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For tourists coming to the US, getting a car is a great way to get around, especially if you want to see the national parks. Rental, especially for younger drivers, can be very expensive, so buying a car is a good alternative. The process for buying and registering a car is aimed at US citizens and not tourists, so it is a little hard to find all the information.

How can a tourist buy a car in the US to take on a road trip, and what steps must they take?

  • This question keeps coming up (on the broader internet), and since I've just done it for the second time I figured I'd put the process up here. – Lg102 Jun 20 '17 at 18:20
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    One very minor point: In both the question and answer you distinguish "foreign" and "US citizen". The actual distinction is "non-resident" and "US resident". I am a resident alien in the US. I buy, sell, register, and insure vehicles exactly the same way as my US citizen neighbors. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 5 '18 at 13:48
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First off, don't let anyone tell you it's not worth it: you can find cheap cars that are very likely to keep running for a the duration of your trip. They won't be in the best shape, but that's true of buying second hand cars in general. If you are under 25 years of age, car rental will be very expensive and buying is (in my opinion) the better option.

When buying a cheap car, consider the total value as lost: anything you get back when you sell it is nice, but don't be too disappointed if you can't get your expected money back.

  • 1) Check out the DMV (department of motor vehicles) regulations for the state you want to buy your car in. The requirements are different in every state. Florida and Georgia, for example require that you have a drivers license from that state. You may be eligible for one, but a drivers test or additional information may be required. All requirements per state are listed on http://DMV.org (not a government website but accurate). I personally flew to Virginia as they do not require a local drivers license. As the state is on the East Coast, I'd say it's a great start for a road trip!

  • 2) Find an address. This is where you'll register the car. I asked my Airbnb host whether I could use hers. There is no risk for the address owner, but you need consent, partly because there will be mail going to this address.

  • 3) Get proof of address. For example, Google "rental agreement example" and fill it out for your name and the address you've arranged. You need this proof for the DMV.

  • 4) Get a means of payment. If you want to pay for your car in cash, you'll need to withdraw that. I personally opened a local bank account, wired in money, then withdrew it. Just walk into any bank, and use your new US address as the mailing address when signing up. Opening a bank account takes about ten minutes. Note: the bank will not let you withdraw your wire transfer in the first week after receiving it, as the foreign bank is still able to withdraw it. Allow for a week's margin there (this bit me!).

  • 5) Find a car! You can go to any car dealer that you think is trustworthy enough. Try to get someone to refer you to a good one that they've dealt with before. The dealer will give you the title to the car. This is the proof of ownership for the car, not the registration with the state.

  • 6) The dealership may give you temporary registration, good for 30 days, or if it's a small dealer, they may not be able to. If they do, the DMV system will ask them for the number of your drivers license (which you may or may not have). The application will go true just fine if you just have them put in your name.

  • 7) Insure your car before you drive anywhere. This is a legal requirement! I called an insurance broker that charges a fee to find you the cheapest insurance option (adding the name as requested: "Right Answer Insurance". They speak English and Spanish, you can sign all paperwork electronically and they know not to connect you to insurance companies that won't insure foreigners). Through this party (or by directly calling an insurance agency) you can arrange your insurance over the phone. You'll be emailed a "proof of insurance": with that, you can legally drive. Note that as you don't have a driving history in the US, insurance might be more expensive than it is at home. Expect upward of $150/month if you are under 25 (still way cheaper than what a rental company would charge).

  • 8) Register your car at a DMV location. Any major city will have multiple. Get in line, tell them you want to register a car, and wait for your turn. In Virginia, you'll be asked for a social security number or Virginia drivers license, but if you don't have either, that's fine. The dealership has given you the title when you bought the car. The DMV will take it and issue you a new one in your name. You'll also pay sales tax (varies per state) of a couple percent of the sales value (4% in Virginia).

  • 9) You'll receive the new title, two license plates and a proof of registration from the DMV. With that, your drivers license and the proof insurance, you can go on your road trip!


As requested, how to sell your car:

  • 1) First, make sure your car can be legally sold in the state you are in. There are state by state differences. For example, if you sell to a private person in California, your car must be smog-tested.

  • 2) The new title you've received from the DMV must be filled out (by you) when you sell it. Make sure you complete all the fields and the buyer signs it. People that intent to resell the car might try to have you skip fields so they can have the next buyer sign the title (with the intent of skipping sales tax). Don't be a part of that, it's not legal. The buyer takes the title, you take your money. If you don't feel comfortable selling to a private person, try to sell to a dealer. If you're about to leave the country and need to sell your car at the last minute, you can go to a CarMax (I don't mean to advertise but this is a practical tip, and they are nation wide): they'll make you an offer on the car and you can sell it there and then.

  • 3) You must remove the license plates off of your car. These identify you as the owner, which you no longer are after you've sold it. You don't want someone driving around pretending to be you.

  • 4) Call your insurance company and cancel your insurance.

