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There’s a lot more to owning a car than just driving it around. You have to perform routine maintenance on your car, repair it when needed, and drive it regularly to ensure that it works properly. You also need to update the tags every year. But are the car tags the same thing as license plates?

What is the difference between car tags and license plates?

A registration sticker from March of 2017 on a Pennsylvania license plate
A registration sticker from March of 2017 on a Pennsylvania license plate. | Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

A car tag is the yearly registration sticker that you have to renew annually and stick onto the rear license plate of your car. According to Vehq, a “car tag will display the digits of the year in which your vehicle’s registration is valid through, such as ‘20’ for 2020.” On the other hand, the license plate on your car is the number plaque that uniquely identifies your vehicle to law enforcement and the DMV.

Why do cars need registration tags?

That little sticker on your license plate is proof that you paid your car’s yearly registration. The car’s tags are legally required to be affixed and visible on the license plates at all times. If not, then you could be pulled over and fined accordingly.

What is a license plate?

Tesla license plates
Tesla Model S license plate | Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Your vehicle’s license plate is a state-issued plaque that attaches to your car’s front and rear bumpers. Your car’s license plates are assigned by the state’s DMV upon the initial registration and they will stay with the car year after year unless you move to a new state. If you move to a new state and register the car there, then you will be assigned a new license plate according to that state.

How to know when your car’s tags expire

The tags on your car will expire when at the same time the registration does, so it’s important to know when your car’s registration is up. That expiration is different for every car and if you want to know when it expires, all you have to do is look at the plate itself – specifically the rear plate. One side of the plate should show a month and the other side of the plate will show a number to denote the year – “21” for 2021.

What to do when your car’s tags expire

A man walks into a California DMV office.
A man walks into a California DMV office. | Getty Images

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The DMV will send you a notice in the mail a couple of weeks before your car’s tag expires. Whenever your car’s tags are about to expire there are a couple of steps that you need to do:

  • Renew your car’s tags by mail or via the DMV in person
  • Affix the new car tags onto the license plate when you receive them

If you belong to an auto club like AAA, then you may be able to skip the DMV line and renew your car’s registration through them. Some states even have free-standing kiosks, which can be found in various public places, where you can renew your car’s registration and have it printed out right on the spot.

If anything, remember to visit your local DMV website and make an appointment if you need to visit the physical office. Your car’s tags may not be the same thing as the license plate, but they both expire at the same time so you need to remember to renew them.