License Plate Lookup

License Plate Lookup in the United States

In the United States, a license plate lookup refers to a search conducted, typically online, using a license plate number to look up information about a vehicle or the vehicle owner. There are many reasons why an individual may conduct a license plate lookup. These include:

  • Obtaining information about a driver who has fled the scene of an accident. You can perform a license plate lookup if you witness a hit-and-run accident to track the owner of a vehicle.
  • Finding information about vehicles that are illegally parked in restricted areas or vehicles that were spotted suspiciously driving through residential or commercial areas.
  • A license plate lookup may also be helpful if you intend to purchase a used vehicle. In such instances, conducting a license plate lookup will help confirm the credibility of the information provided by the sellers.

Like other public traffic records, license plate information is available to interested and eligible members of the public on request.

What is a United States License Plate?

License plates in the United States are vehicle registration plates issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, a state or territorial government agency, or a district government for identification and registration purposes. License plates typically include emblems, colors, or slogans connected with the issuing authority. Registration number formats used on license plates are generally alphanumeric and are designed to provide enough unique numbers for all vehicles expected to be registered in a jurisdiction. The registration number is often embossed – or, less frequently, stamped – into the license plate. Additional identifying information, such as the issuing jurisdiction's name and the vehicle class, may be printed on the surface or embossed. Regular or standard-issue license plates usually have 5-7 characters, with specialty or personalized license plates having up to 8 characters in some jurisdictions.

Many states in the United States require vehicles to display either one or two license plates, that is, at the rear of the vehicle only or on both the rear and front. In jurisdictions that require vehicles to display two license plates, some exceptions may apply, such as for commercial vehicles, government-owned cars, diplomatic vehicles, dealer-owned automobiles, or historic vehicles.

The Departments of Vehicles in the United States also issue specialty license plates to their residents. Specialty plates are commonly designed to promote specific causes or nonprofits and are costlier than regular license plates. A designated portion of the license plate fees is set aside for the organization or cause represented on the plate.

Motorists can also obtain personalized or prestige plates from the issuing agency in all states. Personalized plates, also called vanity plates, are license plates with custom serials - a sequence of letters and numbers that requesters can choose. Commonly, personalized plates are prohibited from containing obscene or profane messages, although specific standards as to what constitutes unacceptable statements vary among issuing jurisdictions.

In the United States, individuals with disabilities are granted special plates with the International Symbol of Accessibility, which entitles them to special parking rights. Alternatively, a placard, which may be hung from the rear-view mirror in certain jurisdictions, may be provided; the placard has the benefit of being transferable from vehicle to vehicle.

Are License Plates Public Records in the United States?

Technically, license plate information are public in the United States. Interested persons may conduct a license plate look-up in the United States using a free or paid service online. License plate numbers and related information are also maintained by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in each state. Nearly all state DMV agencies offer an online system that residents may use to conduct license plate inquiries. Typically, license plate lookups conducted using free services only offer basic information about the vehicles, such as the state where the vehicles are registered, registration statuses, vehicles make and model, and the year of manufacture.

However, license plate lookups performed using a paid service or through the DMV will usually provide extensive information about the vehicle and the vehicle owner. A comprehensive result obtained from a license plate lookup include information about:

  • Branded title
  • Accident or damage report
  • Vehicle registration issues
  • Recent vehicle inspections
  • Limited license plate owner information
  • Driver’s criminal history
  • Odometer readings
  • Vehicle description

Note that individuals may be required to pay a nominal fee to access vehicle information maintained by the DMV.

Third-party aggregate sites are a reliable alternative for obtaining license plate information. These sites are maintained by independent establishments which collate the information from government-run repositories. Obtaining records from these sites often proves substantially easier than government alternatives. However, requestors may be required to provide any information required to facilitate the record search and pay any required fees to access the record of interest.

How Do I Get a License Plate in the United States?

To obtain a license plate in the United States, you must register the vehicle in the state where you reside. To complete registration for the vehicle, you will need to show proof of ownership through your vehicle's title and then submit several documents as required by your state's Department of Vehicles. The following are the typical documentation required for completing the vehicle title and registration process:

  • State-issued driver's license or ID card
  • Proof of insurance
  • Proof of sales tax payment
  • Signed lease agreement
  • Proof of a passed safety inspection
  • Proof of a passed smog test
  • Vehicle registration application form
  • Vehicle Identification Number
  • License plate number
  • Driver's license number
  • Vehicle registration card
  • Proof of payment for title and registration fees. Registrations fees are relatively affordable but vary per state. Titling fees range between $3 and $120, while registration fees vary between $5 to $230.

