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Transport & Driving

Buying a Car in the US

Having your own four wheels can make life in the USA much easier. However, since importing a car can be quite a hassle, buying a car in the US is often the simpler choice. InterNations tells you what to look out for when choosing a vehicle and tells you about the change of ownership process.

Choosing a Car to Buy

It is usually easier to buy a car in the US rather than to import one. It is hardly surprising then, that many expats in the USA choose to go for this option. There are numerous car dealerships all over the country offering new and used cars. This abundance of choice makes it all the more important to compare prices and be careful when choosing a vehicle. Both the so-called Kelley Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealer Association’s Official Used Car Guide offer the chance to check prices for a very large range of models and to find out what a used vehicle is still worth on the market.

Before buying a car in the US, you should also try and research the history of the vehicle of your choice if it’s a used one. Find out what the dealer can tell you about former owners and see if the given information correlates with the car’s condition, e.g. is the odometer reading realistic in regard to the supposed previous use? You can also use the vehicle identification number (VIN) to investigate a car’s history. On the website of the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) there are various different service providers listed who can generate a NMVTIS report based on a car’s VIN. If you are purchasing from a dealer, they might even be obligated by state law to show you such a report. This is for example the case in California.

However, even if you have to order and pay for the report yourself, this is money well spent when buying a car in the US. For a small fee of around $10 – prices vary from provider to provider – you can get the title and brand history of a vehicle. This includes, for example, information on current and previous owners and the car’s theft history (if one exists). Note, though, that the NMVTIS report will not include any information on repairs.

If so far everything seems favorable, you might also want to get an insurance quote to see how expensive insuring the vehicle of your choice would be. And last but not least, letting an independent mechanic examine the car for any defects is always a worthwhile investment, not only when buying a car in the US.

Change of Ownership

Once your choice has been made and money and automobile have changed hands, make sure that the change of ownership is documented correctly on the car’s title. Double-check that the seller has truthfully filled out and signed his part of the title transfer information and complete, date, and sign the title yourself.

When buying a car in the US, you will then have to complete this title transfer, usually in a matter of days. Official car dealerships will typically take care of this paperwork for you. If that is not the case for you, you can complete the change of ownership process by visiting your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Please note that in some states a differently named agency is responsible for title transfers, registrations, driving licenses, et cetera. This is for example the case in New Jersey, where the Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) handles all automobile matters, or in Arizona where it is the Arizona Department of Transportation (AZDOT). An in Hawaii, such matters are dealt with on a local instead of a state-wide basis.

Similarly, the required documents necessary for buying a car in the US and finalizing the title transfer can also vary. In some states, you will for example be required to bring a bill of sale in addition to the title, while in others a title that includes information on the purchase price is sufficient. However, no matter where you ended up buying a car in the US, the next step now is to register your vehicle.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

InterNations Expat Magazine