Car Tags: What They Are & Why You Need Them

Car ownership can be confusing because there’s a lot you have to keep track of – the status of your oil, the last time you got your tires changed or rotated, whether or not your windshield wipers can make it through another season, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! Another area of car ownership you might be confused about is car tags or your car’s registration.

Car tags are the stickers you put on your car’s license plate. These stickers indicate what year your car’s registration is valid through. You must renew your registration every year, two years, or three years depending on the state.

The rest of this article will answer your questions about car tags, why you need them, and what happens if they expire. If you’re curious about these stickers and what they mean, keep reading!

Why Do I Need Car Tags?

Car tags are proof that the car’s owner renewed the registration for their vehicle that year. Not having up-to-date car tags visible on your vehicle is illegal, and you could get fined or otherwise punished if you forego this responsibility.

In all fifty states, car owners have to register their cars with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in their state. States use this information when assessing taxes or determining proper vehicle ownership in the event of a theft. Law enforcement will always ask to see your car’s registration when they pull you over.

After the initial registration, car owners need to renew their registration every year. When you renew your registration, you receive car tags – stickers that you put on your license plate.

The cost of initial registration can be pretty hefty, depending on which state you live in. Florida, Montana, and Iowa have the highest initial car registration fees at $225, $217, and $196.

Renewing your car’s registration also isn’t free. The cost varies from $30 to $50, and sometimes the price is more if the vehicle’s weight is more. After you pay this fee, you’ll get car tags – colorful stickers with digits that indicate the year that the registration expires. These tags go on your license plates, typically in the corner.

Cleaning Your License Plate Before Applying Car Tags

Before you put your car tags on your license plate, you should ensure that your license plate is as clean as possible so the stickers stick well. License plates can get dirty with pollen, mud, grime, bugs, and other road debris, so you’ll need to clean them well!

Once you have everything you need, follow these steps:

  1. Remove the license plate by unscrewing the bolts.
  2. Put the removed plate in a bucket of warm, soapy water.
  3. Scrub the plate with a sponge.
  4. If there are still bug splatters on your license plate after scrubbing, you may need to use an automotive bug solvent.
  5. You can apply an automotive wax to reduce UV damage if you’d like.
  6. Replace the license plate.

Now you’re ready to put on your car tags!

If you need an automotive bug solvent, I recommend this 3D Bug Remover (available on Amazon) because the product loosens the protein immediately, so you can easily wipe it away. It also works on tree sap. 

Suppose the bolts holding your license plate in place seem worn out and need replacement. In that case, I like the LivTee Rustproof License Plate Screws because they are easy to install, and you won’t have to worry about needing to replace them again because of weather damage.

How to Renew Car Tags

Renewing car tags is a similar process in every state, but the exact procedure may differ depending on which state you live in, so check with your state’s DMV for their rules.

Usually, you’ll receive a registration renewal notice in the mail at the address listed on your car’s registration. Most of the time, this notice comes with a return envelope that you can use to send your payment for your renewal. Most state DMVs don’t accept cash, though, so keep that in mind.

Using mail-in orders is usually the simplest way to renew your registration, but you’ll still have to wait for the mail to come. So, it may take a week or two to get your new sticker if you go this route.

Another option is to pay for your registration renewal at the DMV. However, DMV wait times are notoriously long, so it is probably best to avoid going to the DMV in person.

Some insurance companies, including AAA, have DMV services for their members, so you could visit one of their offices to renew your car tags. The wait time here will likely be much shorter than at the DMV.

You could also see if there are any DMV kiosks near you. These freestanding kiosks aren’t in every state, but if you have one near you, it can handle many essential DMV services, including renewing your car tags. The kiosk will print your new tag immediately after you pay!

Some states have automated systems where you can register for an automatic annual withdrawal from your bank account, so you don’t have to worry about forgetting.

What Happens If I Let My Tags Expire?

If you let your tags expire, you could get a ticket. If the authorities pull you over, you will get a fine or a penalty determined by the laws in your state, the officer who pulled you over, the last time you renewed your tags, and the proximity to the expiration date.

It is your responsibility to pay to update your registration on time and affix the new car tags to your car properly to avoid punishment.

You can (and will!) get pulled over for car tags that are expired or missing on your vehicle, which will result in a fine. You don’t even have to be driving the car to get fined. If a police officer is driving down your street and notices that you have expired tags on a vehicle parked in your driveway, you can still get a fine.

It is not enough to simply have the car tags, either. You need to place them on your plate correctly to be safe from fines. So if you have your car tags and they’ve just been sitting in your house or your glove box, and you’ve been avoiding putting them on for some reason, get them on your license plates right away!

Some states require you to go to court to pay the fine. You should prove that you have since updated your registration and now have the proper tags on your license plate at this court date.

The punishment could be more severe, though. If your tag is more than six months expired, your car could get impounded, and removing your vehicle from impound can be costly and complicated.

Most cars in impound are not available for release until you solve the problems that caused the impound in the first place. So, it is best to avoid this situation entirely and just get your car tags taken care of before you get ticketed and punished.

If you lose your car tags, you’ll need to fill out an “Application for Replacement Plates, Stickers, Documents” form. The form’s title may differ depending on the state, but the function is the same. You’ll need to provide the following information:

  • Your name
  • Address
  • Driver’s license number
  • License plate number

Then, mail the form and payment to the address provided on the document and wait for your tags.

What Is the Difference Between a Car Title and Car Tags?

Car titles establish the owner of a vehicle, and they never expire. Car tags indicate the status of registration, which determines the legality of driving a car on public roads. Tags expire.

A car title is a single document that establishes who the vehicle owner is, and the title only needs to change if the owner changes. The title will usually have the following information:

The title reflects the vehicle’s information so future owners know the history and can make an informed purchase.

Car tags and car titles are essential to have if you are a car owner, but they are very different and serve different purposes.


As long as you renew your car’s registration every year and properly affix the car tags to your license plate, you shouldn’t have any problems with the DMV or law enforcement regarding your car’s registration. That means less expense and stress for you and more carefree driving!

You might also want to read: What Happens if You Get Caught Driving an Unregistered Vehicle?

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