Register a vehicle

How to register a vehicle in the US as a non US-resident

An image of a person attaching a license plate to a vehicle

Introduction

Buying a vehicle in the United States can be a great alternative to renting.

But you can't legally drive a vehicle without a registration.

And vehicle registration also includes ownership transfer.

So if you want to buy a vehicle in the US, and properly own and drive it here, you need to register the vehicle.

This is an article about registering a vehicle in the United States, written for tourists, travelers, foreigners - anyone who doesn't live in the US, but wants to buy, own, and drive a vehicle here.

There are four things you should consider when planning to register a vehicle in the United States:

  • The place,
  • The things you need to provide,
  • The process, and
  • The cost.

Let's jump right in.

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visitor.us has been helping international visitors register vehicles in the US since 2017.

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The place

Read the following sentence carefully - it's the most important thing you need to know about owning a vehicle in the US.

Vehicle registration and ownership in the US is handled by the US states, not the national government.

Ok, read the sentence above again.

Excellent, thank you.

The United States is actually a collection of semi-sovereign countries.

And just like you can't register a vehicle in Germany if you only have a house in Portugal, you can't register a vehicle in New York if you only have a house in California.

And if you don't have a house in New York or California, you can't register your vehicle in either state. As far as those states are concerned, you are out of scope for vehicle registration.

Americans don't need to think about this - we just register our vehicles in the state where we live.

Your first job, as an international visitor that wants to own and drive a vehicle in the US, is to put yourself in-scope (i.e., get an address) in one of the US states.

So can you just use an AirBnB address in any US state?

Ah, if only it were that easy.

Having an address is only the most basic requirement.

Each US state has its own rules for the Things That You Need to Provide in order to register a vehicle.

Let's discuss those next.

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Vehicle registration is done by the US states, not the national government.

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Your vehicle never has to come to Montana.

The Things That You Need to Provide

So, vehicle registration is handled by the US states, not the national government.

Each US state has its own list of Things That You Need to Provide in order to register a vehicle.

The vehicle's prior title (every US state)

A vehicle's title is its official ownership document.

In order to register a vehicle, you need the vehicle's prior title, properly signed by the vehicle's prior owner.

Let's look at an example of a title.

An image of a California vehicle title
An image of a California vehicle title

Above is an image of the title for a 2023 Honda motorcycle, issued by the US state of California to the registered owner, Matthew Copenhaver (founder and CEO of visitor.us).

In order for a new owner, Steve, to register this bike, Matt must sign the Seller's Section of the title, and hand this title to Steve.

Steve must then visit the registration authorities in the state where he'll register the bike, and submit the title, the other things he needs to provide, and pay any applicable sales taxes and fees.

Note that if Steve were able to submit an image, scan, or copy of the title, both Steve and Matt could potentially claim ownership of this bike!

Therefore, images, scans, and copies of titles are not valid for registration. Only original documents are accepted.

Each US state has its own set of documents and form of vehicle title. Let's look at a few more examples.

Image of a New York State title
Image of a Florida title
Image of a Texas title
Image of a Tennessee title

Every US state recognizes every other US state's title.

So, if Steve lives in Texas, he will have no problem submitting the California title in the example above to the Texas registration authorities.

Your address (every US state)

If you want to register your vehicle in California, you must provide a California address.

If you want to register your vehicle in Texas, you must provide a Texas address.

If you want to register your vehicle in New York, you must provide a New York address.

Proof of residency at that address (some US states)

Thirteen US states (and Washington, D.C.) require you to provide proof that you reside at the address where you will register your vehicle.

Each state that requires proof of residency has a slightly different requirement, but they generally include a utility bill or a bank statement.

Below is a list of the US states that require proof of residence in order to register a vehicle. You can click each state to find more detail on its specific requirements.

US-issued identity document (some US states)

You need to provide a current and valid photo identity document in order to register a vehicle in any US state.

Some US states require an identity document issued by a US state or the national government in order to register a vehicle.

And some US states require an identity document issued by that state in order to register a vehicle there.

Below is a list of the twenty-one US states that require a US-issued identity document in order to register a vehicle. You can click each state to find more detail on its specific requirements.

Proof of lawful presence (some US states)

A couple of US states allow non-US residents to register vehicles if they can provide "proof of lawful presence" in the US. For travelers, this is a current US visa and I-94 Record of Arrival and Departure. Note that ESTA's are visa waivers, not visas, and are therefore not accepted by these states as proof of lawful presence.

Below is a list of the two US states that allow proof of lawful presence in order to register a vehicle. You can click each state to find more detail on its specific requirements.

Vehicle inspection requirements (some US states)

Most (42) US states require proof that your vehicle has passed that state's inspection requirements in order to register it in that state.

These inspections generally fall into three categories:

  • Tailpipe emissions
  • Safety
  • VIN

Remember, each US state is a semi-sovereign country, so New York doesn't recognize an inspection certificate from California.

So if you plan to buy a vehicle in New York (for example) and register it in California (for example) you need to figure out how to transport that vehicle to California in order to have it inspected.

In most cases, inspection is due each time a vehicle's registration is renewed (usually annually).

Below is a list of the eight US states that do not have any inspection requirements. You can click each state to find more detail on its specific requirements.

