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In virtually every state, you need insurance before you can drive a car. But do you need insurance to register a vehicle?

Most states require proof of car insurance before registering your car, but there are a handful of exceptions. Read on to learn more about the registration and licensing process and whether or not you need this coverage before heading to your state's department of motor vehicles.

  • Registration and licensing responsibilities vary by state.
  • You need to show proof of insurance coverage before registering your car in the vast majority of states.
  • A handful of states let you register without such proof, but you need coverage before driving. 
  • In two states, you don’t need insurance at all to register your car.
  • Getting caught driving an unregistered car can lead to significant consequences. 

Can you register a car without insurance?

In most states, you can’t register a car without proof of insurance or financial responsibility. However, in New Hampshire, you’re not required to purchase auto insurance.

In Virginia, you must show proof of insurance or pay the uninsured motorist fee, which is $500.

In other states, you’re required to buy insurance, such as liability insurance. However, you don’t need to show proof of insurance when registering your car.

These states include:

  • Arizona
  • Mississippi
  • North Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

When would you need to register a car?

In every U.S. state, you must register and title your car with the state’s transportation agency or the department of motor vehicles. When you do this, the state gives you a license plate and a legal document stating that you’re the car’s owner.

You need to go through this process every time you purchase a vehicle. You also must do this when you move to a new state or when your registration needs to be renewed.

Which documents do you need to register a car?

Rules vary by state for which documents you need when registering a car, but typically required documents include:

  • Car title
  • Certificate of origin or bill of sale
  • Emissions and safety certificates
  • Proof of insurance
  • Proof of ID and residence

How to register and insure a car

The rules for registering your car vary by state. However, some general principles are likely to be applicable no matter where you live.

As a general guideline, here are the following steps for registering your car:

  • Make sure you have insurance. In most states, you need to insure your vehicle before you can register it. So, make sure you get a car insurance policy. The best way to get the right policy at a great price is to compare rates at a website, such as Insurance.com, which has a free quote tool.
  • Make an appointment at your state's department of motor vehicles to register the vehicle. While your state might accept walk-in appointments, scheduling in advance can save you time.
  • Gather all the relevant documents you will need for the registration process. If you’re unsure of what you need, call your state's DMV to find out.
  • Make sure you have a way to pay for the registration cost. Again, your state's rules determine whether cash, checks or credit cards are acceptable forms of payment.
  • Fill out the registration form at the DMV and pay the registration fees.
  • If you receive license tabs immediately, apply them to your license plate. If the DMV mail the tabs to you, keep a close eye on the mail and make sure you receive the tabs by the appropriate deadline.

What happens if you register a car without insurance coverage?

In many places, if your car isn’t insured, your DMV won’t allow you to register it. In those states, you must have insurance before you can register your car.

In other states, you may be able to register your car as long as you get insurance shortly thereafter. For example, in Arizona, you have 30 days after the registration date to submit proof of insurance.

In a handful of states, you don’t have to offer proof of insurance to register your car. For example, while Mississippi requires you to purchase car insurance, you don’t need to show evidence of such insurance when you register your vehicle.

Frequently asked questions- Do I need insurance to register a car

Do you need insurance to get a license plate?

In the vast majority of states, you need insurance to get a license plate. However, there are a few exceptions.

For example, while North Dakota requires you to purchase car insurance, it’s enforced when you register your vehicle. So, technically you could get your license plates without insurance. But if you don’t have insurance, you’re breaking the law and could suffer consequences if you’re caught.

What happens if you get caught driving an unregistered car?

It’s not legal to drive a car before it’s been registered or after the registration has expired.

Each state has its own penalties for those who drive an unregistered vehicle. Typically, these are steep fines. For example, the maximum fine for this offense in Maryland is $500.

What happens if your auto insurance lapses after you register your car?

Registering your car is an important way to stay within the bounds of the law. But you also need to maintain auto insurance.

Typically, if you fail to pay your insurance for 30 to 60 days, the insurance company considers it lapsed. In some states, this means that your registration can be suspended and you may be fined. Laws vary widely by state, though. For instance, the law to reinstate your registration may cost less than $20 in one state and around $500 in another.

Make sure you know your state’s laws and the consequences you may face. Better yet, make sure you don't have an insurance policy lapse.

Does the name on your vehicle registration application and insurance identification card need to be the same?

Typically, a vehicle owner purchases insurance for his or her own car. Thus, the name on the vehicle registration application should be the same as the name on the insurance identification card, says Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communications for the Insurance Information Institute.

That means if you’re driving a car owned by someone else, the ID card should have their name on it, not yours.

“If you have permission to drive a car that you don’t own, the insurance ID card should be in the car,” Ruiz says.

Will the DMV accept copies or faxes of your insurance identification card?

Each state has its own rules for what’s considered a valid submission of your insurance information card. But in many states, you don’t need to present the actual physical card.

For example, in Colorado, you can fax your insurance information card to the state. In New York, your card can be submitted as a copy or via a fax.

What happens if you let your car insurance expire?

Letting your car insurance expire is typically a big mistake for multiple reasons.

An active car insurance policy with liability coverage, personal injury protection, and property damage coverage can play a vital role in your financial well being if you injure someone in an accident.

Most states have a tort auto insurance system, which is fault-based. That means drivers who are deemed at fault in car accidents are responsible to pay for losses, including injuries and damage.

The biggest consequence of letting your insurance lapse is that "you and your car are no longer protected for liability, comprehensive and collision, and uninsured motorists," says Ruiz.

In addition, your driver's license and car registration can be suspended if you drive without insurance.

If you reinstate your insurance after it has lapsed, chances are that car insurance providers insurance rates will charge higher rates, too. Car insurance companies quote higher premiums to drivers who have a gap in coverage when they purchase insurance coverage.

Can you get tags without insurance?

In most states, you need to provide proof of current insurance coverage before registering your car and getting tags. However, a handful of states allow you to register the car without showing proof of insurance, although you still need to purchase coverage by law.

In New Hampshire, you’re not required to purchase car insurance. And in Virginia, you can pay a fee that allows you to skip the insurance requirement.

Is liability insurance required?

Nearly every state requires drivers to have liability insurance. New Hampshire is the only state that doesn't have that requirement.

Liability coverage protects motorists if they're at fault in a car accident that caused injuries and/or property damage. Liability insurance also protects you if you get sued after the accident, such as paying another person's medical bills. State minimum limits offer some liability protection, but it's usually wise to increase that minimum amount.

How much liability coverage do you need?

Experts recommend at least $100,000 bodily injury coverage per person per accident, $300,000 bodily injury protection per accident, and $100,000 property damage coverage per accident.

The appropriate car insurance for you depends on what you have to lose. When choosing liabilty coverage, think about your assets, including homes and vehicles. Get quotes from multiple insurance carriers for the same level of car insurance coverage to find the right policy for you.

Do states have an online renewal system?

States often allow you to register a vehicle and renew your license online. Each state is different, so check with your department of motor vehicles to find out whether you're able to renew online or whether you have to visit a DMV office to take a new driver license photo, sight test, or for another reason.

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