Most states have systems in place to dangle that vehicle registration you need right beyond your reach until you correct an issue you've overlooked. It's called the Vehicle Registration Withholding Program in Virginia, and a vehicle registration block in Texas. Whatever the name, you get the idea - your wheels won't be road-legal until you get the problem straightened out.
The most common reasons you might not be able to register your vehicle are financial. You neglected to pay something to someone somewhere, and that entity has notified the DMV or MVC in your state. It can be personal property taxes in Virginia. The state will also withhold your registration if you owe money for parking tickets, along with Wisconsin. Unpaid toll violations are a common culprit in several states, including Virginia and Texas. Virginia is particularly touchy about its tolls - you only need to have two before the state's Withholding Program kicks into gear. Texas is much more forgiving. You can accumulate up to 100 before you become a habitual offender and subject to a registration block.
Some states, including Wisconsin and California, will block registration because of a vehicle's exhaust. You must take your car to an inspection station for a smog check or emissions test before you can register it or renew your registration. You'll typically receive a certificate if your vehicle passes, which you can then provide to your state's DMV or MVC - you're good to go. Otherwise, you'll need to get your car repaired before you can register the car. You'll probably have to take your vehicle back for a second inspection after you've had the problem fixed.
Don't let your insurance lapse
Many states will block you from registering your vehicle if you don't have auto insurance, particularly if you're involved in a crash (Ref 3) or if your policy has lapsed for an extended period of time - 30 days or more in Pennsylvania. (Ref 4)
What to do
Check your state's MVC or DMV website if you encounter a block when you're trying to register your car. Some, like Wisconsin, make it pretty easy to find out what the problem is. The state offers a free search engine.
In all likelihood, however, you probably received some sort of notice in the mail to alert you that there's a potential problem. Virginia's DMV will notify you if you have any outstanding payments due that could block your registration. Texas will send you two notices if your toll violations are getting out of hand.
- Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles: Denial of Registrations or Renewal
- State of Wisconsin Department of Transportation: Request Incidents That Prevent You From Obtaining a DMV Product
- Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: Restore Vehicle Registration
- DMV.org: What to Do If Your Car Fails an Emissions Test