Vehicle regulations

registration, road tax and safety in the US

Vehicle regulations

Every vehicle in the US must have a certificate of ownership showing the name of the registered owner. The title contains the owner’s name and address, the registration plate number and other details about the vehicle.

A new title must be issued each time there’s a change in the details printed on it, e.g. a change in the address of the owner. A certificate of title must be applied for immediately after a new or used vehicle is purchased; without it you cannot obtain a registration plate.

Applications must be made to a state office, e.g. the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), or the local county clerk’s or treasurer’s office. Upon transfer of ownership, a seller must usually endorse the certificate of title and give it to the buyer, who surrenders it to the issuing office and is then issued with a new certificate. A seller may also be required to notify the issuing office of a sale, e.g. within ten days.

To register a car you usually require the following papers:

  • Certificate of title (unless you’re applying for a title and registration);
  • Proof of ownership, e.g. bill or certificate of sale with purchase price and date;
  • Proof of identity and date of birth;
  • Proof of insurance or financial responsibility;
  • Sales tax clearance (i.e. receipt for sales or use tax); if sales or use tax hasn’t been paid before registration, it is collected when you register or title a vehicle;
  • Current registration card, if applicable;
  • Safety and emissions inspection certificates, if applicable;
  • Registration authorisation, if you aren’t the owner of the vehicle;
  • Completed vehicle registration application form;
  • The registration fee.


Motor vehicle registration rules and fees vary from state to state. The registration fee may be a flat fee or be based on a car’s weight, age or value (or a combination). Upon registration, you’re issued with one (affixed to the rear of a vehicle) or two licence plates, the expiry date (month/year) of which is shown on the rear plate. A variety of personalised plates are available in most states (for an extra cost) and all states provide special plates for the disabled (a medical certificate is required).

Registration fees are usually paid annually, on a fixed date for all owners, or more often staggered, often based on your birthday or the first letter of your family name. There are usually penalties for late renewal and you can be arrested for displaying an out of date (dead) plate, although some states allow a grace period. Registration is validated by a sticker affixed to the rear registration plate. Duplicate plates and registration papers are available for a small fee.

If you’re moving from one state to another, you must re-register your vehicle. This can usually be done before entry, although you may require a local address. Otherwise, a vehicle must be re-registered immediately or within a designated period of taking up residence, e.g. 10 to 60 days. In some states, a non-resident must register his vehicle if his stay exceeds a certain period, e.g. 30 to 90 days; in a few states a visitor’s permit is required after a period. A car’s registration plates may remain with a car when it’s sold or be retained by the seller, who may need to return them to the issuing office, e.g. when the new owner transfers a vehicle out of the state. Refunds are usually granted on unexpired plates when a car is permanently removed from a state or is scrapped.

Cars imported into the US by tourists can be driven on foreign registration plates for up to one year from the date of arrival, provided the country of registration is party to the UN Convention on Road Traffic (Geneva, 1949) and the Convention on the Regulation of Inter-American Automotive Traffic (Washington, 1943).

If your home country isn’t a signatory to these conventions, you must obtain registration plates from the authorities in the state where the vehicle is landed. A foreign registered car must display the appropriate international sign at the rear (excluding Canadian and Mexican registered vehicles). If you own a car with foreign plates and intend to work or study in the US, you must obtain US plates in accordance with the regulations in the state where you’re residing. The regulations applicable to registration plates for tourists and residents also apply to foreign driving licences.

Detailed information about vehicle importation and registration is provided by state Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) and is contained in the US Customs Service’s leaflet, Importing or Exporting a Car, and the Digest of Motor Laws published annually by the AAA.

Road Tax

There’s no federal road tax, although all states levy an annual registration fee, which varies considerably from state to state.

Safety & Emissions Tests

An annual safety inspection is necessary in around 25 states, including Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. In some states, all vehicles must be inspected upon resale or transfer, sometimes within seven days of registration.

Most inspections include a car’s lights, brakes, windscreen (windshield) wipers and horn, and some include the tyres (tires), windows, body, and seat belts. All states authorise private repair shops and car dealers to make inspections, and a few have government operated inspection stations. In many states, a used car sale isn’t final until the car passes the inspection and in other states failing the inspection cancels the sale at the buyer’s option.

If your car fails the inspection, you usually have a grace period to get it repaired or take it off the road. In most states, police are authorised to inspect a vehicle at their discretion or on reasonable grounds, e.g. when bits are falling off it.

Some states and counties also have emissions (smog) tests. In California, most vehicles must be tested when they’re first registered and, with certain exceptions, upon change of ownership. (Californians are also encouraged to report ‘smoking’ vehicles to the air pollution control service.) In most other states that have emissions tests, they’re required periodically, e.g. every two years. When your vehicle passes a safety and/or emissions test, you’re given a sticker for your windscreen or rear number plate.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

Does this article help?

Do you have any comments, updates or questions on this topic? Ask them here: