Your proof of car insurance documents are incredibly important. However, since you only need to show them on rare occasions, they are also easy to forget about or misplace. Here are the main reasons why your proof of insurance documents matter, as well as how they work.

In this article:

What is proof of insurance?

Most people are familiar with the insurance ID cards that you keep in your vehicle in case you are ever pulled over or involved in an accident, but there are actually two types of proof of insurance.

The second, sometimes called proof of coverage, is usually available in letter form. This is a document that provides the information your lender needs about the coverage on the car, including details usually not mentioned on your insurance ID card.

Here is what you’ll typically find on each document:

Insurance ID card

  • The insurance company’s name, address and a phone number for claims or questions.
  • The name of the insured driver.
  • Policy number.
  • Start and expiration dates of the policy term.
  • The year, make and model of the vehicle, as well as the vehicle identification number (VIN).

Proof of coverage

  • The information contained on the insurance ID card.
  • The coverages included in your policy.
  • Your policy’s limits and deductibles.
  • The name and address of any lienholders, such as your lender.

How do I get proof of insurance?

Your insurance company will typically mail your insurance ID card to you when you activate or renew your policy, along with your declaration page and other policy documents.

If you’ve provided your lender’s information to the insurance company, the insurance company usually sends evidence of insurance to the lender, but you’ll have to do so yourself if the insurance company doesn’t. In most cases, your policy’s declaration page is acceptable evidence of insurance.

If you’ve lost or misplaced either document, it’s often easiest to simply download a new copy from your account pages on the insurance company’s website or smartphone app. You can usually also request a print or digital copy anytime from the insurance company or your agent.

When do I show proof of insurance?

The most common reasons you’ll need to show proof of insurance include traffic stops and accidents, as well as when you finance, buy or register a vehicle. Here are a few more things to know about each occasion.

When you are pulled over

Law enforcement officers in the District of Columbia and every state except New Mexico will accept the digital version of an insurance ID card as proof of insurance. However, it’s still a good idea to keep an updated printout in your glove box, next to your vehicle’s registration. This way, you can just hand the documents to a law enforcement officer instead of fumbling around with your smartphone while dealing with the anxiety of a traffic stop.

In New Mexico, insurance companies provide proof of insurance to the state’s Motor Vehicle Division, which suspends the registration of vehicles with no insurance record in place.

When you're involved in an accident

It’s pretty easy to let another driver snap a smartphone photo of your insurance ID card, and get him or her to allow you to do the same, after a collision. If you and the other driver are trading screenshots of your ID cards from your smartphones, make sure the other driver’s information appears valid before you leave the scene.

While you’re at it, you can also use your smartphone to get pictures of the other driver’s license and license plate, as well as photos of any damage.

When buying a car

Auto dealers typically require you to show proof of insurance to drive a new or used car off the lot. If you’re just trading one vehicle in for another, your existing insurance ID card, print or digital, will usually suffice.

If you don’t already have car insurance, you can get quotes ahead of time and activate the policy from the dealership. Most dealers also provide an insurance referral or two because they want to close the deal.

Either way, you can usually access your proof of insurance documents from your smartphone after you provide your payment information to the insurance company. Or you can ask the agent to fax the documents over to the dealer.

Bear in mind that a dealer only needs to see that you meet your state’s minimum insurance requirements. If you finance the vehicle, your lender will have additional requirements.

When financing a vehicle

Lenders usually require evidence of insurance showing that your policy includes collision and comprehensive coverage, and they may also set limits on deductibles.

When registering a vehicle

Most states require that you provide proof of insurance when you register your vehicle, either in person or by mail or electronically within a specified time period. For this, your insurance ID card, print or digital, will usually do the trick.

What if you fail to provide proof of insurance?

Most states require motorists to provide proof of insurance to a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop or at the scene of an accident. You may be cited and fined for not carrying proof of insurance.

Depending on the state, these penalties might be reduced or waived if you subsequently prove that you were insured at the time.

If you’ve financed your vehicle, failure to show proof of insurance to your lender in a timely manner can turn into a costly hassle. As an additional interest on your insurance policy, your lender will be notified if the policy is canceled or lapses.

If you don’t have a new policy in place, the lender will acquire “force-placed” coverage — and require you to pay the premiums. Force-placed insurance is almost always more expensive than coverage you shop for yourself.

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