Can I Drive A Car Without Plates – Is It Illegal To Go License Plate-Free?

by Conner Mckay

If there’s one thing that’s just as certain as death and taxes, is that cars (road-going ones, at least) will come with a license (aka registration) plate. That metal plate with a string of letters and numbers is bolted onto every vehicle, front and rear. It doesn’t matter if you have a truck or a sports car, there’s a plate on it, as long as you’re on public roads. But one wonders, can I drive a car without plates?

It’s an intriguing question surely, as there are valid reasons as to why you’d avoid putting registration plates on a car. Sometimes, you might not have access to it just yet, such as those moments after you just bought a car. On other occasions, unforeseen circumstances might occur. For example, as to how your plates might fall off and get lost after a collision. Or, any other myriad of similar justifications.

There are also those who’d refuse to put a license plate, with conscious reasons, too. Maybe, you just don’t like those plates messing up the looks of your car. But seeing how it’s a legal requirement, can I drive a car without plates? Technically, yes… But only under certain, acute situations, where you could drive around for a bit without any plates on. Otherwise, you might run into trouble with the law.

What’s The History Behind License Plates?

Before we look at the issue of can I drive cars without plates, we may as well take a close look at what goes on behind registration plates, in the first place. So, what are license plates, and why do cars have one? Well, back in the old days, and in the early pioneering periods of the automobile, cars never had any license plates, to begin with. However, this was primarily due to how few cars there were.

The automobile was a new and untested way to travel back then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the days when horses and carriages were the primary modes of transportation, you’d see a dozen or so cars in major towns and cities. Therefore, it was quite easy to identify and figure out who owned a new-fangled motorcar. Usually, it would only be the ultra-rich, or those inventors and early pioneers.

If there were crimes committed, where the authorities needed to track down the owner of a vehicle, it would be quite easy. But as cars were more popularised and had grown into a mainstream product sold in the millions, a new system to track and register them became necessary. The first license plate was thus issued in France, back in 1893. Germany followed suit in 1896, and the US mandated it in 1901.

Initially, laws around registration plates in the US varied from one state to another. For example, New York never set a rule where a central governing body (i.e. a DMV of some sort) would issue the plate. Instead, it was up to individual car owners to create their own plates, by inscribing their initials onto a metal or leather plate. Then, bolting that onto their cars. However, things have changed quite a bit.

What Are License Plates, And Why Do You Need Them?

In all, license or registration plates are just that, a confirmation that your car is registered to be driven on public roads. Hence, why you don’t see non-road-legal race cars carrying license plates. Aside from that, it’s also a way for the authorities to track vehicle ownership, and tie a certain vehicle to you. Say that a crime has been committed, for example, and it revolves around a particular (licensed) vehicle.

The police could easily scan its license plates, and accordingly, locate the owner. On top of that, they’d be able to ticket you by scanning your license plates, if you’ve been speeding, or commit any other moving violation. In addition, license plates could be used to trace the history of a vehicle. There are a lot of services and applications nowadays that let you look at a car’s history simply using its plates.

Input a registration number, and you could preview the precise details of a car. For instance, all that it went through, accident reports, in-depth specifications and information of the car itself, and more. In other cases, license plates are required for financial matters and proving your ownership over a car. A person seeking to file insurance on a car, as an example, requires the license (registration) plates.

This is why every vehicle today must carry a license plate of some sort, no matter where you are in the world. Here in the US, the license plates are serial and sequenced letters and numbers, issued by your state’s DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). Unlike most other countries that have nationally-issued plates, in the US, each state has its own distinct license plate, keeping track of separate registries.

Can I Drive A Car Without Plates?

So, given that it’s a legal requirement to drive on the road (like needing to have a driver’s license), can I drive a car without plates? As we hinted at earlier, there’s technically one exception to the rule, but it comes with a lot of caveats to this situation. For all intents and purposes, my reply to can I drive a car without plates is Maybe… But only if you’ve just purchased a vehicle privately off of someone else.

