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How to Buy a Car in the USA as a Tourist

by | Dec 5, 2016 | Road Trip Tips, USA | 0 comments

The below is a rough step by step guide on how to buy a car in the USA as a tourist.  It should not be taken verbatim because laws and regulations vary state-by-state.  It is not legal advice and individual research should be performed in order to meet your personal needs.

Before we start, it is perfectly legal to buy to buy a car in the USA as a tourist, it can just be time consuming and confusing given the differing state by state rules.  Before diving in, it may be worthwhile to see our article on the whether to buy or rent a car in the USA.

Step 1 – Get an International Driver’s Permit

You can only get these from your home country.  Although not required to legally drive, most insurance companies will need these to provide you with insurance.  Which you will legally need.

In the UK these can be acquired from the Post Office for as little £5.50.

Step 2 – Research Registration

Requirements vary state by state, so research the exact requirements for the state you plan to purchase your vehicle in on the DMV website.

Some states are more straight forward than others.  For example, it is much easier to register a car as a tourist in California than it would be in the state of New York.  This could impact where you start your trip.

Step 3 – Gather your insurance data

Take a look at what cars are in your budget and make a shortlist of the types of potential cars you could purchase.  The type of car you purchase will contribute drastically to your enjoyment of the road trip.  If you plan on sleeping in the vehicle then ensure it is big enough, if you’re planning on off-roading it needs to have the appropriate tyres, suspension and clearance.

To check car values Kelley Blue Book provides great estimates of current values of makes and models.

Find a physical home address within the state you plan on registering the vehicle.  Whether the DMV or insurance broker will accept a hotel or hostel address is up for debate.  A friend’s address, the car dealership or even a PO box may be a better bet.

This will enable a much less hypothetical discussion with a broker.

Step 4 – Talk to an insurance broker

Talk to an insurance broker; without insurance you can not drive any car you buy.  Again, insurance requirements vary from state to state.  Insurance brokers will be experts for their state and further afield.  Although they will be able to tell you what the minimum requirement is, you should think long and carefully about whether you would prefer to pay the premium for a more comprehensive insurance.

Insurance should be researched early as this is the biggest obstacle to buy a car in the USA as a tourist. Insurance brokers may flat out refuse to insure you as a tourist or if you lack a state driving license.  If they will insure you, they may charge a premium so high it becomes unfeasible.

Your premium may be high for the following reasons:

  • You may be classed as a new driver
  • Lack of previous driving history data; US companies may not be able/want to get hold of your previous records
  • Most states factor a portion of the rate on an insurance credit score which you will not have

If you want to discuss insurance before arrival then Sunrise Worldwide are a specialist Non-US insurer. (We hold no affiliation to Sunrise).

It is extremely unlikely that any travel insurance policy you have will provide appropriate insurance or cover you for any injuries if you are driving.

Step 5 – Buy a car

If an insurance broker gives you a hypothetical green light and you are confident you can acquire all the documents required for registration, take the plunge.  This is actually the easiest part.  It is the same process to buy a car in the USA as a tourist as it is for a local.  Cars can be found from dealerships, private sellers, sites such as Craigslist or fellow travellers.  A price is agreed and the cash is paid. 

Upon purchase you should receive a bill of sale and titles (this will vary by state).  Some dealerships will not allow you to drive away the car until you show them your insurance.

Step 5 & a half – Inspection

Ok, this is half a step because depending on where you buy a car from depends on who is responsible for the inspection.  In some states if you buy a car from a dealership the inspection is the responsibility of the dealer, whereas with a private sale responsibility will probably fall to the new owner.

Inspection rules vary so you will need to be clear on your responsibilities.  Again, check the DMV website.

Depending on the state, inspection can be performed before or after registration. 

Step 6 – Purchase that insurance

If you take an annual policy ensure that you can get a refund for any unused months.  For example you don’t want a non-refundable year long policy for a 6 month trip.

Step 7 – Register

Head on down to the DMV and register your new vehicle.  Ensure you and the seller have completed the necessary paperwork (or better yet convince the seller to accompany you).  If all the paperwork is in order then you will pay your registration fee and probably have to purchase a new set of plates.

Step 8 – Purchase breakdown cover (optional)

Let’s be honest, if your budget could stretch to buying a new car you probably wouldn’t go through the effort of the above.  So more than likely you are on a tight budget and that budget is probably going to get you a car with over a 100,000 miles on the clock.  America is a big country and if you break down in the desert you can find yourself in serious trouble.  Repairs can be costly and time consuming.  If you do purchase a car, breakdown cover could be a very worthwhile investment.

Always ensure you have the tools and a spare tyre to deal with a flat and make sure you carry emergency food, water and insulation.


If you have been able to buy a car in the USA as a tourist we would love to hear from you below. Make sure you mention the state of purchase and your experience. 

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About The Author

Strategy consultant by week, explorer by weekend. His first ever hike was a 9 day thru-hike at Torres del Paine and it was love at first hike. He now sleeps better in a tent than a bed. He would rather drive for 2 hours down a country lane than sit for 2 minutes in traffic. He has been known to lead driving safaris in areas without wildlife with a Justin Bieber soundtrack.

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