How to file a car insurance claim

To file a car insurance claim, contact your insurance provider to report the incident and work with the claims adjuster who will investigate the damage. The cost to repair any damage will help determine the full amount of your payout.

Stephanie Nieves author photo


Stephanie Nieves

Stephanie Nieves

Editor & Home and Auto Insurance Expert

Stephanie Nieves is a former editor and insurance expert at Policygenius, where she covered home and auto insurance. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Money, HerMoney, PayScale, and The Muse.

Published July 2, 2020 | 7 min read

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Key Takeaways

  • To file a claim, contact your insurance company using their website or mobile app or call them directly

  • Review the details of your policy with your insurance provider so you’re clear on what damage is covered

  • Work with your claims adjuster as they investigate the damage and determine the final settlement amount

Accidents happen no matter how safe a driver you are. But whether you’re the at-fault driver in a collision or you were hit by someone else, your car insurance can offer the financial protection you need after an accident, and make sure you’re not left on the hook for expensive damage.

In the event of an accident, you should file a claim with your insurance company as soon as possible. You may be able to access your insurer’s website or mobile app through your phone, or call them directly to get started — even from the scene of an accident.

Your insurer will assign you a claims adjuster who will investigate the damage and help determine your settlement amount. Your claims representative may even visit the auto body shop where your car is being repaired to get a full picture of the damage and come up with a reasonable estimate for the costs. At the end of the process, your insurance company will off a final payout amount, which you’ll typically receive within 30 to 45 days of your insurer accepting the claim.

In this article:

What to do after a car accident

There are several steps you should take at the scene of an accident to ensure your safety and the safety of others. Many of these steps will also provide you with the information you need to file a claim.

First, make sure everyone is safe and that anyone involved in the accident remains at the scene. Then, call 911 and gather the following information while you wait for the police and first responders to arrive:

  • Policy numbers, names, and phone numbers of everyone involved

  • Photos of the damage and the scene of the accident

  • License plate numbers and the make and model of each car involved

  • Names of witnesses and the responding police officer

  • Details of the incident including the order of events, location, and weather

For a claim to be filed, insurers often require you to report the accident to the police within 24 hours, so it’s best to make that call immediately following the incident. When the first responders arrive, everyone will likely be assessed for injuries and the officer assigned to your call will make an official report as they collect your statement and the statements of all involved parties.

You may also be asked to take photographs of the damage for evidence. (You should only discuss details of the accident, including who was at fault, with the police officer, not with any other drivers).

Filing a car insurance claim: A step-by-step guide

You can start filing a claim at the scene of the accident if your insurance company has a mobile app you can access by phone. You can also file a claim once you’re home, through your insurance company’s website or by calling your provider directly. When an accident that is covered by your policy occurs, take the following steps to file a claim:

1. Contact your insurance company and file a claim

Reach out to your insurance company and provide the information you gathered from the scene. Most insurance companies have a claims portal where you can start the process, and they may even provide you with a checklist of information you’ll need to provide.

This includes the policy numbers of everyone involved in the accident, photos of the damage, license plate numbers, and a description of each car involved. Once you’ve filed the initial claim, you’ll receive a claims number that you can use to track the status of your claim as it moves through the process.

You should also review the details of your policy so you’re clear on what types of damage are covered. For example, your collision coverage may cover the damage your vehicle sustained, but you’ll want to confirm your deductible amount so you know how much you’ll need to pay out of pocket before your insurance company will agree to cover the rest. You should also confirm your coverage limits as they are stated in your policy; this is the maximum amount your insurance company is willing to pay out.

If you have rental reimbursement coverage, you’ll be covered up to a certain amount if you need to rent a car while yours undergoes repairs in an auto shop.

Learn more about how to get a rental car from an insurance claim after an accident

2. Work with your claims adjuster

Once your claim is filed, your insurance company will assign you a claims adjuster or representative who will investigate the accident and help determine how much your payout will be. The claims adjuster will help reach an estimate of how much the repairs will cost after inspecting your vehicle and investigating your losses to better understand who was at fault and how much damage was sustained during the accident.