Let’s say you bought a car from your friend, or from a stranger over on eBay, Craigslist, or maybe even Facebook Marketplace. Here in the US, in the immediate purchasing of a vehicle from a private seller, they can’t turn in the registration plates over to you right away. Instead, the transfer of ownership has to be done at the local state DMV. Once all the papers are signed, only then could you get the plates.

Can I Drive A Car Without Plates

In the interim then, you’re basically left plate-less, even if you have said vehicle in your possession. Or, you may be able to have those plates fitted onto the car. But, they’re still registered under the DMV to the previous owner. Regardless, the plates don’t tie in with you. Besides these, note that with certain states, the same process may apply if you’re buying a vehicle brand new, from a local dealership.

In short, you’re only (not necessarily a given in all states; more on that later) allowed to drive a vehicle without plates just after purchasing it. And, have yet to receive the actual plates registered under your name, pending the transferral process by the DMV. Moreover, you’re only allowed to do this if you’re carrying proof of the purchase, along with some other documents if you get pulled over by the cops.

Some Caveats To Can I Drive A Car Without Plates

Speaking of, that segues in neatly with our discussion of the many caveats to the subject of can I drive a car without plates. Driving without any license plates will undoubtedly attract the attention of a nearby cop or two. Or, perhaps some passers-by that called out the police on you, for driving without any plates. Whether or not you’re in the wrong in this matter, you will be pulled over and questioned.

At which point, you’ll be prompted by the police officer to explain why you’re not carrying any plates. If you respond with the “I just bought this car” story, you’ll need to have some documentation on you to prove it. This’ll include:

  • Title (and registration, ideally), which you should get from the seller or previous owner.
  • Driver’s license and ID, just to prove your identity, and perhaps match up or verify the purchase.
  • Bill of sale, which is an agreement (or contract) between you and the previous owner to transfer this car over to you. There are details in there that contain the agreed-upon price, mileage, a simple summary of the car’s specifications and details, as well as contact information and signature of both parties.
  • Proof of insurance papers, as every car on the road, is required to have insurance. Moreover, you’ll have to be certain that the insurance has taken effect by the time you’re driving. Usually, car insurance will only start covering you on the next day or business day after signing the policy into effect.
  • Temporary plates or permits, because in some states, you’re never allowed to drive a car without any plates, anyway. Thus, the notion of can I drive a car without plates in these states is a solid No, as you still need some form of road-legal registration.

How Can You Get Temporary Tags Or Plates For Your Car?

So far, we’ve debunked the idea of can I drive a car without plates. While technically you can under an acute few unique circumstances, we’d still advise heavily against it. Even with the documentation and solid reasons as to why you’re driving a car that’s missing a set of plates, the police aren’t likely going to leave you be. You risk getting a ticket, getting your car impounded, or losing your driver’s license.

Thus, it’s best to avoid this situation completely and get yourself a set of temporary tags or plates for your new car. As the name implies, temporary plates aren’t permanent, as they eventually have to be replaced for the proper plates. Most states permit you to drive for a few hours or days without plates. Or in some cases, you’re allowed to drive without plates until you reach home or the nearby DMV.

Until you can get the fully-registered license plates, the temporary plates tell the police that you’re in the process of getting it done, so they aren’t going to bother you. In other words, rather than driving around in an unregistered car (if you don’t have plates), the temporary plates will make it seem as if you’ve already licensed your car to be driven on the public road. At least, until the plates expire.

We’ll discuss more about the expiry periods of temporary plates by the state in the next section. For now, let’s take a closer look at how you’re supposed to get your hands on temporary license plates of tags. This is something that you’ll have to do at your local DMV offices. And be sure you hurry with that, as there’s also a small window between when you bought the car and applying for temporary plates.