Let visitor.us register your vehicle in Montana

Montana doesn't require a US-issued identity document.

Montana doesn't have any vehicle inspection requirements (so your vehicle never has to come to Montana).

visitor.us forms a Montana company for you, so you can register a vehicle here.

The process

The vehicle registration process has three outputs:

  • A new title, the document that proves ownership of the vehicle, and which is required to transfer the vehicle to a new owner in the future,
  • A new registration document, the document that demonstrates legal permission for a vehicle to be operated on public roadways, and
  • License plates, a marker of a vehicle's registration that are easily visible to law enforcement.

So what are the steps of the registration process that creates these three outputs?

Visit the registration authorities

You (or an agent that you appoint) has to physically submit the things you need to provide (the vehicle's prior title, your identity document, inspection certificates, etc.) to the registration authorities.

There's no doing this online or via the mail - somebody has to pay a visit to the DMV.

Many US states delegate vehicle registration to their counties, the level of government below the state and above the city.

If you plan to register your vehicle in one of these states, you need to visit the registration authorities in the county where your address is. In other words, if your registration address is in Austin, Texas, you cannot register your vehicle with the registration authorities in Houston, Texas - they are in two separate counties.

Submit the vehicle's prior title

The registration authorities always collect a vehicle's prior title upon registration and destroy it.

A vehicle can only have one owner (or set of co-owners) at a time, so destroying a vehicle's prior title helps ensure that ownership of a vehicle is not confused.

Submit the Things That You Need to Provide

Depending on the US state in which you register your vehicle, you'll need to provide proof of residency, your photo identity document, your proof of lawful presence in the US, and/or your vehicle inspection certificates upon registration.

Pay sales tax and registration fees

Each US state charges a new vehicle owner sales tax and/or registration fees.

If sales tax was not collected at the time of sale (for example, if you bought your vehicle from an individual), it is due upon registration.

More on this in the section below.

Receive your new registration document, license plates, and title

Some US states provide registration document, license plates, and title to you the instant you register a vehicle.

Most, however, do not.

Most states provide your registration document and license plates the instant you register a vehicle, and then mail the vehicle's title to your registration address several weeks later.

Remember, you cannot sell or export your vehicle without its title.

If you're a tourist, traveler, or foreigner to the US who wants to sell or export a vehicle at the end of the road trip, this is a critical detail.

If you register your vehicle at an AirBnB address, and your title arrives there after you have hit the road, you better be absolutely sure that your AirBnB host will send your title to you, wherever you are, or else you won't be able to sell or export your vehicle.

Don't waste your holiday time in line at the DMV

Let the experts at visitor.us register your vehicle for you.

We'll send your vehicle's title to a location convenient to you, so you can sell or export your vehicle.

Skip the DMV, hit the road right away.

The cost

Vehicle registration costs money.

The cost of vehicle registration is almost never included in the advertised price of a vehicle, whether sold by a dealer or an individual.

The US states charge taxes and/or fees each time a vehicle is registered to a new owner, and each time a vehicle's registration is renewed, and each US state has its own tax rates and registration fees.

Below are the sales tax rates on vehicles in a few popular US arrival cities:

  • Seattle, Washington: 10.1%
  • Los Angeles, California: 9.25%
  • New York City, New York: 8.875%
  • Chicago, Illinois: 8.5%

But here's a useful fact:

Taxes and registration fees are due in the state in which a vehicle is registered, not where it was purchased.

(The exception to this rule is California, where dealers are legally required to collect California sales tax if the vehicle is driven off the lot. The work-around is to have your vehicle delivered to Las Vegas or Reno, Nevada or Yuma, Arizona, and meet it there.)

You won't get sales tax back when you sell or export your vehicle.

So paying attention to taxes and registration fees can save (or cost) you a lot of money.

How does 0% sales tax sound?

In the US, you pay sales tax where you register a vehicle, not where you buy it.

Let visitor.us register your vehicle in Montana, where sales tax is 0%.

Your vehicle never has to come to Montana.

Conclusion

The most important thing to remember is that the US states, not the national government, handle vehicle registration and ownership.

So if you're an international visitor to the US, you need to fulfill the requirements of one US state or another.

The bad news is that, if you don't have an address in a US state, you're missing the first requirement for vehicle registration.

We Americans we have to register our vehicle(s) in the state where we live.

But you, as an international visitor, don't live in any US state.

So the good news is that if you don't already have a US address, you get to choose which state to register your vehicle in.

And because sales tax, registration fees, identity documents, inspections and other requirements are determined by the state where you register your vehicle, choosing the right state can save you time, stress, and money.

We've done the research and found out that Montana is the best state for an international visitor to register a vehicle in the US - no other state comes close.

That's why we founded visitor.us in Montana in 2017 and have helped hundreds of international visitors escape the vehicle registration admin and focus on their visit.

Click here if you'd like to learn how visitor.us works.

Click here if you'd like to ask us a question about registering a vehicle in the US.

Around the same time as you register your vehicle, you'll want to obtain insurance, which is legally required everywhere in the US.

For more information on insurance, check out our guide, How to Insure a Vehicle in the US as a non-US Resident.

Let's Get You on the Road

We make US vehicle ownership easy so you can enjoy your visit.