When I went to the US last year on a J-1 visa, I had to figure out how to buy a car. I had never owned a car before, and I obviously did not have a US driver license.

If you are thinking about buying a cheap car for a road trip in the US to save on rental costs, it is probably not worth it: buying a cheap beater car exposes you to the risk of it breaking down, which will then cost you a lot of money to fix it. Buying a nicer car will cost you a lot of money upfront, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to sell it again at a good price. Also, you will spend at least a couple days shopping around and at the DMV.

This guide is for people who want to stay in the US for at least half a year or so. Note that I did this in Texas, YMMV in other states. The absolute minimum required:

  • A valid driver license from your home country
  • Money (car price, insurance premiums, a couple 100$ in fees and taxes)

Also useful:

  • A US residence and mailing address. This can probably be worked around by telling the people at the DMV that you just moved here and don’t have a fixed address yet, and they will then text you so that you can pick up your mail at the DMV.
  • US bank account. If you don’t have one, you need to pay in cash, unless the buyer accepts a foreign money transfer via TransferWise or so (unlikely).

Find a car

There are two ways to buy a used car: from an used car dealership, or from a private seller. Private sellers are cheaper, but more risky. Also, dealerships can do a lot of the paperwork for you.

There are countless used car websites (https://www.carmax.com/cars, https://www.usedcars.com/, https://www.cars.com/shopping/, …) which have private as well as dealership listings. Use Kelly Blue Book to check prices and compare them. On http://craigslist.org/, you will find mostly private offerings.

If you buy from a private seller, it might make sense to invest 100$ to get the car checked at an independent car mechanic before (I did this). Never buy a car before test driving it. Test all the details, it’s very annoying if the defroster doesn’t work or the sunscreen keeps folding down. If the car makes funny noises, don’t buy it.

Write down all the details like license plate number, year of build, VIN etc. You will need that to get insurance. It might also make sense to check CarFax to see if the car has been in an accident before.

Insure it

When you buy a car, the seller is supposed to still insure it for 30 days. However, you should buy insurance even before the transaction. You will need it anyways before you can register the car at the DMV.

The only insurance company I could find which accepts foreign drivers licenses is was Progressive. Just call them or do it online. Print the “proof of insurance”, it goes into the car glove box. When you get pulled over by the police, that’s the only piece of paper they really care about.

Ask the insurance if “time first licensed” includes time on foreign licenses. This might save you a little on the premiums.

The transaction and payment

After you have decided for a car, you will have to buy it. You should bring the following documents:

  • Texas DMV title application
  • A simple car bill of sale (Google for a template), a copy for you and one for the seller
  • Your proof of insurance

The seller should bring the title document. If he does not have it, he does not have proof that he legally owns the car. Don’t give him any money.

Also, the seller might want to take off the license plates before the transaction. In this case, he should bring temporary paper license tags (can be ordered through the TxDMV website).

After filling in and signing all the documents, you will have to pay. Your options, in order of recommendation:

  • Venmo (only works up to 2999$)
  • Check
  • Cashiers Check
  • Cash

Register it at the DMV

Go to the DMV with all the documents mentioned above. Ideally, you will go together with the seller. If not, make sure you have all the documents signed and ready (see the DMV website for a list). It is heavily recommended to get an appointment online, otherwise you will spend hours waiting at the DMV.

They will give you new license plates if needed, and then you are ready to go! The altered title document in your name will be in the mail after two weeks or so.

Bonus: Get a US driver license

Reasons to get one:

  • doubles as ID card, no more bringing your foreign passport everywhere
  • more choice of insurance, and premiums will be much cheaper (ca. 40% for me)
  • you need one anyways if you stay for more than a year
  • back in Europe, you might be able to get EU categories C1/D1/E added to your license for free by exchanging the US license

In the Texas, the DPS (not DMV) hands out driving licenses. Inform yourself on their website. You will have to take a theory test (when you first go there), then do a practical exam (do it at a private driving school if you don’t wanna wait for 2 months), and then go to the DMV again to get your license.