Getting Around: Guidelines for Owning a Car in the United States

For many students owning a car brings many advantages. There are also significant responsibilities and obligations. As an international student you need to be sure you learn about the US federal laws and the state laws that govern driving, and owning a car,before you start driving on the road.

You also need to consider all the costs associated with owning a motor vehicle (car purchase, maintenance and repair, fuel costs, parking passes, auto insurance and New York State Department of Motor Vehicle fees).

NYS Laws Governing Owning a Car

  • Click here for information regarding New York State Driving Laws.
  • Click here for information on laws that protect persons in New York State when they buy a new or used car.

Buying A New or Used Car? Which choice is best for you?

Although a new car will most likely give you fewer problems than a used one, it will also prove to be far more expensive. If you buy a new car and sell it 12 months later, you can expect to face a rather substantial financial loss. It is generally not recommended that you buy a new car if you will be in the United States for a relatively short time. As soon as your drive a new car off the sales lot, there will be a major loss the car's financial value.

Buying a Used Car - Research is the first step

While there is always some risk in buying a used car, it's value decreases far less than that of a new car over the same period. Consumer Reports provides information on quality used car types and provides information on models to avoid.

When buying a car make sure it is in the price range you can afford. You can buy a car directly from an individual owner (ads can be found daily in the local newspaper, Press & Sun Bulletin); you can also find car ads for your zip code online at sites such as You can also buy from an established car dealer. Buying a car directly from a dealer may offer you the opportunity for a full guarantee on the car. Thus, if anything goes wrong, the dealer may potentially repair it at a minimal cost to you.

Additional Suggestions

  • When buying from an individual, pay no cash until you have obtained a title.
  • Try to find a car that has had a special rubberized undercoating treatment available. During the winter, salt is put on the roads to melt the snow, and cars that are not treated tend to have problems with the body of the car rusting.
  • Take any car you are considering buying to a trusted mechanic or auto diagnostic service before you make a final decision. If the car does have some problems, ask the mechanic the approximate cost of repairing any defects. Minor problems, which can easily be repaired, can be used to negotiate a lower price. A car with major problems should be avoided.
  • Check the warranty, make sure you know what is and what is not covered and compare it with other dealerships.
  • Discuss the price with the seller. Do not assume the listed price is the price you are required to pay.
  • Once you have found one or more cars that interest you, call the Better Business Bureau at 1-800-828-5000. Ask them for information about the dependability of the automobile dealerships with which you are dealing with. The Better Business Bureau keeps a record of consumer complaints and this information can be helpful.
  • Visit This site provides vehicle history information using an identification number (VIN) found on vehicle dashboards and title documents. The information provided on a vehicle includes such things as accident history, number of owners, service records, etc. This is a membership-required web site which demands a membership fee of $20-30. Many dealerships will provide a free Carfax report if you request one.
  • Be very careful and avoid buying a flood-damaged car. Be advised that there was a major flood in the Binghamton area in June 2006.

Renting a Car

You can also consider is renting a car for the specific period you plan to travel. While this will not allow you to have a car available at all times, it will provide you with transportation when you need it and may cost far less in the long run. Cars may be rented by the day, week or month from companies that are listed below.

In order to rent a car as a foreign visitor you will:

  • Need an international driver's license or a driver's license from your home country and an International Driving Permit.
  • Be asked to pay in advance a portion, if not all, of the anticipated costs.
  • Be required to pay with a major credit card.
  • Need to be 25 years or older (21 for some dealers).
  • Costs of car rental vary from city to city and from company to company and will be based on the size of the car you rent and the time you will keep it. A modest additional charge will cover your insurance.
  • Most companies have offices in the main cities of a region and at large airports as well. (Several rental car companies are located around the Greater Binghamton area and at the Greater Binghamton Airport).
  • Most companies participate in "one-way" rentals in which a vehicle can be rented in one city and returned to the company's office in a different city. Some one-way rentals are assessed a one-time drop charge or mileage charge in addition to the rental rate.

List of Major Car Rental Companies

Binghamton University also offers Hertz 24/7, a car-sharing service for students, faculty and staff. Three new vehicles are available that drivers 18+ can rent for low, by-the-hour or by-the-day rates. Cars are conveniently located right on campus next to the parking garage on campus. Register now.

