In almost every state in the U.S., you are required by law to carry auto insurance if you have a vehicle registered in your name. If you choose to forgo car insurance, you could be facing hefty fines, a license suspension and even jail time, to say nothing of the out-of-pocket costs if you cause an accident. Bankrate explores the consequences of driving without insurance so you understand how serious it can be.

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Do you have to have insurance to drive?

Generally, yes. Most states require that you purchase at least the state’s minimum required car insurance coverage types and limits to drive legally. The only two exceptions are New Hampshire, which doesn’t legally require coverage, and Virginia, which allows you to opt out of car insurance each year by paying a $500 uninsured motorist fee.

In many states, though, you can satisfy a similar “financial responsibility law” in another way, like posting a bond or showing proof of self-insurance. While these methods allow you to drive without car insurance, they are usually more expensive than purchasing a policy, which means most people opt for auto insurance coverage to drive legally.

Although the mandatory minimum levels differ from state to state, most states require at least the following coverage types:

  • Bodily injury liability: This covers medical costs for anyone you injure in an auto accident. Minimum requirements usually fall between $10,000 to $25,000 per person and $20,000 to $50,000 per accident, but can be higher.
  • Property damage liability: This part of your policy covers damage to the other driver’s vehicle and to any other property that is damaged by the accident (such as a fence or light post). Minimum requirements usually range from $10,000 to $25,000, but can be higher.

Some states also have other requirements, such as uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage, medical payments coverage or personal injury protection (PIP). The latter two cover your medical costs and those of your passengers and are mandatory in some states, but optional in others.

What are the consequences of driving without insurance?

If you drive without auto insurance, you’re likely going to face consequences. The severity of these penalties depends on a number of factors, including the state you are in when it happens and whether this is your first or a repeat offense. There are many ways you could be identified as an uninsured motorist, and that matters, too.

Getting pulled over without insurance

In most states, if you are pulled over for the first time without auto insurance, there will be a fine. In California, for example, you will pay close to $100 to $200, plus penalty fees, for a first offense. In addition, other states, such as Florida, will suspend your driver’s license and registration and require fees to have them reinstated.

In some states, including California, the law enforcement officer who pulls you over has the right to impound your vehicle if he or she deems it necessary. You would then be responsible for towing fees and other costs involved and might not be able to get your vehicle back until you have proof of auto insurance.

Once you have been cited for not having auto insurance, you may find that the cost of car insurance — which you’ll probably have to buy to get your license reinstated or your car out of the impound lot —  is higher than if you had had a policy all along. Insurance companies may view you as a higher-risk driver since you have chosen to break the law and drive without insurance.

Getting into an accident without insurance

If you get into an accident without auto insurance, you will face some serious consequences. You will be subject to all the penalties described above and are more likely to have your license suspended and vehicle impounded. You are also more likely to need to file an SR-22 or FR-44 form with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which is a certificate some states require you to pay for and file that proves you carry the minimum amount of required car insurance.

If you caused injuries and property damage as a result of the accident, you could find yourself facing high out-of-pocket costs as well. If you had insurance, you could rely on your policy to help you pay for the damages. As an uninsured driver, they may fall completely to you.

If you are unable to pay for the cost of the accident, you could face the risk of bankruptcy or other financial distress. Because costs for medical care and vehicle damage can add up quickly, you may find yourself in a distressing position.

How do you get car insurance when you are uninsured?

If you have been driving without auto insurance, you should likely purchase a policy as soon as possible. This will not only ensure that you meet your state’s requirements for legal driving, but can also help protect you from the financial fallout of causing an accident. You may not be eligible for the lowest premium because driving without insurance puts you in a higher-risk category, but you could find reasonably priced coverage if you shop carefully. Getting quotes from a variety of car insurance companies can be helpful.

As a first step, you may want to take a look at major auto insurers, such as Geico and Progressive, since they have wide availability and plenty of appealing features. Also, check out regional insurers that offer coverage in your state, which can often offer competitive rates. Finally, if necessary, assess insurers such as SafeAuto and Good2Go, which specialize in coverage for high-risk drivers.

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