Step-By-Step On How To Get Temporary Plates For Your Car

Here’s a quickly condensed guide on how you can get temporary plates, hence avoiding the potential pitfalls of can I drive a car without plates completely…

Can I Drive A Car Without Plates

  1. Understand how much time you have between getting your hands on the vehicle, before applying for a temporary plate to be made. Most states give you more leeway of a few days before needing to get a set of temporary plates done, as long as you intend to keep driving on the road.
  2. Call up the local DMV to understand more about the laws and regulations around temporary plates. This includes how much time you have before needing to apply for one. Secondly, how long do temporary plates last? And finally, ask them about how to apply for one, and what you need to do.
  3. Next, you should prepare before heading over to the DMV for the application. The registration process varies from state to state. Usually, you’ll need to bring your driver’s license, title and registration, lien paperwork, insurance documents, and any emissions test or vehicle inspection report (if applicable).
  4. Now, head over to your local DMV office. You can try skipping the queue by making an appointment earlier on. Before that, make sure you also have some cash on hand. You will be incurred a processing fee by the DMV for getting your temporary plates done. Typically, it’ll be in the tens of dollars.
  5. With some states’ DMVs, you might also have to furnish them with your VIN and personal ID as part of the application process. At this point, all you need to do is fill up whatever form they have. Finally, the DMV will print out a temporary tag, which is usually a piece of paper that you can tape onto the back window or license plate mount.

Can I Drive A Car Without Plates, By State Laws

So, what’s our summary so far on can I drive a car without plates? Yes, you could drive a car without a plate on it, if only for a very short distance and time after just getting your hands on it. To extend this period and allow yourself more freedom to drive around in your newly acquired car, you can apply for a set of temporary plates. These at least give you, sometimes up to 3 months, worth of driving.

You can then stick on the proper plates later on, once the DMV has processed them, and sends them to you through the mail. Just remember that the temporary plates don’t last forever. If you’re caught driving a car with expired temporary plates, it’s just as bad as driving an unregistered, no-plate car. A probable trick, if you’re running out of options, is to get a one-way trip pass from the local police.

These passes can be bought, if your state permits them. But if you do get a temporary pass, that’ll let you drive for a set period or distance to wherever you need to go. But in any case, here’s a thorough rundown of each states’ laws concerning the issue of can I drive a car without plates. Plus, it includes details about its respective (pre)conditions, how long you have before you have to register for one.

And, how long temporary plates last and are valid for, sorted by whether or not you could even drive without plates…

1. Can I Drive A Car Without Plates – States That Say No, Or Maybe

State Can I Drive A Car Without Plates Registration Time For New Plates Temporary Plates Validity Period
Alaska Maybe, refer to the local DMV 20 days 20 days
Arizona No (dealer purchases), or Yes (private seller, with a 3-day permit) 15 days Valid until new plates arrive
Arkansas Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Connecticut Maybe, refer to the local DMV 10 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Delaware Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days 30 days
Florida Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days 30 days
Georgia Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days 30 days
Hawaii Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Idaho Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Indiana Maybe, refer to the local DMV 60 days 30 days
Massachusetts No 10 days (new purchases), or 7 days (ownership transfer) Not available
New Jersey No (except for dealers, which can issue temporary plates/tags) 10 days Valid until new plates arrive
Oklahoma No 30 days 30 days
Washington No (though you may apply for a 3-day travel permit) 15 days Valid until new plates arrive

2. Can I Drive A Car Without Plates – States That Say Yes (Permits Required)

State Can I Drive A Car Without Plates Registration Time For New Plates Temporary Plates Validity Period
Kansas Yes (with a 60-day permit) 60 days 60 days
Kentucky Yes (with a 30-day permit) 15 days Valid until new plates arrive
Louisiana Yes (with a 60-day permit) 60 days 60 days
Maine Yes (with a 10-day permit) 10 days 10 days
Maryland Yes (with a 30-day permit) 30 days 30 days
Minnesota Yes (with a 21-day permit) 21 days 21 days
Missouri Yes (with a 30-day permit) 30 days 30 days
Montana Yes (with a 40-day permit) 40 days 40 days
New Mexico Yes (with a 30-day permit) 30 days 30 days
New York Yes (with a 30-day permit) 30 days (with an inspection report required) 30 days
South Dakota Yes (with a 5-, 15-, or 45-day permit could be applied) 45 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Texas Yes (with a 5-day permit) 30 days 30 days
Virginia Yes (with a 3-day permit) Maybe, refer to the local DMV 30 days

