There’s lots of paperwork involved when it comes to buying a new car. You may need to finance it with an auto loan or shop around for a lease, you need to find an affordable car insurance policy that meets your needs, and you need to register your new vehicle at a local DMV.
Your car registration and title are necessary documents — but what do they each mean, and why do you need both? A car’s registration basically proves you’ve signed up your car with the state and are cleared to legally drive it. Car registrations must be renewed regularly, and each time you renew you’ll pay a registration fee. A car title, also known as a pink slip, is a single document that establishes the legal owner of a vehicle and only needs to be changed if the owner changes, or if you’ve paid off a car loan and the title is now yours alone.
You may be required to provide similar documents for both your car registration and car title, but the two serve different purposes and both will be necessary for driving your vehicle safely and legally in your state.
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What’s a car registration?
A car registration is documentation that proves you’ve registered your vehicle in your state and have paid any relevant taxes and fees. Your vehicle may also need to pass a vehicle safety and emissions inspection within a week of registering the car in certain states.
When you first register your vehicle, you typically receive a license plate and a registration document or a sticker to place on your windshield as proof. After initially registering a new car, you’ll have to return to renew your vehicle registration every 1-2 years, depending on the vehicle and your local rules.
Registering your car is important because it makes your vehicle known to the state, and allows your vehicle to drive on public roads. It is also required in all 50 states for any vehicle you own or lease. In some states, you can face a fine or jail time for driving an unregistered vehicle.
If you’ve moved across state lines, you should register your car with your new state at the same time that you go to exchange your out-of-state license. Many states require you to update your license and registration within a certain number of days of becoming a state resident. And don’t forget to update your car insurance before you move, whether you’re moving down the block or across the country.
When does car registration expire?
A car registration expiration date will vary based on the state you live in, but most will typically need to be renewed every 12 months to two years. That’s the case with Vermont (every year or two), South Carolina (every two years), and Florida (every year or two).
In other states, like Wisconsin, car registration will expire on December 31st while in Michigan, a car registration will expire on the car owner’s birthday.
How to register your vehicle
The car registration process varies across the U.S. because each state has its own DMV rules and fees. But regardless of where you live, the first thing you’ll want to do is check with your DMV or equivalent agency for guidelines about how to register a vehicle in your state.
Some dealers may be able to issue you a temporary paper tag and temporary registration for a fee when you buy a new car. When you register at a dealership, you’ll likely be given a 30-day temp tag and your license plates may also be mailed to you. But before that 30-day period is up, you’ll need to take the following steps to register your car in your state:
1. Insure your new vehicle
It’s a requirement in most states to insure your new vehicle before you can register it. You can register your car at a local DMV (some states allow you to do this online) where you’ll be asked to show proof of insurance as part of the paperwork. To find the best car insurance policy, choose the coverage types, limits and deductible amounts you want. Then, compare quotes from multiple carriers to find the best price. Buying a car insurance policy is usually simple, and can often be completed in one day. If you have car insurance already, adding a new car to your policy is also quick and easy.
2. Gather your documents
Before you head to the DMV or go to register online, make sure you have all the documents you need to register your vehicle. In most states, you’ll be asked to provide the following:
Proof of payment for taxes and fees (or proof of exemption)
Vehicle registration application
Statement of transaction
The bill of sale
In some states, you may also need a vehicle safety and emissions inspection to determine whether or not your car is safe to drive and ensure that it passes the requirements for air quality. To be sure, you can call your local DMV ahead of time to confirm what paperwork will be necessary for registering a car in your state.
3. Fill out a registration form
Registration forms can be filled out in person at your local DMV or online, and will require you to provide your vehicle identification number, your driver’s license ID number, and current license plate number.
You may also be asked to disclose any damage or modifications made to the vehicle and pay a registration fee as part of the application. The fee can range anywhere from $20 to $150 depending on what state you live in, the kind of car you’re registering, and its weight. If you drive an electric vehicle or hybrid, you may need to pay more in some states.
What’s a car title?
A car title is a document that establishes the legal owner of a registered vehicle. Similar to a car’s registration, it can be issued by your local DMV. But while registration proves a vehicle has been cleared to be drive by the state and the appropriate fees have been paid, a title indicates who owns the vehicle, as well as details about it like make, model, year and whether or not it has ever been “totaled,” or deemed a total loss after a past accident or theft.
When a car is sold, the seller will need to transfer ownership of the vehicle to the buyer. Depending on the state, a transfer of ownership form may need to be filled out, or the buyer may need to take the signed title to their local DMV to retrieve a new registration and title for the vehicle. Similarly, when you pay off your car loan and become the sole owner of your car, you’ll receive a title that only lists you, not the lienholder.
A car can have multiple owners, but they will all need to be reflected in the car title. Anyone listed on a car title will have the legal right to register or sell the vehicle.
Your car title may include the following information:
The name of the vehicle’s owner(s) (be it yourself or a lienholder)
Your car’s year, make and model
Your car’s title “type”
The title’s issue date
How to transfer a car title
To transfer ownership of a vehicle to someone else, the original owner (or person selling the vehicle) must sign the transfer section of their car title. The new owner then takes the title to their state’s DMV or equivalent agency, where a new title will be issued. In many states, the transfer form must be notarized, and an odometer disclosure statement and bill of sale may also need to be signed.
Car title types
In addition to proving ownership, a car title can identify whether or not it's been totaled in an accident and can fall under one of the following types:
Car title type
What it means
Clean title cars are those with no reported accidents or that haven’t sustained any major damage that would consider it a total loss
A clear title car is one with a sole, undisputed owner. A car that is leased or financed with a loan may not be considered a clear title car since both the driver and lienholder or lessor have a stake in the vehicle
Salvage title vehicles have been deemed a total loss, and cannot typically be driven or insured until they’ve been restored to rebuilt title status
A rebuilt title car is one that’s been restored after sustaining significant damage. Someone with a rebuilt title car will still be able to get liability insurance, but may not be able to insure the car itself