In order to obtain a vehicle registration for the first time, you must bring the following items to the vehicle registration authority (often called the Department of Motor Vehicles, or DMV):

The vehicle's properly assigned title, released of liens

You can't register a vehicle that you don't own. You must provide the prior owner's title to the vehicle, and the prior owner must have properly signed the seller's section of the title. If the title has any liens listed, it must also be accompanied by a lien release letter, on the lender's letterhead, signed in ink.

Application for registration (where required)

Most states have their own registration application form. This is where the new owner's name and address, as well as vehicle details are recorded for submission.

Your photo ID

Most states require registration applicants to provide photo identification. Many states require an in-state driver's license to register a vehicle.

Your in-state address

Remember: the states, not the federal government, manage vehicle registrations. In order to register a vehicle in a particular state, you must provide an address in that state.

Proof of residency (where required)

Thirteen US states and Washington, D.C., require a registration applicant to prove residency in that state (or district). These states usually require multiple pieces of evidence; bank statements, utility bills, and lease agreements are commonly accepted.

Proof of lawful presence (where required)

Colorado and Massachusetts allow applicants who do not have a US driver’s license or social security number to register a vehicle when providing proof of lawful presence in America. Both states accept a current, valid foreign passport with a current, valid US visa, accompanied by an US Citizenship and Immigration Form I-94 Record of Arrival and Departure.

Liability insurance (where required)

All states and Washington, D.C. require drivers on public roads to maintain liability insurance at all times. In some states, proof of insurance is required to register a vehicle; other states require it to drive, but do not check it at the time of registration.

Vehicle inspection (where required)

Each of the states sets its own inspection requirements, which fall generally into three categories: emissions, safety, and VIN

  • Emissions inspections (also known as smog checks) are generally required in areas with high population density that are prone to smog

  • Safety inspections vary from state to state. Some states perform simple visual checks (lights, horn, signals), while others require more extensive inspections (brake and seatbelt functionality, etc.).

  • VIN inspections help control the registration of stolen vehicles. Some states require a state official to physically verify that the VIN on the chassis matches the VIN on the application for registration and title. This check is most common for vehicles purchased in another state.

Taxes and Fees

Taxes and fees are due upon registration. Each state sets its own fees and levies its own taxes, and the costs vary widely from state to state (and municipality to municipality). For instance, taxes and fees in California usually amounts to 8-10% of the vehicle's value, while some states (Montana, Oregon, and New Hampshire) tax vehicles at a rate of 0%. Important note: Taxes and fees are assessed by the state in which the vehicle is registered, not the state in which it was purchased. (If vehicles were taxed where they were purchased, California residents would simply hop over to tax-free Montana to buy vehicles, depriving California of tax revenue.)

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