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What Is Vehicle Registration? Defined & Explained

What Is Vehicle Registration? Definition
Kelly Boyer Sagert
Kelly Boyer SagertUpdated December 13, 2023
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Car registration is one of the documents you’ll need to legally drive a vehicle. States require registration in order to know who owns the car. You’ll likely be asked to show this document many times — to law enforcement, to officials when you’re having emissions testing done,  and to dealers or buyers when trading in, selling or refinancing the vehicle.The registration process can vary significantly by state. To help guide you through what’s needed to get your car registered, we’ll walk you through questions from “What is a car registration?” to “What are car registration fees?”

Car Registration Definition

Vehicle registration is one of two key pieces of documentation that people who own a car must have. The registration document is proof that you’ve signed up (“registered”) with the state you live in and are legally allowed to drive that vehicle on public roads. Note: Car registration documents need to be regularly renewed with a registration fee paid each time.This differs from the second key piece of documentation, the car title, which indicates you own the vehicle. Car titles don’t need to be renewed; it only changes when you pay off a vehicle (and the title is now 100% yours) or when the car is sold to another person.

Why Do You Have to Register Your Car?

Registration documents are used by state governments to establish who owns a vehicle, information they then use for more than one purpose, including when assessing taxes and searching for criminals.After you register your vehicle, you’ll be provided with license plates and, in some states, you’ll receive an updated sticker to place on your license plates each time you renew your registration paperwork.

What Happens if You Don't Register Your Car?

It’s illegal to drive an unregistered vehicle or one with an expired registration. Drivers are required to have their registration documentation in their vehicle and may be asked for it by law enforcement professionals if they’re stopped.If you cannot produce your car registration when asked to by the police, you face steep fines. Different states have different fines. In some states, the worst-case scenario is they will impound your car, you’ll be charged with a misdemeanor, and you could even face time in jail.Recommended: Can You Register Your Car Without a License?

How to Get a Car Registered

Specifics on how to get a car registered can vary by state. In general, however, you’ll register your vehicle with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or their transportation department.Here’s how the typical process works: 
  • You’ll show the registration office the title of your car to prove ownership. With a leased car, the lease agreement will be used. If this car is new to you (whether literally new or used), you’ll also provide a certificate of origin for a vehicle bought from a dealership or a bill of sale if you bought it from an individual. Be prepared to provide the odometer reading (the vehicle’s mileage), if asked. Although the car’s title should have the necessary information about your vehicle, it can help to know information about it, anyhow, such as the make, model, and year, as well as its vehicle identification number (VIN).
  • In some states (usually with a used car), you’ll have to show that your vehicle meets the state’s exhaust emission standards and is otherwise sound before renewing your registration.
  • Be ready to provide the registration office with proof of insurance. Again, state requirements vary. Have your driver’s license handy and, if newly moved to the state, proof of your address. Plus, you’ll pay registration fees each time.
Contact your state’s transportation department for specifics on what you need to register your vehicle.

When to Register a Car

The three main times you’ll register a vehicle are: 
  • When you’re buying it
  • If you’re moving to another state
  • When you’re renewing your registration according to your state’s schedule
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, individual states require registration renewal either annually or every other year.

Does Registration Transfer to a New Owner?

You only transfer a car registration if you move states or want to use the license plate from your previous car. If you buy a car without selling or trading in an old car, you would register that car with your state and receive a new license plate.

Do You Pay Registration on a Leased Vehicle?

When you sign a lease, you will also have to register the car with your state’s department of motor vehicles. Sometimes the dealership will register the car for you and pay the fee, but it’s important to make sure this is done by someone.Recommended: How Does Leasing a Car Work?

When Are Car Registration Documents Needed?

Car registration documents are needed if law enforcement asks to see a copy. If your state requires an emissions test, they may want to see this paperwork, so check yours for specifics. In Ohio, for example, the inspector may ask for either the title or registration, although there are ways to get the vehicle tested without them.Other times you’ll need your car registration documents are when you want to:

Trade in a Car

If you’re ready to trade in your vehicle to a dealership, most states require that you, at a minimum, present the title. They may require more information, including the registration form, so ask the dealer what they’ll need.

Refinance a Car

If you want to refinance an automobile, you’ll need to provide both your car title and the registration documents to the lender. Having all of your documentation in order will help to make the car refinance process run more smoothly. You may also want to consider ahead of time what questions to ask when refinancing a car, such as the interest rates and terms available. 

Buy a Car

When you buy a car, you’ll need to register it with your state’s DMV or transportation department; the specifics of the process will vary by state. Take the title or lien agreement and the certificate of origin or bill of sale with you when you do so.

Sell Your Vehicle

In most states, the sale of a vehicle requires the title and may also require that you provide your registration documentation. Check your state for specifics on what’s needed.

What Are Car Registration Fees?

Usually, you’ll pay a one-time title fee when you buy the vehicle and then an annual car registration fee (although some states charge this fee every other year). The amount of the car registration fee can vary significantly by state and can increase in price if you choose to buy vanity plates. Some states charge a flat fee while others use the vehicle’s age, gross weight, or fuel efficiency to calculate the amount charged.

Most Expensive States to Register a Vehicle

The most expensive states to register a vehicle include Florida at $225+ for one year, Oregon at $252-$312 for two to four years, and Maryland at $135-$187 for two years, according to

The Takeaway

There’s no doubt that vehicle registration is an essential document for a car owner. It’s the document that proves you’re legally allowed to drive on public roads. You’ll need to keep it in your vehicle when you drive and make sure it gets regularly renewed. Car registration is needed not only if you’re buying or reselling your car, but also if you want to refinance.If you’re looking to refinance your vehicle, consider Lantern by SoFi. With just one application, you can compare rates with multiple lenders, all with no obligation to you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does registering a vehicle cost?
Do you have to pay to register your car every year?
Are title and registration the same thing for a car?
Does every state require vehicle registration?
Photo credit: iStock/sabthai

About the Author

Kelly Boyer Sagert

Kelly Boyer Sagert

Kelly Boyer Sagert is an Emmy Award-nominated writer with decades of professional writing experience. As she was getting her writing career off the ground, she spent several years working at a savings and loan institution, working in the following departments: savings, loans, IRAs, and auditing. She has published thousands of pieces online and in print.
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