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Towing a Trailer without a License Plate: Legal or Not?

Towing a Trailer Without License Plate

Wondering if it’s a good idea to tow a trailer without a license plate?

Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Rules, regulations, and potential exceptions vary from state to state and things can get a bit confusing. This is where most of the confusion springs up.

Some people fear that they’ll encounter hefty fines or even jail time. Thankfully, you’ll find that most of the more extreme worries are unfounded.

This guide will help you find the information you need to make the right call. We’ve also included links to each states’ government resources for trailer title/registration laws.

Some legal jargon, before we dig in: This article is meant to be a helpful resource, not legal advice. Always independently verify the laws and regulations directly with your local government.

Does My Trailer Need a License Plate?

Whether or not your trailer needs a plate is almost totally dependent on the state you live in. As a rule, it’s safe to assume that a plate is required unless certain exceptions are met.

You may be exempt from a trailer license plate under these circumstances:

Exemption #1: Recently Purchased Trailer

If your trailer is newly bought, you don’t need to worry about driving it home without a license plate because you can instead show its bill of sale.

Any verified copy of the bill of sale can take the place of a license plate in just about every state.

This is why if you decide to take your tagless trailer for a ride, assuming it’s freshly purchased, don’t forget to always have your bill of sale available on hand. Some owners even decide to put it on the actual spot intended for the license plate, which also works.

Exemption #2: Trailer Use & Type

Some states, like North Carolina, for example, give exemptions to certain types of trailers. If it’s a trailer that’s used primarily for hauling items from farms like vegetables, farming implements, tobacco, or even livestock, it can be towed without a license.

The same can be said for trailers that are used to tow other vehicles (tow dollies). Even certain trailers that come from nearby states (e.g. South Carolina, where most types of trailers aren’t required to be registered) are often also given a free pass.

Trailer Registration & License Plate Laws by State

The following list includes links to government websites’ resources for all fifty states’ (and District of Columbia’s) trailer registration and license plate laws:

The .gov sites listed here are reputable government websites, but you should always double check that the information they provide is up-to-date.

Potential Penalties

It also wouldn’t hurt to be aware of the possible pitfalls once you end up getting caught for towing a trailer without a license plate.

This is one sure way of convincing people to avoid taking the risk of towing their trailers sans license plate, which happens to be done on a fairly consistent basis in the US.

Most just keep their fingers crossed and do get away with it, while others aren’t as fortunate which is often the case. In such scenarios, it’s likely that the worst you can expect is a ticket.

Some officers are more lenient and might let you go off with a warning, and you should consider yourself lucky if you encounter them.

Furthermore, you also shouldn’t even consider trying to replace a temporary alternative plate on it, which some people have been found guilty of doing. This could mean a more serious offense (and a larger fine). We’d like to assert that it’s surely not worth all the immense hassle it will cause.

Always err on the side of caution, taking the extra moment to ensure that you’re abiding by local laws and regulations.

Trailer Lighting

Upon taking a look at most states’ guidelines, you’ll find that most of the emphasis is placed on other factors like lighting and brakes.

It’s a given in any state, for instance, that your trailer must have working taillights. Each state also even has its own specific brake laws.

A lot of states are also stricter when it comes to ensuring the safety of trailers traveling within their jurisdiction. Most, for instance, would require you trailer to have backup safety chains, brake lights, and turn signals.

These are accessories that fulfill specific purposes that ultimately increase road safety, after all. Other towing requirements that vary in each state include weight (since it’s closely related to braking) and the dimensions of the trailer. The average height of the trailer should not exceed 13 to 14 feet and shouldn’t go beyond 8 feet in terms of width.

It’s also essential in virtually every state in the US for a trailer’s license plate to have proper lighting in order for it be easily seen.

Trailer Towing Tips to Keep in Mind

Always make sure to check the lights

Be mindful of the parts of your trailer that are considered as bare necessities, especially the taillights, license plate lights, and brake lights.

Having properly working brake lights do well in preventing a lot rear collisions. Tail lights, on the other hand, are always important for better visibility at night, which is arguably very vital for towing trailers.

Know your trailer better

From its exact height, length, and width, being aware of your trailer’s exact dimensions will help you avoid potential accidents while on the road.

Width and length are obvious factors, but it’s surprising how often many drivers underestimate their trailer’s height when they’re in tight quarters.

It’s equally important to familiarize yourself with how the trailer naturally follows your vehicle. Oftentimes, trailers are easy to drive but you may have to be extra careful when performing turns (especially sharper ones) or when backing up.

The latter is especially challenging, and it’s often recommended to practice it first. Most experts will advice to think ahead and limit situations that would require you to back up a trailer at all.

Practice better braking

Most trailer drivers have to anticipate a longer stopping distance every time they decide to brake. This is why it’s also preferred that drivers keep a farther distance between their trailers and vehicles in front of them.

How fast you’re going also plays a huge role in braking, which is why a lot of states have enforced a towing speed limit of exactly 45 mph.

Heavier trailers even have to be fitted with trailer brakes to make up for the excess weight.

Trailer brakes tend to be far more unpredictable than vehicle brakes, though, especially if they aren’t serviced. It’s extremely important to make fresh, clean brakes a priority.

Saltwater boat trailers can have the most challenging brakes to maintain. Few things are worse for brakes than a regular saltwater dip.

Moral of the story: Trailer brakes are necessary and helpful, but you’ll always be safer if you don’t count on them. Give yourself more time to stop than you think you’ll need, especially with a heavy load.