The Ultimate Car Title Guide

When you buy or sell a used car, the vehicle certificate of title is the most important document in the entire transaction process. No matter which state you are in, a motor vehicle title clearly establishes proof of ownership. Transferring the title changes ownership of the vehicle.

Not only is the title required to buy or sell a vehicle, but it also functions as a legal document to let the government know who the current owner of that vehicle is.

What is a Car Title?

A car title is a legal document issued by the state in which you purchase a vehicle. It clearly establishes you as the owner of said vehicle.

Whether you buy a used car or a new one, you will receive the vehicle title once you have paid for the vehicle.

Though there are multiple documents involved in a vehicle sale, the title is perhaps the single most important one.

What Information is On a Car Title?

A title form contains identifying information about the vehicle, as well as identifying information about the vehicle’s owner. Title information includes:

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)
The vehicle’s make (manufacturer)
The vehicle’s model
The vehicle’s year of manufacture
The vehicle’s license plate number
Technical info about the vehicle, such as its weight
The owner’s name and mailing address
Lienholder info, if there is a lien against the vehicle

Car Title Vs Registration

Vehicle title and registration are often confused with each other but are distinct. Let’s examine the differences between the two.

What is Car Registration?

Vehicle registration is proof that you’ve registered your car with your state and have paid any outstanding fees or taxes. Here are the main distinctions between title and registration:

A title certificate proves you own the car
A registration card allows you (and others) to drive the car on public roads
Vehicle registration needs to be renewed, usually annually
A vehicle title does not need to be renewed

In the case of a used car sale, the buyer will need to register the car and pay the associated registration fee.

Registered Owner vs Legal Owner of a Car

In most situations, the registered owner and legal owner of a vehicle are the same person. However, if you sell your used car privately, there may be a short interval in which the buyer is the legal owner of their newly purchased car, while you are still the registered owner.

The legal owner of the car is the one on the title as owner
The registered owner of the car is the one who has last registered the car with the state

This slight difference is why it’s important that the seller of a car notify the state that they are no longer the owner…and why the buyer needs to re-register the car with the state with their registration information.

Can I Register My Vehicle in a Different Name than on the Title?

A vehicle can be titled and registered under different names. For example, if someone leases a car, they will not have title to it (the car will be titled in the name of the owner), but will still need to register it with the state.

In most cases, however, vehicles are titled and registered under the same name—that of the current vehicle owner.

What if My Car Title is Lost?

If your vehicle title has been lost, damaged, destroyed, or stolen, you’ll want to get a replacement title—also known as a duplicate title—right away. Every state has its own process for getting a duplicate title.

Many states allow you to apply for a duplicate title form online; others do not. Most states allow you to print a PDF of their respective duplicate title form; just Google “STATE duplicate title” with the name of your state replacing “STATE” and you should find title applications for any state. Plus, the specific instructions for your state should be on its official replacement title form.

Though the specific requirements of each state vary, most states will require the following to issue a duplicate certificate of title. You can submit these when you submit your application for certificate of replacement title.

Proof of ownership of the vehicle
Proof of liability insurance on the vehicle
Driver’s license or other accepted form of ID
Proof of registration

How Can I Transfer My Car Title?

To transfer the title of your car, you and the title recipient (the person you’re transferring ownership to) will need to complete the following steps:

1. Agree on terms (negotiate a price for the sale of the car that you both agree upon)
2. Buyer pays seller
3. Seller fills out all necessary info on the title and signs it over to buyer
4. If the title lists two owners, both may have to sign
5. Seller completes odometer disclosure statement (required in some states)
6. If the car has a loan outstanding, the financial institution (listed as a lienholder) will need to either be paid off, or consent to the transaction
7. Buyer gets liability insurance on car
8. Buyer registers their newly purchased vehicle (will need to provide proof of insurance as well as driver’s license or id)
9. Buyer gets temporary permit to drive the car—most states have a streamlined process for obtaining temporary permits
10. Buyer pays the state’s title transfer fee
11. Buyer or seller may need to complete a transfer of ownership and submit it to their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)—depending on the state

Title Transfer by State

For complete instructions on how to transfer your car title by state, click on your state below.

Types of Car Titles

Clear Vehicle Title

A clear title indicates that a vehicle has no outstanding loan or lien. It is the most common—and best—type of car title.

Junk Vehicle Title

Salvage Vehicle Title

Bonded Vehicle Title

Odometer Rollback Title

Reconstructed Vehicle Title

Can I Get a Copy of My Car Title Online?

Many states will allow you to get a certified copy of your car title online. Check the website of your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. You can also search for specific state forms and publications if you know which ones your state uses.

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