Leasing a Car

Many car dealerships offer the option to lease a car for one or two years. You will need to have an international driver's license or a NYS driver's license. Check with the car dealer to learn what they require.The cost of leasing will vary depending on:

  • The dealer
  • The model of the car
  • Your credit rating
  • If the car is a new or a used car
  • Level of auto insurance coverage required by the company leasing you the car

Most leases will run for a minimum period of two years.Leasing a car is not necessarily the best choice. When you compare the costs of purchasing a car to leasing a car it may appear that leasing will cost you less money. However, those costs may not be realized if the company leasing you the car insists on greater auto insurance coverage than you wish to purchase if you were buying the car.

When you lease a new car, you generally receive a new car guarantee covering major parts and labor. Accident (liability) insurance is not usually included in this fee. You will need to check with the car dealer, about the level of auto insurance coverage required.

Please Note: Since you are not a permanent resident of the United States, you may be asked to pay all or part of the leasing fee in advance.

After You Buy a Car - What You Need to Do Next

If you purchased your car with cash (not with a loan):

  • Obtain a Car Title Certificate.
  • Obtain proof of ownership and the Title of Ownership. The person from whom you purchased the car should be able to give you the Title at the time you finalize the purchase.

If you purchase a used car from a dealership, they will have to provide you with the Title. Most New York State automobile dealers send the application for your State vehicle registration and title certificate to the DMV (they may charge a fee for this service).

If you purchase a used car from an individual, the proof of ownership is the Title Certificate that the previous owner has to sign in order to transfer the ownership to you:

  • Obtain the signed copy of the Title Certificate from the owner.
  • Make sure the owner does not have a lien on the car (A lien means the present owner owes money on a car loan they used to purchase the car). The front of the title will specify if there is a lien. If the owner does not have the Title Certificate, ownership of the car is probably held by a lending institution.
  • Pay no money to the seller before the Title Certificate is signed over to you.
  • Obtain a written receipt for the purchase of the car from the seller.

Arranging for Auto Insurance: A Legal Requirement When You Own a Car

The owner of a motor vehicle registered in New York State must purchase auto insurance coverage for the motor vehicle before the vehicle can be driven. You must also register the vehicle with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) before the vehicle can be driven.

Certain categories of drivers are required to have auto insurance that costs more than auto insurance for other drivers:

  • If you are a male and under 25 years of age, your insurance will cost more than the fee for other drivers of an older age/sex categories.
  • If you are a "new" driver (holding your license for less than 3 years), you must pay a 20% surcharge on your base insurance rate.
  • Be sure you are dealing with a reputable insurance company. Questions to ask the insurance agent before you buy auto insurance include:
  • Is your company authorized to do business in New York State?
  • If a friend (brother, roommate, anyone but you) borrows my car, does their name need to be listed on my auto insurance policy?
  • Do I need to have a US driver's license to purchase auto insurance?
  • Will the auto insurance company charge a higher fee (premium) if I use an international driving permit and my home country driver's license?

Documents You Need to Purchase Auto Insurance

In order to purchase an auto insurance policy, insurance companies require that you present the following:

  • Driver's license: The Company will request driver's license numbers for everyone listed on your car insurance policy as a driver of the motor vehicle. In general, car insurance companies require you to present a valid US driver's license.
  • Vehicle Identification Number (VIN: A car's vehicle identification number is the identifying 17-digit code for your SPECIFIC automobile). You can find the VIN on your vehicle registration card and on current car insurance documents. Sometimes you can find the VIN on the driver's side windshield or dashboard inside the car.
  • Title of Ownership
  • Payment for Auto Insurance
  • Social Security Card: Requirements for a Social Security Number vary from company to company.A Social Security number is required by some credit-based companies in order to verify the information you provide on your auto insurance policy application. If you do not qualify for a Social Security Card, receive a "letter of ineligibility" from the Social Security Administration, and send it to the insurance company if it asks for it.

Information About Insurance Companies

Below is a list of insurance companies to consider. The purpose of this list is tosimply to give you information. It is your choice to make regarding the insurance company you purchase auto insurance with:

What Type of Auto Insurance Coverage Do I Have To Buy?

The level of auto insurance coverage you purchase is up to you. At minimum your auto insurance must include the following:

  • Bodily Injury Liability: New York State law requires minimum coverage of $25,000 per person, $50,000 for bodily injury to all persons.
  • Property Liability: NYS law requires minimum coverage of: $10,000 per accident.
  • Personal Injury Protection (called No-Fault).This refers to medical insurance for yourself and passengers in your own car. Coverage also includes coverage for loss of wages and services. The minimum protection is $50,000 per person.

