What to Do About Lost or Damaged License Plates

By: Alicia Sparks June 6, 2012
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Simply put, you can’t legally drive a vehicle without tags. You must replace lost or damaged license plates as soon as possible.

Of course, replacing them is a process like any other DMV transaction, riddled with state and situation variations.

Complete a Replacement License Plate Application

Most states require an in-person visit; some allow drivers to download, complete, and mail in a replacement license plate application.

Save yourself some time and check on your state’s specific requirements. We recommend calling or checking online, but if you’re in the neighborhood and have some spare time, pop in the DMV office.

Regardless of how you get in touch with your state motor vehicle agency, be sure to find out:

  • If you must submit the application in person or if you can mail it in.
  • If you need to have the application notarized.
  • Whether the DMV mails replacement plates or issues them in person. (Even if you have to pick them up in person, some states, like Washington, require drivers to verify their address prior to beginning the replacement process.)
  • Whether you get temporary plates to use until your permanent ones arrive and, if not, whether you should create a “Stolen License Plate” sign while you wait.
  • If you can keep or need to return a damaged license plate.

Special Replacement Regulations

Note that some states place regulations on the type of replacement plate you can order (or are issued).

For example, Kentucky won’t allow you to request the same plate number for the same calendar year during which the plate was stolen or lost. You can get the same number during the following year, though.

Pay the Replacement License Plate Fees

The good news is that license plate replacement fees usually don’t cost any more than what you paid during the initial register car process. Sometimes, the fee is even lower.

The better news is that, depending on where you live, you might get a replacement license plate for free. For example, West Virginia offers this service to drivers as long as they request the replacement plates during their car registration renewal.

(Of course, this option is only feasible for drivers with plates becoming worn or that happened to get stolen right before vehicle registration renewal time; otherwise, drivers with missing or severely damaged plates shouldn’t wait around.)

Report Lost or Stolen License Plates To Law Enforcement

Some states, like California, require you to report lost license plates to law enforcement. Generally, you’ll have to submit a copy of the police report with the application for the replacement license plate.

However, you should notify the police even if your state doesn’t require it. Should someone get a ticket, commit a crime, or have an accident in a vehicle bearing your license plates, having a police report on file keeps you in the clear.

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