What Are Car Tags [And What To Do When They Expire]

Visiting the DMV to ask questions can be an arduous affair. From the long wait times to rude clerks, and unclear answers, sometimes you might leave the DMV even more confused than when you entered. Even getting to the bottom of a seemingly simple question like what are car tags, and what to do when they expire, can be no easy feat.

We’ve compiled this guide on just that so that you can avoid the DMV. Read on to learn all about the ins and outs of car tags, how to renew them, and what could happen if you don’t.

Car tags are the yearly registration sticker that you place on your license plate every time you renew your vehicle’s registration. Car tags will display the digits of the year in which your vehicle’s registration is valid through, such as “20” for 2020. You should follow these steps when your car tags expire:

  • Renew your car tags via mail or by visiting a DMV office or license DMV center
  • Affix your new tags to the appropriate display location on your license plate or vehicle

Now that we’ve gone over the basics of what car tags are, and what to do when they expire, let’s dive into some of the deeper questions surrounding this issue. Keep reading to learn even more about car tags, and also what could happen if you don’t renew them on time.

Man placing 2020 sticker into license plate, What Are Car Tags [And What To Do When They Expire]

Why Do Cars Need Tags?

Cars need tags as proof of yearly registration. Along with your registration and insurance cards, your car tags are legally required to be with you or affixed to your vehicle at all times. Not carrying these documents with you while you drive is illegal, and could result in steep fines or penalties.

When you buy a used car, you’ll have to transfer the title along with registration. You can read our guide all about how to transfer a car’s title here.

Without your car tags visibly displayed, your vehicle’s registration status will be unclear, and could get you into trouble with law enforcement or when selling your vehicle.

Are Tags and License Plates the Same Thing?

Red ford GT mustang showing license plate

No, tags and license plates are not the same things. Your vehicle’s license plate, as opposed to say, it’s VIN, is state-specific, and as such, is assigned by the state’s DMV upon initial registration. If you are buying a used car, the vehicle’s license plates will be from the last state in which it was registered.

If you plan to register your new vehicle in the same state, this is no problem. If, however, you plan to register your car in a different state than it was previously registered, you will have to surrender the current license plates to the DMV and affix new, state appropriate ones upon purchase.

If you want to know more, you can read our guide on what to do after buying a car here.

Your vehicle’s license plate will stay with your car, year after year, unless it is reregistered in a new state. Your car tags, however, will need to be renewed each year. After receiving your new tags, you should immediately display them in the appropriate location, typically on the corner of your license plate.

How Do I Know When My Car Tags Expire?

Your car tags will expire at the same time as your vehicle’s registration. However, because everyone’s initial vehicle registration will come at different times, it is essential to be aware of when your registration is due.

The year listed on your car tags is a good starting point but does not indicate that your vehicle is registered through the entirety of the listed year.

If, for example, you register your vehicle in March 2020, your tags will read “21”. This does not mean that your tags are good through all of 2021, but are only valid through the following March in the year 2021.

Can I Get Pulled Over For Expired Tags?

Police officer pulled over driver

Yes, you certainly can get pulled over for expired tags. The fines and penalties will vary depending on whether or not your car’s registration has been renewed, the proximity to the expiration date, and the discretion of the officer in question.

To avoid any unnecessary fines or penalties, it’s highly recommended to stay on top of your vehicle’s registration and display your current car tags immediately after you receive them.

What To Do When My Car Tags Expire?

When your car tags expire, it’s time to renew your vehicle’s registration. As you receive your car tags upon registration, these two activities are the same.

Usually, you will receive your registration renewal notice at least several weeks before your current registration expires. Your renewal notice will not necessarily be sent to your home address but will go to whichever address you listed as your mailing address at the time of your vehicle’s registration.

If you receive your renewal notice on time, you can choose from the following ways to renew your registration:

  • Mail your renewal payment directly to the DMV. Your renewal notice will typically include a return envelope with which to enclose and send your payment. As long as your payment is postmarked by the date listed on your renewal notice, your registration renewal will not incur any fees or penalties. Most, if not all, state DMV’s will not accept cash as payment via mail-in renewals.
  • Visit your local DMV, wait in line, and pay your renewal fee in person. As you very well know, DMV wait times can be enormous, and as such, it is highly recommended to renew via other methods if possible.
  • Some insurance companies, such as AAA, offer in-house DMV services to their members. Their offices can handle several essential DMV services, including vehicle registration and car tags. The wait lines are often much shorter than at the state DMV office.
  • Some states, such as California, even offer freestanding DMV kiosks. These kiosks can be found in various public locations throughout the state and can handle many basic DMV services, including vehicle registration. They can even print your new registration card and car tags immediately upon receiving your payment.
  • Make an appointment on the website of your state DMV to pay your renewal fees. Making an appointment can drastically shorten the amount of time you will have to wait at the DMV office, but does require you to schedule the DMV visit. There is often a several week wait-time between scheduling and your appointment, and as such, if your registration is coming up soon, you may not have enough time. If you miss your appointment, you will have to reschedule and wait for up to several more weeks.

Businessman using a laptop

Now that you’ve read our thorough guide on car tags and what to do when they expire, you’re sure to be well informed on the topic. Staying on top of your vehicle’s registration is crucial to avoid any fines or penalties the DMV may levy for late payments.

Remember, the year on the car tags alone is not a good enough indication of when your tags are due; it’s always important to check the date of registration to make sure you’re paying your renewal on time.

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