3. Can I Drive A Car Without Plates – States That Say Yes (With Conditions)

State Can I Drive A Car Without Plates Registration Time For New Plates Temporary Plates Validity Period
Alabama Yes (with a bill of sale) 20 days 20 days
Colorado Yes (up to 3 days, depending on the seller/dealer) 60 days 60 days
Illinois Yes (only for 24 hours, and only straight to the DMV after purchase) 30 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Iowa Yes (up to 30 days, with a bill of sale) 30 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Michigan Yes (from point of sale to home within 3 days, with title) 15 days 15 days
Mississippi Yes (up to 7 days, through an authorized dealer) 7 days (business days, +2 days for cars bought out-of-state) 7 days
Nebraska Yes (with a transit tag provided by the seller/dealer) 30 days Valid until new plates arrive
Nevada Yes (with insurance and permit) 30 days (private seller) Valid until new plates arrive
North Dakota Yes (up to 5 days, with proof of ownership) 30 days 30 days
Oregon Yes (with a trip permit/pass) 30 days 30 days
Wisconsin Yes (up to 2 days) 2 days (to register and get temporary plates done) 90 days
Wyoming Yes (up to 45 days, with title and/or bill of sale) 45 days (private seller), or 60 days (dealer purchases) 30, 60, or 90-day plates

4. Can I Drive A Car Without Plates – States That Say Yes (With Temporary Plates)

State Can I Drive A Car Without Plates Registration Time For New Plates Temporary Plates Validity Period
California Yes (with temporary plates) 10 days 90 days (until new plates arrive)
New Hampshire Yes (with temporary plates) 20 days 20 days
North Carolina Yes (with temporary plates) 30 days 30 days
Ohio Yes (with temporary plates) 30 days 30 days
Pennsylvania Yes (with temporary plates) 90 days 90 days
Rhode Island Yes (with temporary plates) 20 days (dealer purchases), or 5 days (private seller) Valid until new plates arrive
South Carolina Yes (with temporary plates) 45 days Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Tennessee Yes (with temporary plates) Maybe, refer to the local DMV Maybe, refer to the local DMV
Utah Yes (with temporary plates and bill of sale) 60 days 15 days
Vermont Yes (with temporary plates; 10 days within Vermont, 30 days out-of-state) 30 days (with an inspection report required in 15 days) 60 days
West Virginia Yes (with temporary plates) 10 days 60 days (until new plates arrive)

Facts about Driving and License Plates:

  1. Driving without a valid rear license plate is illegal in all 50 states, and the only exception is during the brief window after purchasing a new car when a temporary plate must be attached.
  2. The penalty for driving without a license plate varies from state to state, but you can typically expect a ticket and fine for driving without a license plate (to learn more, check out our guide on can you buy a car without a license).
  3. The repercussions can be more serious if you are caught driving without license plates for an extended period, becoming a repeat offender, or failing to register your vehicle or renew the registration.
  4. Nearly half of all states do not require a front license plate, but it is important to check your state’s laws before driving without one.
  5. Front license plates can be helpful in law enforcement’s search to locate a stolen car.
  6. Plates for a new car usually arrive in the mail within a few weeks, and you must register your vehicle via your DMV before getting your license plate.
  7. License plates and tags are two different things, and you need both to drive legally.
  8. Driving without tags or with expired tags can lead to a ticket if an officer spots the missing or outdated stickers.
  9. It is possible to get car insurance without a license plate, and you typically need to bring proof of insurance when you register your vehicle to get your permanent plates.
  10. To drive legally, you must purchase car insurance before driving your new car, register your car at the DMV as soon as possible after purchasing it, and replace your temporary plates with your permanent ones.

Final Thoughts

So, let’s end off with a summary… Can I drive a car without plates? Most states will say that yes, you could drive a vehicle without any plates on. However, there is always plenty of provisions, clauses, red tape, and fine print in play that’ll either inconvenience you. Or, perhaps confuse you, and land you on the wrong side of the law. Being caught driving an unregistered car is punishing and pricey.

It may cost you your driver’s license, a ticket, or getting your new car impounded. Nevertheless, most states do let you drive off without any plates for a set period of time after just buying one. Yet, we’d still recommend that you immediately head over to the local DMV, and get a set of temporary plates made while waiting for the proper plates to arrive. On this occasion, it’s best to play things safe.

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