What’s the Difference Between Vehicle Title and Registration?


You found your dream car – and it’s even within your budget!

But it’s not your car yet. You don’t legally own your new vehicle without a title and a registration card.

These two documents are essential for proving ownership and letting the state know. What’s the difference between a vehicle registration vs. a title, and why do you need both?

Keep reading for a simple explanation.

What Is Vehicle Title?

A vehicle title is a document that records the ownership of a vehicle.

Over the course of the life of the vehicle, each owner will sign the title as the car becomes their property. You also add an odometer reading when you add a new or different title owner.

For example, if you buy a new car with an auto loan from the bank, the lender puts their name on the title. Then, when you officially own the car after completing your payments, the bank transfers the title to you.

Titles are very important documents because most states won’t let you sell the car without one. Why? Because the title proves you own the car free and clear. If you can’t produce the title, there may be questions as to whether you truly own it, which also means there are questions regarding whether you have the right to sell it.

Even if you do sell it, you still need to hold on to the title for 18 months after. It serves as part of your proof of sale and can get you out of any hot water in case the buyer didn’t fulfill their duty and sign the car into their name.

If you have questions about your title or you need to get a duplicate title or report a missing title, then your state DMV can help.

What Do You Need to Transfer a Title?

The process of transferring a title varies by state.

To get it done, you typically need to:

  • Complete your Certificate of Title
  • Provide the damage disclosure
  • Write down your odometer reading
  • Provide a bill of sale
  • Pay the title transfer fees
  • Include the smog check reports (if applicable)

It also becomes more complicated if you lost the title and need a duplicate. Some states also don’t issue titles for older cars. Contact your DMV to learn more.

What Is a Vehicle Registration?

The vehicle title offers proof of ownership, but signing the title isn’t the end of the process.

Every state also requires you to register your vehicle with the DMV or state equivalent body. By registering, you let the state know that the car in question is yours. Your registration issues you a license plate (when you register for the first time), your registration card, and your tabs (or stickers).

Vehicle registration costs money in every state. You can see how states assess the fees using the American Automobile Association’s chart.

What Do You Need to Register a Vehicle?

Every state has a different registration process. The first registration is usually the most involved.

If you buy from a dealership, they typically handle the process for you – the first time. Buying from a private buyer means you need to take care of it yourself. All subsequent registrations after you purchase the vehicle are your responsibility.

The first time you register, you typically need:

  • Driver’s license
  • Car title
  • Proof of insurance
  • Proof of sales tax
  • Vehicle registration application
  • Documentation of vehicle safety inspection (if applicable)
  • Evidence of smog test (if applicable)

Each time you submit your car’s registration, you typically need your:

  • VIN
  • Car insurance details
  • Driver’s license number
  • License plate
  • Current registration

Your state may allow renewals online or force you into the office.

What’s the Biggest Difference Between Your Vehicle Registration vs. a Title?

Both your vehicle registration and your title are essential legal processes managed by the DMV. Having a registered vehicle or a title in your name also allow you to apply for title or registration loans.

The most significant difference is that your vehicle title is a document you only need to worry about twice: you sign it when you buy the car, and you sign it over to the new owner when you sell it.

On the contrary, your vehicle registration is your responsibility every year (or every two years). It includes a registration form, a fee, and the need to update the sticker on your vehicle. If you neglect your registration, you could wind up with a ticket.

You then need to update your registration once a year or once every two years; it varies by state. When you do, you buy new stickers dated to the next month and year when your registration is due.

Failing to register your car on time is a traffic violation. If you get pulled over, an officer can give you a ticket, and you may end up in traffic court. Even if a police officer or patrol doesn’t pull you over and fine you, you can still get hit by the DMV when you go back to finally re-register. Some states can even impound your car if you fail to pay.

Additionally, if your car insurance provider finds out, they can raise your rates.

Get It All in Writing

You don’t own your car legally unless you have a title and registration (and of course, car insurance) in your name.

What’s the difference between car registration vs. a title? A title demonstrates proof of ownership. Your car registration tells the state you paid any taxes or fees due on your vehicle, and you need up update it regularly or risk a fine or even the impound lot.

Did you find this article helpful? Let me help you with more housekeeping admin. Visit my Household archive for more informative pieces.

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market. Click to learn more about me

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