Updated: Nov 25, 2022
Having a car in the US is a necessity unless you live in a well-developed metropolitan area.
There is rarely a well-functioning public transport network and only occasionally will you find a short stretch of cycle or pedestrian path. So, if you are in a smaller town or even in a rural area, you cannot avoid a vehicle.
Buying a car is one thing, being able to legally drive it is quite another. Especially if you are new to the area and might still be setting up all your paperwork, it can be confusing as to what to do first.
In this post I will cover the registration part. All other documents such as a driver's license or car insurance must already be available.
Buying a car in the US from a dealership
If you have just moved to the US, you are unlikely to buy from a dealership (unless you are buying the entire car for cash).
But if that's the case, the dealer usually takes care of all the paperwork and administrative work. You only pay the fees as part of the total price of the vehicle, including license plate and registration fees and sales tax.
After the successful purchase, you can drive off in your new car with a short-term license plate and will receive a new license plate and registration sticker in the mail a few weeks later.
Buying a car in the USA from a private person
If you bought from a private person, you have the pleasure of doing all that yourself. Some of the requirements differ from state to state, but the following info is usually the base requirements.
First off, your car needs to pass the state inspection at a certified place (most mechanic shops are). Give them a call before you go, since depending on the state, you might need to bring your proof of insurance.
Next come the license plate and registration sticker, which you can obtain from the local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). Each state has its own DMV office, for example North Carolina, Texas or California.
Again, I recommend calling ahead to find out which office handles registrations, if you need an appointment, and if any additional papers (than those below) are required.
You usually need to bring the vehicle inspection report, US driver's license, proof of insurance, notarized vehicle title and the bill of sale. As some offices do not accept card payment, also bring some extra cash to pay the sales tax on the vehicle.
In some cases, you get the plates immediately (if you do not request a personalized one), in other cases you get a temporary plate and must wait for the official one and the stickers in the mail.
The registration (and inspection) is valid for one year. Typically, three months before the expiration date, the annual state tax bill and registration renewal reminder will be mailed.
Note: Your car was entered into the state system when it was first registered. This way, the workshop carrying out your inspection can simply upload the results and when you renew your registration it is easy to do online via the DMV website or app.
Bottom line is, once you have done it, it makes sense, but the first time can be tricky! As mentioned earlier, do not be surprised when you experience confusion or annoyance, since many people are not used to foreigners.
Tips #1: Accept a foreign culture
Local authorities are often unaware of differences in international mentalities or regulations. Don't be surprised if someone shows impatience or rudeness. I have experienced situations in which my questions, language barriers or misunderstandings have led to problems. It helps if you have a local to accompany you!
Tip #2: Geographic Differences.
The process is slightly different depending on where you buy your car, as some U.S. States have different laws and regulations. I would always recommend checking not only with your state but also with your county for specific regulations.
Tip #3: Know local costs.
Google the average inspection and repair costs in your area, as some garages may rip off their inexperienced customers.
Since this is a legal matter, asking an expert for assistance can give a peace of mind.
If you want to learn more or need more details, I'm happy to help!