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What to Do With License Plates After Selling a Car

Marc Skirvin
Marc Skirvin

What's in this Article

Let’s face it, as much as you like your current vehicle, it’s not going to stay with you forever.

Even if you’ve employed mechanics to take care of engine troubles, and been diligent about only using the best car battery on the market, at some point it will have run its course.

Selling a used vehicle can be a challenging experience — from finding the right platform to attract buyers, to finalizing the sale.

But it’s certainly not over once money has changed hands. It can be difficult to know what to do with your old license plate, particularly as conventions can differ from state to state.  

We’re going to take a look at what your responsibilities are post-sale, and variations that can crop up. 

Your Legal Requirements

License plates are designed to link a specific vehicle with a certain driver. Once you grasp this simple concept, it can be easier to understand the importance of taking responsibility for what happens to your plates after a sale. You don’t want to run the risk of the vehicle being misidentified as still belonging to you. 

Once the vehicle has been sold, it’s your legal responsibility to sign over the title to the new owner, using the forms specific to your state. For the majority of areas, you will also be required to also surrender your license plates and tags to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). This certainly isn’t the only circumstance under which you have to surrender your plates — if you are relocating to another state, or no longer have car insurance, you’ll need to undertake this process too. 

Specialized Plates

One circumstance that differs from the norm is in the case of personal license plates. Of course, it’s unlikely that you’ll leave your specially designed plates on a vehicle you’ve just sold — and chances are your buyer wouldn’t want them unless by some coincidence they happened to share your name! Still, you also have responsibilities in the case of retaining your vanity plates. 

Once you’ve removed the plates from your car, and signed over the title to the vehicle, you will need to inform your local DMV of your intention to retain your personalized number plates. Processes can vary from state to state, so it’s best to check in with your local office to get the best advice for your area.

However, once you’ve lined up a new vehicle, you should then apply to reassign your personal license plate to your new vehicle. In some states, a simple transfer in your own name won’t incur a fee. However, if you’re transferring the plate to a relative or friend, they may incur a charge. 

Where Plates Stay with the Car

The vast majority of states require owners remove their license plates and hand them in upon sale. However, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. In California, Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota, and Oklahoma the law specifies that when a vehicle transfers ownership, the license plates must stay with the car.

In Delaware this can get a little more complicated as low-numbered plates are considered valuable, and the state allows for plates to be transferred to another car for a fee. There is also the opportunity for Delaware drivers to swap number plates with one another upon completion of applicable DMV paperwork.

In Minnesota, not only do the license plates stay with the car, but the paid registration taxes are also transferred to the new owner. 

Potential Consequences

Taking care to research the requirements for your particular state is important. As a vehicle owner you have certain obligations, and your failure to pertain to these can result in serious consequences — some of which you may not have considered. 

Some of the more prevalent problems can revolve around the issue of liability. When you own a vehicle and have an accident, it’s usually a straightforward process of  exchanging information and informing your insurance company accordingly.

However, if you fail to remove your plates and return them as per your state’s requirements, the vehicle can still be connected to you if it is involved in an accident or crime even though you were not physically involved.

This can complicate identification of the parties involved in an incident, and in the majority of states you could still be considered the liable owner, and subject to any penalties, fines, or compensation. 


It might not seem like a huge issue, but it is important to undertake all the required administrative steps when selling your car. This isn’t limited to transferring the title, or cancelling your minimum liability auto insurance — you have to pay due diligence to the correct actions with regard to your license plates.

By taking a few simple steps, you can limit the possible consequences, and concentrate on enjoying the fruits of your sale.

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About the Author


Marc is the Co-Founder of Cash Auto Salvage and Director of daily operations. He retired from a leading Internet Marketing company in 2013 and has been involved in the automotive industry ever since.

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