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Vehicle Laws and Registration

A car may be one of your most prized possessions. Vehicles are more than just practical. Your car can also let you express your style and experience the joy of driving.

However, motor vehicles are subject to state laws. States regulate automobiles' visual and functional features. The government also keeps track of all vehicles through a registration system. Before you hit the road, your new vehicle must meet safety and legal requirements.

Vehicle Modifications

Many vehicle owners like to personalize their cars to reflect their personalities. Some people personalize vehicles with bumper stickers, decals, or license plate borders. Elaborate modifications can include window tinting, unique wheels, or a bass-boosting stereo system. Drivers or passengers may also need modifications for disabilities.

It's important to check the vehicle code in your state before you modify your car. If a particular modification is against state law, you might get tickets and fines.

Vehicle Registration

Each state requires residents' cars to have a valid registration certificate. You can register vehicles with your state's department of motor vehicles (DMV), department of transportation, or a similar agency.

You might need several pieces of information for the registration of motor vehicles, such as:

  • The make, model, and vehicle identification number (VIN) of your car
  • Proof of liability insurance or financial responsibility
  • Proof of ownership, such as a bill of sale or certificate of title
  • Proof of vehicle inspection or emissions test
  • Registration fee payments, including any filing or license fees
  • Proof of sales tax or use tax payment
  • A valid state driver's license

If law enforcement pulls you over, the officer will ask for a driver's license and registration card. Failure to carry registration can lead to fines and other penalties.

Registration can expire. You must complete the renewal of registration by a specific expiration date to continue driving the vehicle. Expiration varies from state to state, but each renewal usually lasts one or two years. A car must also be registered anew when it changes owners.

A nonresident who drives in a state might need to register their vehicle in the new location. Because every state is different, check the registration requirements if you plan to spend a lot of time driving in another state. There are also exemptions for residents in some states, such as students and active-duty members of the armed forces.

Non-Operating Vehicle Registration

Not all vehicle owners drive their cars. For example, a collector might own vintage cars or motorcycles and keep them in their garage or on display. Different laws can apply to non-operating vehicles.

Many states, such as California, still have a registration requirement for non-operating vehicles. The fees to register a non-operating vehicle are usually lower than those for a car you'll drive.

Other states may offer an exemption for some vehicles, such as a historic collectible car with a specific model year. Vehicle owners might get temporary registration to move the car. Otherwise, they can typically only enter public roads on a tow truck or car hauler.

Emission Standards and Testing

Every state has car emissions standards. These standards exist so that states can limit the air pollution that automobiles create. Not all states require inspections to enforce the standards, however.

Passenger vehicles often have different standards from commercial motor vehicles. Some vehicles, such as electric cars, might also be exempt from a state's emission testing requirements.

You may receive notice that your car is due for emissions testing, also known as a smog test. Some states, such as California, notify a car owner that their vehicle needs a smog check when the state sends the registration renewal.

If you need a smog test, you can only renew your registration once your car passes the state's test. States have different timelines for how often they test vehicles, but older cars typically need more frequent testing. These checks usually take place at state-approved testing centers.

Learn About Vehicle Rules

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