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It’s all bad news if you do. Nothing good comes of it, and it’s easily avoided

Quick Notes

  • Three essential pieces of paper: driver’s license; proof of insurance; and valid vehicle registration

  • Each state has its own rules – and consequences for breaking them – about vehicle registration

  • Getting caught unregistered may cost you money, access to your vehicle and insurance coverage

Every on-road vehicle purchased in the United States must be registered. Valid vehicle registration is, along with a driver’s license and proof of insurance, one of the three essential documents that should be in every vehicle any time it is driven.

“The purpose of vehicle registration rules is to establish a link between every vehicle and an owner or user. That link may be necessary for: ensuring safety or compliance with environmental regulations, collecting taxation, or detecting or preventing criminal activity.”

Every vehicle, registered or not, has a unique vehicle identification number. But registered vehicles also display a vehicle registration plate and/or sticker. They also carry a vehicle registration certificate.

Mandatory registration rules generally apply only to passenger and commercial vehicles used on public roads. Vehicles like tractors that are not usually used on public roads, but only on private property, do not always need to be registered.

The specific rules where you live

In the United States, vehicle registration is regulated on a state-by-state basis.

“The specific rules – and consequences of breaking them – will vary depending on where you live.” has prepared this useful index to the rules governing valid vehicle registration in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia). No matter where you live, nothing good comes of driving an unregistered vehicle.

For more specific information about exactly what could happen to you where you live or drive, check that out. For this article, we will take a look at some of the more specific information about one state. It’s pretty common across the country.

The branch of the government that is responsible for vehicle registration is called different things around the country. In Indiana and Ohio, it is called the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. In Maryland, it is called the Motor Vehicle Administration.

Getting caught driving an unregistered vehicle

Picture this. You’re enjoying a leisurely drive in Connecticut. You’re pulled over by the police. Almost certainly, you’ll be asked to provide three things: driver’s license, proof of insurance, and registration.

“This is not a ‘two out of three ain’t bad scenario.’ Two out of three will not be good enough.”

What happens if your vehicle is unregistered?

Every vehicle registration is valid for a specific period. In Connecticut, the Department of Motor Vehicles sends out renewal reminders, but they do not guarantee that you’ll receive one. It’s your responsibility to ensure your registration is current. If you’re caught driving an unregistered vehicle in Connecticut, you will be fined between $150 and $300.

It’s also possible that your vehicle will be impounded until you can produce valid registration.

Every state has different procedures for renewing vehicle registrations. The timelines and costs of registration may vary. It depends whether it is a new registration, a timely renewal, or a renewal of an expired registration. In some states, including in Connecticut, registrations can be renewed online.

Dmitry Koesnikov/Flickr

The rules are different if you’re new to the state and haven’t transferred an out-of-state registration in time. In Connecticut, you have to do that within 60 days. If you don’t, you might be fined an additional $150 to $300.

Suspended or revoked registrations

A vehicle registration that is still valid according to the calendar can be suspended or revoked in some circumstances. Driving a vehicle with a suspended registration is just as illegal as driving an unregistered vehicle.

In Connecticut, a vehicle registration can be suspended if there is a lapse in insurance coverage on the vehicle.  If you’re caught driving a vehicle whose registration has been suspended or revoked, you face a potential fine of $150 to $300. Perhaps worse, your vehicle will be impounded.

“Even worse than that, you may be subject to imprisonment for up to 90 days.”

In the example of a suspension due to lapsed insurance, the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles will send you a notice of the issue. If you disagree with or dispute the circumstances leading to the notice, there are things you can do.

What about car insurance?

As a general rule, merely forgetting to renew a car registration would not affect your insurance coverage or void your policy. You’ll receive a ticket and a fine, but insurers are not usually concerned with non-moving violations like that. Future car insurance rates typically would not be affected.

But, if you have done something that results in your registration getting taken away – like failing to maintain continuous insurance coverage – that may be a bigger deal. In some states, insurers are permitted to cancel automobile insurance policies if a car’s registration is revoked.

There is no upside to failing to maintain valid vehicle registration. Follow the rules, and keep your road trips fun and stress-free!

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Registering a new or new-to-you vehicle is essential. Here are tips for buying that car in the first place.

Even if your car is just new-to-you, registration is mandatory. Here are tips for buying that used car.