all of the documents are correctly issued, and you may want to do a DMV registration check to be sure everything is filed correctly.
Registration for Private Party Sales
When you buy a car from a private party, the seller and buyer both sign the title. You then take the signed-over title to DMV and register the vehicle in your name and receive a new registration card to carry in the vehicle.
State laws differ regarding the length of time a person has to register a newly purchased car, truck, or RV from a private sale. In California, it is 10 days. Before buying a car from a private party, check with your state DMV office to find out the specific details for your area.
When you register the vehicle, you may also be required to provide:
- Current smog certificate
- Proof of auto insurance
- Personal identification
- Registration Fees
Unregistered vs. Proof of Registration
In all states, it is illegal to drive a vehicle if it has never been registered in that state. When you move to a new state, you have a certain period of time to register your vehicles and get new state license plates. In California, it is 20 days.
It is a separate offense to drive without proof of valid registration in the car, to drive with an expired registration, or to drive without registration stickers.
The penalties for driving with expired registration increase the longer the registration has elapsed. If the registration has only expired recently, charges are likely to be just a non-moving violation infraction. If registration has been expired for a long time, the charges can go up to a moving violation, resulting in driving record points.
Vehicles Not Requiring Registration
In most states, if a vehicle is not driven and is stored off of public streets, it can be registered as ‘non-operational,’ and current registration papers and tags are no longer required. Off-highway vehicles (OHV) also do not need to be registered with DMV, but they also cannot be driven on public streets or highways.