Buying a car in the USA as a foreigner

Buying a car in the USA

Travelling across the USA can be done by many forms of transport though as we are backpackers we were looking for the cheapest possible transport and didn’t want to be limited by bus and train schedules and routes.

We looked into renting a car and at first this looked affordable but with all the additional charges, in particular the one-way surcharge, this was definitely not a cheap option. So the choice fell to buying our own car and transforming it into a house on wheels. We wanted to drive from Portland to Miami with a strict deadline of 6 weeks to catch a flight. This already created two challenges for us that we weren’t aware of at the time. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way that should help you make the decision whether to buy or not, and steer you in the right direction.

Before you buy

1. A residential address

You’re going to need a local address in the state of which the car will be registered. We didn’t need to show any proof like a rental agreement or anything so that makes it easy as long as you know someone who you can register it at their address still. We were volunteering with a great family through the Workaway program so they were nice enough to let us use their address and also post the title out to us in Florida once it arrived. The title being posted out was one big issue that we didn’t count on. We discovered there are still some weird old fashion hurdles that still exist in the USA and this was one of them. The DMV can’t print it for you on the spot and it takes 4 – 6 weeks to post to your residential address. We only owned the car for 6 weeks and it seriously came down to the day before we flew out of the country to arrive. If you are considering buying a car and reselling it, I wouldn’t risk it for less than a 7-week trip.


I spent many hours looking for the cheapest possible insurance company and filled in many applications right up until a roadblock I couldn’t pass. It seems like there aren’t any actual rules stopping a foreigner getting the insurance though just a few unintentional restrictions that don’t allow you to complete the application. For example; a US drivers licence number, or a US credit card. Another absolutely confusing and downright stupid thing is that it’s cheaper to pay with a cheque than a credit card!! So, if you’ve somehow time travelled from the 90’s with a US cheque book than you can post it in to the insurance company, wait a few weeks for it to be received and processed and you manage to save a couple of hundred dollars. But, failing that and failing having a US drivers licence the next best option I found after a couple of frustrating days was Progressive car insurance. It was the cheapest I could find that allowed me to input my Australian license number and credit card. The frustrating part with this one was that we had to pay for 12 months up front and once we sold the car, cancel the insurance and receive a refund of the unused months. So it worked out in the end but an expensive upfront cost.

3.Researching the car and buying

We knew we wanted to either buy a camper van or build a simple bed in a van. A lot of camper vans are huge old fords or similar that use a lot of fuel and obviously stand out when we’re trying to be inconspicuous. So we decided to look for a smaller family van or wagon and ended up with a Honda Odyssey. It was good on fuel and didn’t stand out when we wanted to park up and sleep in a nice safe neighbourhood. Craigslist is a pretty terrible website which looks like it hasn’t changed since it was created but there are loads of cars on there and it’s the main classifieds site in the states.

Road trip USA

You’ve got a car. Now what?

Receiving a title. Do not hand over money for a car without having the title in your hand! Take the title and your insurance details to the local DMV and fill out a couple of forms. This part of the process was surprisingly simple and strangely I didn’t even show my Australian licence or passport. If you’re registering the car in a different state to which you bought it there are a few other steps involved including new plates and more fee’s, the DMV website will be able to help you out here.

Now the fun part of building a bed and buying all the equipment for a 6-week road trip. We found a great second hand building supplies place in Portland and bought a perfect big piece of ply wood for $7 and that was about it. The great thing with the Honda Odyssey is the two rows of seats fold down flat and formed two thirds of the base for our bed. Roy, who we were staying with had all the electric tools that we needed and a range of wood and other things we could use so it made it cheap and quick to create our new home. Finding all of the camping supplies took a little longer actually, driving around between thrift stores, Walmart and Home Depot. The mattress we used was actually two pieces of 7cm thick foam from Home Depot and was surprisingly comfortable. We wanted to buy as much second hand as possible but things like sheets and pillows we wanted new and were really cheap at Wallmart. For the windows we used this great material used in home insulation that helped not only with privacy but blocked out lights and helped a little with warmth. We cut it to fit and slid it in to each window at bed time, no permanent glue or Velcro required. A simple curtain across the front and some fairy lights and we’re ready to hit the open road.

Building a bed in a van

Selling the car

1. Place the add on Craigslist in the state you wish to sell it.

2. If you’re selling in a state different to which you bought it, there’s not much difference for you as the buyer is responsible for registering it in their state. Keep in mind though it might be harder to sell and you may not get as much for it.

3. Make sure you keep the sellers part of the title, take it into the DMV or even easier use the DMV website to register the sale.

Road trip USA