  • 5) Call the DMV in the state where you bought and registered your car to tell them you've sold it. If you are (back) in that state, you can go hand in your plates and get a minor refund (all though I'd keep them as a souvenir!).


When to do this:

A bank account is not the only way to get a larger sum of cash. You could get the cash before flying to the US at your local bank, or use a service like Western Union. Neither of those would take for than 30 minutes. Going to a car dealer, checking out and test driving a car took me about two hours. Getting insurance took me 40 minutes on the phone. The DMV wasn't busy, I spend approximately 20 minutes in there. If you start in the morning, the whole thing can easily be done in a day.

As for minimum trip length, I'd compare to the price of a rental car, including the fees for dropping of in a different location. Consider the budget for the car, the sales tax, and the insurance. I wouldn't go through the trouble for a two week trip, but if you're visiting for a month it's worth it, in my opinion.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JoErNanO Jun 24 '17 at 10:35
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    Regarding #6 (buy). In some states, ex: WI, car dealers are allowed to register your car for you. You pay the registration fee as part of the sale. You receive your permanent licence plates at the dealer. This allows you to skip #8 (buy) – ender.qa Sep 5 '18 at 13:25
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    Regarding #5 (sell). Again, some states do not accept their old licence plates. You are responsible for disposing of them. Do not simply throw them away as they may be stolen/picked up from the trash and used illegally by others. It's best to cut the up or keep them as a souvenir. – ender.qa Sep 5 '18 at 13:26
  • Regarding #7 buy. I think it should be noted that there are risks to getting the cheapest possible insurance. The state mandates a certain minimum level of coverage, say $30,000, and the cheapest insurance will likely have that amount. But in a serious at-fault accident, you may be liable for all the damages and injuries to the other drivers (including their medical treatment, which can be very expensive in the US - no socialized medicine). It could run to hundreds of thousands, and you can be sued for whatever is beyond the limit of your insurance. – Nate Eldredge Sep 8 '18 at 6:24
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    Each state's requirements for registering and transferring ownership to and from other people can differ. Regarding #3: when selling a used car in California, one leaves the license plates on the vehicle. – David Nov 20 '18 at 21:26
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To Long; Didn’t Read: Most US states require residency to register/title a vehicle.
For non-US residents, you have two options:

  1. Use an AirBnB address (as described in another answer to this question by Lg102), or
  2. Form a company. A US company is a US resident, and can therefore register/title a vehicle.

Full disclosure: I had this problem myself, and realized that forming a company and registering a vehicle to it takes a lot of pain out of owning a vehicle in a foreign country.

So I started a business, visitor.us, that helps international visitors buy, register, and insure vehicles in America by forming a US company for them.


Ok, now on to the detailed answer...

Buying a car as a non-resident is simple: give someone enough money, and they’ll give you their keys.

Driving that car legally is another matter. You need to register, title, and insure it.

US states handle registration and titling, and each of the 50 have different rules/requirements.

Across all the 50 states, registration and titling basically link a vehicle to an identity.

A title says that this vehicle (as described by the unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)) is owned by this person (as described by the unique “identity number”).

A registration says that this vehicle, owned by this person, conforms to the relevant laws and regulations and its taxes have been paid.

For all 50 states, the default “identity number” is an in-state driver’s license. A handful of states (like Virginia, as mentioned by Lg102 in another answer to this question) will create a non-driver’s license “identity number” for you if you can demonstrate proof of residency. This, of course, requires coordination with your AirBnB host, agreeing to a “lease,” accessing their mail, etc.

However, all 50 states can link a VIN to another type of identity: a corporate one. In the eyes of the law in the US, companies are people too. Millions of cars are titled and registered to company "identity numbers," all over the country.

Anyone, regardless of citizenship, can own a company in the US. And you don’t have to be physically present to form one.

So, if you’re a non-US resident, and don’t want to mess around with using an AirBnB address to create a residency (or if you want to start in a state that requires an in-state driver’s license), form a Limited Liability Company (LLC) in the state in which you wish to register your car.

Legalzoom and incfile are two of the larger company formation services in the US. However, they won’t help you actually register your vehicle, or provide insurance.

I started visitor.us in 2017 specifically to help international visitors buy, register, and insure vehicles in the US. We form a company owned 100% by you, register your vehicle to it, and get you insurance. In most cases, we can have it all done before you even arrive, so all you have to do is pick up your keys and start your road trip.

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DON'T DO THIS! With a ton of effort we did it and now the guy who did the RA with us is in serious trouble! It's hard to accept but you can't buy and register a car in the US legal as a tourist. Or at least this way isn't a legal way. We got a lot of problems because of this description how to do it...

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    What does RA stand for? – Nate Eldredge Sep 8 '18 at 6:21
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    Registering Address ? – audionuma Sep 8 '18 at 8:00
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    Also, which state was this. As the other answer makes clear, regulations can differ significantly from state to state: what is illegal in California might be fine in Maine, or vice-versa. – David Richerby Sep 8 '18 at 10:46
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    Without further details, this answer is of no practical use. – David Nov 20 '18 at 21:06

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