Is It Ever Okay to Drive A Car Without License Plates?

Driving without registration or tags sounds like a one-way ticket to the slammer. After all, what is a car without its license plates? But there is one case where you could, in fact, drive without any plates on your car without even getting a ticket.

Wall of License Plates
Wall of License Plates | George Rose via Getty Images

There’s only one time you can “technically” drive a car without registration or license plates

If you just purchased a car from a private seller, say on Craigslist, they can’t give you the car with the plates. In order for them to legally sell the vehicle, they have to turn in those plates, leaving you plateless. Only then is it “technically” okay to drive the car without plates, but you will be pulled over, and there are a few contingencies.

For starters, you’ll need the car’s title. If the seller doesn’t have that, I’d suggest looking at a different car, as it’s very complicated to get one of those when you aren’t the original owner. Have your license ready as well, as a form of ID. Those two are obvious, but the next two things are crucial.

In order to prove you just bought the car, you’ll need what’s called a bill of sale. The form varies from state to state, but it’s fairly simple. You and the seller will agree upon price, note the mileage on the odometer, and put in some basic contact information. From there, you sign, and presto! The sale is in writing.

Before you even pick up the car, however, you’ll need to make sure it’s insured. If it’s a hunk of junk that’d be more expensive to insure than to scrap, you just need liability insurance. Otherwise, load up on whatever coverages you have, and have proof of insurance ready to go. Typically, an insurance policy doesn’t take effect until the next day (or next business day). So make sure your coverage is in place before you drive away in your new ride.

All this varies by state, and you should check First Quarter Finance to see what your laws are. However, showing these things to the authorities when they, inevitably, pull you over can save you some trouble.

What can happen if you drive without plates, or without insurance?

Two police vehicles parked side by side in a city
Police Vehicles Parked Side By Side | (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Other than the one outlined exception, driving without plates is illegal. And no matter what you’re driving, driving without insurance is illegal.

In terms of license plates, there are some states where it’s okay to operate without a front license plate. However, no matter where you live, you must have a rear license plate. Otherwise, you’re looking at steep fines and possibly losing your license. And if the car gets impounded, that’s $40 a day for 30 days, adding onto the list of expenses.

Driving without insurance is an even more punishable offense depending on the state you like. In Delaware, the fine is $1,500, and your license is immediately suspended for six months. In Connecticut, the fine may only be $100, but you could face up to five years in jail. A full list of state laws can be found on Marketwatch.com, but I wouldn’t chance it.

All that said, there’s a very simple way to prove you’ve just purchased the car and are in the process of getting it registered. Go to your local DMV and grab some temporary tags.

Getting temporary tags is either very easy, or very hard depending on what state your in

Department of Motor Vehicles
Department of Motor Vehicles | John Paraskevas/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Like all good bureaucracy, it makes no sense. There’s no coherency and no logic to it, just paperwork and signatures. But, at your local DMV, you can purchase temporary tags (or trip tags) that let the authorities know your car is in the process of getting registered.

You’ll need the vehicle identification number, or VIN, which is plastered on the car in a few different locations. After that, you’ll get a piece of paper that you can tape to the back window or plate holder and drive to your destination. These tags are temporary, lasting anywhere from 10 to 60 days, and you’re expected to have the car registered by the time the period ends. Otherwise, it’s an unregistered car, and you’re bound to get busted.

You can also call your state police department and ask if there is a one-way trip pass available for purchase. Some states don’t have any available, but the ones that do allow you to drive to your nearest police station, get the temporary trip tag, and then drive the car from wherever you bought it to wherever it needs to be.

The best practice is to make sure you’re following all the complex laws. Though, if you did just buy a vehicle from a private seller, then driving without plates is an option. It’s a dicey option, but it is an option. Just obey every traffic law, and don’t give cops a reason to fine you.

RELATED: Can Someone Really Steal Your Info From Your License Plate?