US Road Trip Practicalities

This page dates from December 2004, prior to the eventual road trips detailed in Travelog and Epilog.

I hate having just to type the word 'practicalities'. If this were a Hollywood movie I'd leave the office (having told the boss where to shove his job), hop on a plane and arrive in a sun-drenched US to start traveling around in an immaculate 60's classic. Unfortunately for me, this is the real world and things don't work like that.

I learnt many years ago that if at any point I try to do anything dishonest then I get caught. The most recent example was my first journey on a Manchester tram, when I was told that they never check for tickets. Yes, caught and had to pay the fine. So I'm going to try to do this thing above-board and with a clear conscience.

Having decided to go to the US and buy a car, the next logical step will be to register it, insure it and make some sort of provision for breakdown cover. Sounds easy? If you have any spare cash then buy shares in BT because my phone bill from the last few months will surely nudge-up their profits.

Registration and Licence Plates

Unlike the UK, where our beloved DVLA in Swansea does everything, in the US every state has its own DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). It gets better, though, because each state has its own rules. For instance, in some states the number (licence) plates stay with the car. In other states the plates belong to the owner and not the car. It gets even better than that because for some states you have yearly stickers for their equivalent of road tax and in others you get new plates every year. Fantastic.

As I'm probably going to buy a car in either Arizona or Illinois I'm basing the below on my experience so far in dealing with either. I did - briefly - think about buying a car in California until I found out that they also need a 'smog certificate' and, if you get stopped by Jon or Poncherello (CHiPs = California Highway Patrol) and the car is registered in California they can demand that you take a California driving test. Great. That's my idea of a holiday.

So what have I learnt so far?

  1. Unless you're a resident of the state you have absolutely no chance of registering a car - and so getting licence plates - in that state. No sir, gee I'm real sorry we can't help, gosh I really wish I do something, you all have a nice day, absolutely no way Jose.

  2. American car dealers are no help whatsoever. A few offered to put dodgy 'dealer' plates on the car for a month. I'm planning on staying longer than that, and it wouldn't really help with insurance anyway. And, of course, I'd get caught. They have plenty of experience with straight export of cars, or sales to another state, but know nothing of overseas buyers who intend to register the car.

  3. As the long-time graduate of The Ratfink School for Cunning Rodents (Prop: Me - diplomas available if you send cash) the next step would seem to be to open a P.O. Box in the state and then use that for registration purposes. What a great plan. Illinois wouldn't even let me open a P.O. Box, though I could do so in Arizona. Would either DMV accept a P.O. Box on a vehicle registration form? Er, no. Well, Arizona said yes until I phoned back to double-check when they said no as well. It just gets better.

  4. So, what to do? Well, this is the best I can do so far. There are also independent post box companies such as Mail Boxes Etc. When you open a box with them you get an address that looks like:

    Fred Bloggs
    123 High St
    PMB 45
    67890 Zip Code

    Now that probably would not get past the DMV, who will know that PMB = Private Mail Box. Amend it as follows, however, and I think it may work:

    Fred Bloggs
    123 High St, #45
    67890 Zip Code

    Which could, of course, just be an apartment number in a block. I'm sure that you'd still get any post, as well. Dishonest? I'd rather not go there, if that's ok with you. I'd prefer the description 'creative'.

How will it all work out? Well, I'll obviously be locked-up in a Midnight Express-style prison whilst the guards repeatedly drive my car into the prison walls (could be worse). I can't believe that I'm the first person ever to try to do this, but it is beginning to feel like it.

I spent a long time yesterday talking to an Illinois car dealer about a Riviera I'm interested in. In passing, he mentioned that if I were an Illinois resident then on purchase of the car I could get 90-day plates direct from the dealer whilst the title and registration went through their own torturous process (unlike Arizona, in Illinois you can't get the licence plates straight over the counter but have to wait for them to be posted to you) for a fee of $220.

Hmmm. I can feel a plan coming on. Even if Illinois DMV throw my title application out, I've still got more than enough time to travel around on my 90-day plates - you can only spend 3 months in the US anyway, and I was thinking about going out for a few months, returning home, then going out again.


What are my chances of getting insurance without a US address? What are my chances of being able to play Dixie through a flute in my arse? Roughly equal, from what I can gather. Did you know that in quite a few US states car insurance isn't legally required? Nope, neither did I.

There are some companies who will cover foreign nationals, however. My best bet, as far as I can work out so far, is with an agent of Progressive insurance, who seem to have some sort of clue about foreigners. No US insurance companies will take into account your driving record - 'no claims' etc. - in the UK, so it won't be cheap. And we'll gloss over that address problem ...

Breakdown cover

For the car, not me. Though another bout of dealing with Illinois DMV may change my priorities.

The US has the AAA, giving coverage all over. Just like our own RAC or AA? Er, not quite. Each state has its own groups and you can't even get into their website without a zip code. Guess what you need to sign-up and one of their local offices? Ah, you've got it, a postal address. This one - like much of the above - probably can't be sorted until I'm actually there in their offices.

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