Once you have all the required documentation, you may proceed to your local Department of Vehicles office. However, you should consider scheduling an appointment in advance. Many DMVs allow walk-ins, but that is not a guarantee that you will be attended to without an appointment. Wait times at DMVs can be extended.

Passenger License Plates vs. Commercial License Plates

Generally, state DMVs issue standard or general-issue license plates to passenger cars, while commercial vehicles are issued commercial tags or commercial license plates. General issue or standard-issue license plates are also called passenger license plates. Many states have their own definitions for passenger and commercial vehicles. However, vehicles used for private purposes such as sport-utility vehicles, passenger vans, pickup trucks, or cargo vans are considered passenger vehicles. On the other hand, commercial vehicles are automobiles weighing over 8,000 pounds used to transport passengers or hazardous materials that require placarding.

Regardless of whether you intend to obtain a passenger or commercial license plate, the vehicle owner must first complete a title and registration process in the state. States have varying requirements for obtaining different license plates; so, visit the website of the DMV in your state to verify the specific requirements for obtaining the applicable license for your vehicle. Note that in many states, registration fees for commercial vehicles vary per the vehicle's weight.

How Can I Find the Owner of a License Plate in the United States?

You can find a license plate owner in the United States by conducting a license plate lookup. In each state, a government agency is tasked with issuing license plates and maintaining a database for vehicle plate numbers and vehicle owner information. Hence, you may contact the local office of the DMV to carry out a license plate lookup. You may visit the local office in person or complete an information request online on the local DMV website. However, unless you have a legitimate reason under the law, the United States Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) restricts DMVs from releasing the personal information of vehicle owners.

Still, with the basic information obtained from a license plate lookup, you can cross-reference the data with other public records such as phone directories to find the license plate owner.

How to Renew Your License Plate in the United States

Typically, vehicle license plates are renewed when vehicle registrations are renewed. Vehicle registrations may be due for renewals yearly or biennially, depending on your state. Many jurisdictions permit motorists to renew their vehicle registrations online so that residents can complete the process in the comfort of their homes or workplaces. In other jurisdictions, you may complete the process by visiting the local DMV in person or by mail. Most states in the United States allow residents to use any of the three options to complete the process.

The following may be required to complete the renewal process:

  • Certificate of registration
  • Photo identification
  • Applicable renewal fees and taxes
  • Proof of insurance
  • Proof of inspection
  • Valid state-issued driver's license
  • Proof of payment
  • Current license plate information
  • Renewal notice

For motorists that signed up with the DMVs to receive notifications when vehicle registrations renewals are due, the steps to complete the renewal process will be included in the notice.

Can You Look Up License Plates with VIN?

Yes. While vehicle owners complete the vehicle registration process at the local DMV, the agency collects information about the vehicle, including the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), before issuing license plates to the vehicles. All information collected from registrants are kept in the department's motor vehicle records, which may be searched if required. Therefore, if the VIN of a vehicle is known, you can obtain information about the license plate linked with the vehicle by visiting the DMV or using an online tool that can access motor vehicle records in the state where the number plate was issued.

VIN Number Lookup

A vehicle identification number (VIN) is a unique code used by vehicle manufacturers to identify individual motor vehicles, scooters, moped, and towed vehicles. A VIN lookup is a search conducted, typically online or at a local DMV office, using the vehicle identification number to obtain information specific to that vehicle.

Beginning in 1954, VINs have been used by American automobile manufacturers to describe and identify motor vehicles. Prior to 1981, VINs came in a wide array of variations and configurations, depending on the vehicle manufacturer. In 1981, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standardized VINs in a fixed format to contain 17-character serials. No two VIN numbers are the same.

To conduct a VIN lookup, the vehicle identification must be known. The VIN may be seen on the lower-left side of the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. The serial code may be read by peering through the windshield on the vehicle's driver's side. You can also find the VIN at the front of the engine block, front of the car frame, rear-wheel well, inside the driver-side door jamb, or underneath the spare tire. Also, the VIN is usually on the vehicle owner’s manual, vehicle insurance records vehicle title, or the vehicle registration card.

A VIN lookup can reveal information about a vehicle’s:

  • Previous ownership
  • Service and maintenance history
  • Manufacturer’s recalls
  • Flood damage
  • Accident history
  • Airbag deployments
  • Lien records
  • Odometer settings
  • Previous theft records, if any
  • Warranty details

If you are considering purchasing a secondhand vehicle, particularly from a private third party, it is essential to do a VIN lookup to ensure you are not purchasing a damaged vehicle. You can quickly ascertain if the vendor is being truthful about the vehicle's condition, whether the vehicle has been involved in an accident, and whether any recalled components have been changed or not.