You can also purchase additional, optional auto insurance coverage:

  • Collision - Any accident that occurs involving your car.
  • Comprehensive - Any loss other than collision (fire, theft, vandalism, etc.)

The Department of Motor Vehicles will suspend (cancel) your registration if you have a lapse of auto insurance. The DMV may also suspend (cancel) your driver's license. It is required that you have current auto insurance information in your vehicle at all times.

For more information on insurance-related regulations, click here.

Helpful Tips for New York State Motorists

  • If you receive a suspension letter from the DMV, immediately contact your agent or insurance company.
  • If you cancel your auto policy because you have selected a new company or agent, make sure that the effective date of your new policy matches the cancellation date of your previous policy.
  • Do not remove liability insurance from any type of motor vehicle you own or lease until you have surrendered your license plates to the NYS DMV. A lapse in coverage is subject to fine or penalty from New York State or suspension of your registration and driver's license.
  • The vehicle must be registered in the same name as the named insured(s) listed on the declarations page of your policy.
  • If your vehicle or license plates are stolen, you need to make a police report and submit a copy of the police report to your local DMV office. The DMV will issue you a FS-6T form for lost or stolen plates. The effective date on the FS-6T will match the date on the police report.
  • If you add, replace, or delete a vehicle from your auto insurance coverage be sure you receive an endorsement from the insurance company acknowledging the change to your policy.
  • Check your vehicle identification number (VIN). The VIN on your vehicle, registration, ID card, and policy must be the same.
  • Be sure you or your car dealer registers your new car immediately. A car dealer has five days to submit the registration paperwork to the DMV. A vehicle purchased through a private sale needs to be registered as soon as possible. The DMV will not accept an insurance ID card as proof of insurance if the effective date is not current. Be sure you are not driving a car that is not registered with the DMV office.
  • When moving out of New York State, you need to obtain insurance in your new state as soon as possible. Only then should you surrender your New York State plates and cancel your New York State auto insurance coverage.

Register Your Car with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles

In order to register your car with New York State, you need to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) where a representative will examine your application and documents.The address of the NYS DMV office is: 80 Chenango Street Binghamton, NY. You can check on office hours by calling: 607-778-2337 or online at

Information on what documents you will need to bring to the NYS DMV officecan be found here.

Click here for information on how to determine what the cost will be to register your vehicle.

Dealing with Car Repairs

At some point, your car will most likely need repairs for some reason. It is suggested that you arrange for roadside assistance either through the car dealer when you buy a car or with a private company like the American Automobile Association (AAA). University staff will not be available to rescue students whose cars have broken down.

You can find out about roadside assistance service from your car dealer or from AAA.

What You Need to Do IF You Have an Accident

Unfortunately, driving a motor vehicle means you may someday have an accident. You will want to review the information here so you know what you are legally required to do if you are involved in a motor vehicle accident. The laws apply to accidents in parking lots, the BU campus, on roads or any highway.

You will be asked to provide proof of identity and proof of auto insurance coverage in the event of a motor vehicle accident.

Avoid Trouble With the Police - NYS Traffic Laws You Must Obey!

Alcohol Consumption:

  • Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a very serious crime in New York State.
  • A blood alcohol level of .08 is considered to be DWI. You can be arrested and lose your driving privileges. Click here for additional information.

Cell phone use:

  • In New York State, you must have a "hands-free device" to use your cell phone in the car while you are driving. This law is in effect on BU campus and on all roads or highways. Click here for more information.

Seat Belt Use:

  • The driver and all passengers in a motor vehicle must always wear their seat belt.
  • Infants and children must be in appropriately sized infant or child car seats.
  • Click here for more information.

If Stopped By the Police:

  • Click here for more information on what to do if you get pulled over by police.

Web Pages You May Find Helpful

NYS DMV Internet Office

NYS Attorney General

Consumer Reports

(Information included on this webpage is derived from a variety of sources: NYS DMV, NYS Attorney General, NYS Insurance Board, New York Central Mutual Insurance Company, Syracuse University Lillian and Emanuel Slutzker Center for International Services, SUNY Buffalo International Student Services, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators)



Last Updated: 8/28/14