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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.

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

Nebraska Vanity license plate that says "Limits" on the back of a red car.
Nebraska license plate | Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you just purchased a car from a private seller, say on Craigslist, they can’t give you the car with the plates. For them to legally sell the vehicle, they have to turn in those plates, leaving you plateless. Only then is it “technically” OK 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 vehicle, 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 following two things are crucial.

You’ll need a bill of sale to prove you just bought the car. The form varies from state to state, but it’s pretty simple. You and the seller will agree upon the 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.

However, you’ll need to ensure it’s insured before you even pick up the car. 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. Typically, an insurance policy doesn’t take effect until the next day (or the next business day). So, ensure your coverage before you drive away on your new ride.

All this varies by state, and you should check First Quarter Finance to see your laws. 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 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 doing, driving without insurance is illegal.

In terms of license plates, there are some states where it’s OK to operate without a front license plate. However, you must have a rear license plate no matter where you live. 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 to the list of expenses.

Driving without insurance is even more punishable, 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 penalty may only be $100, but you could face up to five years in jail. A complete list of state laws can be found on MarketWatch, but I wouldn’t change it.

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

Getting temporary tags is either very easy or very hard, depending on what state you’re in

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

Can Someone Really Steal Your Info From Your License Plate?

Like all good bureaucracy, it makes no sense. There’s no coherency or logic, 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, plastered on the car in several locations. After that, you’ll get a piece of paper to 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 a one-way trip pass is 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 ensure you follow all the complex laws. However, driving without a license plate is an option if you bought a vehicle from a private seller. 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.