Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products, including home, life, auto, and commercial, and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, mainly in the insuranc...

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UPDATED: Oct 19, 2021

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Important facts to know...

  • Any car that is designed for use on public roads must be titled and registered in the owner’s state of residence
  • You have to pay the DMV a registration fee once per year, and the dues renew on the same date each year
  • When your registration renews, you must pay the fee on time or your plates may be considered expired
  • If your registration expires, you legally aren’t supposed to drive the vehicle on public roads or you can be cited
  • When you have a loss in a car with expired plates, your insurer will still cover at least the third-party damages

You don’t really think about your vehicle registration on a day-to-day basis. It’s one of those things that is out of sight and out of mind once you pay the following:

  • registration
  • licensing
  • titling fees

Since you’re only billed once a year, it’s easy to overlook when you’re registration is actually due. Sometimes you get a notice in the mail, but it doesn’t always come through. Even if it’s mailed out, you can overlook it until it’s overdue. As easy as the oversight is to make, there could be major consequences for paying your registration invoice late.

You are given a grace period to make your registration payment. In most states, paying late doesn’t land you in hot water right away but it will cost you in the form of a late fee. After being late for 30 days, your tags could expire. Then you could get parking tickets for being parked without valid registration. You could also face other long-term penalties including fees that grow every year you fail to update your insurance. If you aren’t driving your car or otherwise don’t want to respond to the registration renewal notice, you need to take steps to officially take your car off the road.

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Why do you need to register vehicles each year?

Your vehicle registration is like your car’s identification card. When you’re legally classified as an adult, you have to carry an approved form of state-issued identification with you. Depending on the state, they may flag your driver license for certain offenses including no insurance. An outdated renewal is generally tracked separately. It comes into play when you get pulled over or if your car license plates are checked while you’re out in public.

The law also requires all vehicle owners to register their vehicles and apply for identification through the DMV. The car’s identification is its license plates.

Not only does a car’s registration identify a vehicle, it also identifies the vehicle owner who is responsible for the car at all times. Especially if your car is towed, they would issue tickets to the owner of record. So make sure to keep your current address up to date and make it official with the state if you sell your car. Unfortunately, even if it’s small tickets, tickets issued by checking your car information could lead to issues with drivers licenses.

Since law enforcement must be able to pinpoint the party who is legally liable for fees and damages when a car is cited or involved in an accident, the vehicle always has to have a valid registration. That requirement is in force when the car is:

  • driven
  • towed
  • parked on public property

In some cases, the registration might be used to pursue payment on parking tickets. In other cases, they may use it to determine which liability insurance they should pursue after a hit and run accident. Your registration sticker flags your car for parking officers passing by. A police officer can check your credentials any time in many states.

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When do you pay your registration dues?

When you first purchase your vehicle, whether it’s from a dealer or a private seller, you need to apply for a registration in your name. If the car was already registered and titled, it could be as simple as transferring the documents into your own name. Then you’ll need to renew your registration on the annual renewal month.

Your money pays for things like road repairs and street maintenance, and paying is easier than ever before. You can generally use online services to pay for renewals. Some years, you may have to get a safety check before you renew your registration. Other times, you can pay for online renewals without any extra legwork. If you’re not comfortable with online services, you can also renew your registration by mail or update your registration in person.

Before the transfer of ownership documents are processed in a purchase, you’ll have to pay a fee for the following:

  • Registration fee
  • License plate fee
  • One-time titling fee
  • State emissions fee
  • Highway Patrol fee
  • Fees assessed by the county
  • Fees for unpaid parking tickets and toll evasions

If everything has already been paid, you may have to simply pay a processing fee to put the tags in your name. You will then have a paid registration until the car’s initial renewal date which could be in a few months or in nearly a year. Depending on the state you live in, the dealer may be required to pay your renewal if it will expire within a certain time period.

If you’re buying from a dealer, the fees for your registration will be added to your purchase total.

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What happens when your registration is renewing?

If you renewed your vehicle in the state on April 1, 2017, you won’t be billed again to pay the next year’s dues on April 1, 2018. Most motor vehicle agencies will send out the renewal notice three months before the actual renewal date with the payment due on April 1.

You may have to smog your vehicle if your state has strict emissions testing requirements.

If you pay your fees on time by mail, by phone, in person, or online, you’ll receive your updated tags in the mail within two weeks. In the meantime, it will be on record that you have paid if an officer pulls you over. It’s when you pay late that you’ll have to start sweating a bit. In some states, there are now kiosks. If you pay using a kiosk, you could get your new sticker and printout immediately.

Your payment is to be paid and processed by the due date. If it’s not, your notice will show you how much of a fee you’ll be charged for paying late.

The fee usually isn’t too big if you pay 10 days late, but it can add up if you’re 60 days late. When you have failed to pay your registration for 30 days after the due date, it’s not uncommon for the DMV to send you out a notice that your tags have expired.

What are the penalties for driving with an expired registration?

Monetary fees aren’t the only types of penalties associated with missing the registration period. Sometimes, the other penalties are a lot more expensive than the fees themselves. The consequences for not having a current registration while driving vary from state to state, but here are some of the common ones:

  • Suspension of registration
  • Suspension of driver’s license if driving a car with no registration
  • Requirement to file an SR-22
  • Requirement to tow the vehicle from the site where the vehicle is stopped
  • Assessment of impound, towing, and storage fees to get the vehicle back

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What if you have an accident with an expired registration?

You might think that driving your vehicle when you know that you don’t have tags is grounds for denying a claim. If that were the case, insurance companies could deny claims whenever you broke the law and then suffered a loss.

If your car insurance is valid and your registration isn’t, your insurer still has to pay for covered losses that you present to your agent. However, if your registration is out of date in part because you’re behind on your safety check, your insurance company may assess their own penalties with higher rates on renewal. It can also affect how they assess fault in an accident. If, for example, your tires are bald, you would be less able to stop before rear ending another driver. That would add to your culpability with service offices. Keep in mind, this doesn’t affect your ability to complete vehicle registration renewals on time.

Keep in mind paying your insurance premiums isn’t always enough to keep you in good standing with your insurer. If you’re guilty of letting your tags expire and you’re cited for it, it could impact your rates next renewal. It’s no different in some ways than other tickets you could get for driving offenses.

To the insurer, letting your tags expire is a risky decision that constitutes the need to charge more money.

You have to review your auto insurance policy to confirm you have the right coverage before filing any type of claim. If you don’t feel like you have enough coverage, get quotes for a broader policy.

The easiest way to compare coverage options and premiums is to use our online quoting tool. Enter your zip code below to get started.