In some cases, you may also need to provide an estimate for the costs of repairs which you can get from an auto body shop, or from multiple shops if you want to compare quotes. Your claims adjuster may even visit the auto body shop where your car’s undergoing repairs to confirm the legitimacy of your claim.

3. Get your car repaired

The repair shop you choose will inspect your vehicle for damage and may send a report to your insurance company directly, especially if you select an auto body shop that your insurer recommends. Many insurance companies partner with repair shops, and choosing one that your insurance company suggests can help streamline the claims process.

When determining how much they’ll pay toward your vehicle’s repairs, your insurance company will take into account the repair shop's estimate along with your claim adjuster’s inspection. You should save any receipts and communication you have with the repair shop, as you may need it during the claims process.

4. Receive a settlement

The final estimate of your payout is determined after the auto body shop and claims adjuster have investigated the damage. Your insurance company will either pay the repair shop directly in what’s called a first-party claim, or hand the money over to you, in which case you would settle the bill. You'll typically receive the payout in check form, if it comes straight to you.

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Is it worth it to file a car insurance claim?

A claims payout can provide the financial protection you need after an accident, but not every fender-bender warrants filing a claim. Ask yourself the the following questions to determine whether or not you should file a claim:

  • Was anyone else involved? If other people were involved in the collision, you should almost always file a claim through your insurance. You won’t know how much damage either car has sustained until after they’ve been inspected by a claims adjuster and an auto body shop. You also don’t want to make a verbal agreement, then wind up spending more money down the road or getting into a legal dispute because you underestimated the costs of damage.

  • Are the costs to repair the damage lower than your deductible? If the damage costs less to repair than the deductible you need to pay to get covered, you can probably pay those costs out of pocket. Remember that filing a claim may also raise your insurance rates, costing you more over time.

Learn more about when you should file a claim and when you should pay out of pocket

When not to file a claim

As mentioned above, you may want to avoid filing a claim if the damage to your car will cost less to repair than your deductible amount. For example, if your windshield is smashed by a fallen branch and will cost $600 to repair, but your deductible for collision coverage is $1,000, you’d want to pay the $600 out of pocket since you would need to spend $400 more before your insurance will cover the cost.

The same goes for if you accidentally back into a fire hydrant and dent your bumper. The costs to repair your bumper may be less than your deductible amount, but also, since no one else was involved in the collision, it may not make sense to escalate the incident to your insurance company.

In general, if the damage is minor and there’s no one else involved in the accident, you can avoid risking higher premiums by paying for damage to your car on your own. Your insurance rates are determined based on your driving and claims history, so every time you file a claim, you risk raising your rates.

Who should file the claim

When there are two parties involved, you should generally both file claims through your respective insurance companies in order to ensure that everyone receives the liability expenses they are owed. Their liability coverage will render a payout for any bodily injury and property damage caused by the at-fault driver. If there is a question of fault, the insurance companies will jointly determine who is at-fault for what damage.

Even if the other driver is at-fault, your provider may be able to give you the resources you need to ensure that the at-fault driver fulfills your claim, and if their insurance isn’t sufficient, your insurance may still be necessary to cover some of the damage they caused.

Filing a third-party claim

Sometimes, if one driver is clearly the one at-fault, instead of both parties filing claims with their insurance companies, the driver who was the victim can file a third-party claim, or liability claim, with the at-fault driver’s insurance. The process for filing a third-party claim is very similar to filing a claim with your own insurer. The biggest difference is that you don’t have to be a policyholder to file a third party claim, since you’re filing it against another driver.

For example, if the driver who hit you has an insurance policy with Company A but you have a policy with Company B, you can go to Company A directly and file a third-party claim even though you don’t have a policy with them. This also works the other way around: If you hit someone, they can file a third-party claim against you with your insurance company.

If you file a third-party claim and it is accepted by the at-fault driver’s insurance, their liability coverage will pay for your expenses or repairs, up to their limits.