Smog & Emission Checks
When first-time visitors arriving in Hawaii by air begin their final decent toward the Kailua-Kona airport on the Big Island, they are usually struck by two things. First, the rock graffiti (white rocks arranged in words and phrases on black lava) gets a few marvels. It is truly a neat surprise from the air.
Second, tourists might be stunned by what appears (on windless days) to be air pollution equal to Los Angeles or Houston. However, it's not what you think: Curiously, it's volcanic smog, or "vog."
An island that is home to an active volcano that continually spews subterranean gases sometimes accumulates the murky haze. Although trade winds generally keep the vog hanging over the western cost of the Big Island, it can sometimes show up in other parts of the state, like Maui or even Oahu. the stuff occurs when the volcanic gases come into contact and react with sunlight.
Although the vog, like smog, can trigger health problems such as asthma, the Hawaiian version of air pollution is a naturally occurring substance. Therefore, there's no point in blaming cars for its presence.
Thus, at this point in time there are no set emissions standards for vehicles in Hawaii. At the same time, the state is on the frontlines of the electric vehicle movement and has a praiseworthy number of hybrids on the streets.
Other than the vog, Hawaii's breezy location in the middle of the Pacific and the rather small population keeps the air quality in relatively good shape. As a matter of fact, Honolulu consistently ranks as one of the cities with the least ozone air pollution.
Plus, with the massive number of scooters and mopeds about, residents tend to be on the low-emissions side in many cases anyway. And gas prices are so elevated that many people simply buy efficient (and by correlation, low-emissions) vehicles out of necessity.
So for now, you need to only get a safety inspection to register your car-you can skip the emissions test.
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All motor vehicles in the state of Hawaii, even those two-horsepower mopeds that are not even allowed on the highways, are required to be registered. This does not necessarily mean the vehicle must sport Hawaii license plates (there are exemptions). But even if it doesn't, a current document is necessary showing you are paying taxes to some county or state coffers.
Registering a Vehicle Purchased from a Local Dealer
In most cases when you by a vehicle off the lot of a dealership, the dealer automatically sends the paperwork where it needs to go. But there are a few things that you must have in hand and complete before you get a registration card.
- Fill out a registration application form. The only county that has an online version of the form is Hawaii County. It is the same form in every county, minus the addresses, so if you are from another county at least you can see what you will be filling out. Note that the last line of the application form asks for the dealer to countersign the document. This only applies if you bought the vehicle locally and it's new.
- Hawaii Inspection Certificate (this will note that you have insurance, which is an important requirement).
- Fees are determined at the office by the weight of the vehicle. The City and County of Honolulu has a nifty online tool that can help you calculate your final costs.
Registering a Vehicle from a Neighbor Island (County)
Moving from county to county in Hawaii entails that you also transfer your vehicle registration to reflect the change.
- Complete a registration application noting the change of residence.
- Submit your registration card.
- If you have the title, you will need to show it.
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Registering an Out-of-State Vehicle
There are private businesses that can help you register and get your "rainbow" license plates literally before your vehicle is even rolled onto the barge for shipment to the islands. Extra fees are charged above and beyond the standard registration costs, but the convenience factor is enticing. It just presents the option of having one less thing to worry about on your move across the Pacific.
However, if you opt to wait until the vehicle arrives on the barge (usually two or three weeks after it sets sail), you will have 10 days to register it in the county in which you reside. This is not as easy as just walking into a motor vehicle office (see below) with a loaded wallet and a few documents from the state you just left.
You will need to complete one important step before registering your car, and that is only if you were previously with an insurance carrier that is also licensed to do business in the beautiful state of Hawaii.
If that is the case, you will need to have the carrier switch you over to a no-fault plan meeting Hawaii's minimum coverage standards. If your original carrier is not licensed to offer coverage in Hawaii, then obtaining proper insurance with a new company should indeed be a high priority.
Annual Vehicle Inspection
Once you've sorted out the insurance, the next step is to take the vehicle to a certified inspection station. In most cases these are gas stations, but they can run the gamut from repair shops to independent operators. Call your county motor vehicle office if you are having difficulty finding a shop.
An inspector will do a thorough check on the major systems of the vehicle just to make sure everything is in working order. Generally the fee for this service is in the neighborhood of $15.
You will need this inspection each year to renew the registration.
It is quite possible that you will need to take the vehicle to a station having a state-certified scale and get it weighed. If you can find a weight for the vehicle on one of the documents you have about the vehicle (the owner's manual, for example), then you are in the clear. Simply take that document to the motor vehicle office. Otherwise, it is off to a weigh station. The weight is necessary to determine what the state is going to charge you as a registration fee.
To combat the age-old problem of locals buying vehicles from the mainland and shipping them to the islands (yes, in many cases this is cheaper than buying here), Hawaii implemented an import use tax. This only applies to you if the vehicle you are having transported over is of the current model year, next year's model, or the previous year's model. The tax is 4% of the vehicle's "landed" value, meaning if a crate fell on it during shipment and totaled it, you would not be taxed based on the off-the-lot value. Paying the tax involves one of two forms:
Note: In just about every case, if you are a nonresident moving to Hawaii along with all of your other belongings, you will be exempt from this tax. However, if you are a resident returning to the islands along with your new car from the mainland (e.g. students coming back after college), you will not escape the tax.
So what does this all mean? Well, not much if you are new to the state, except that you will need to complete a copy of the Motor Vehicle Use Tax Certification form noting your exemption and signing it.
Final Registration Steps
With these three of four errands checked off the to-do list, you are pretty much ready to collect the remaining documents to complete your new registration. The following is what you will need to bring to (or complete at) the motor vehicle office:
- Registration application form
- Current registration card
- Vehicle title (if it is in your possession and not with a lender)
- Hawaii inspection report noting that the vehicle passed inspection and is insured
- Bill of laden from the shipping company showing the vehicle did, in fact, arrive on the island
- Document showing the vehicle's weight
Permits for Out-of-State Vehicles
From the day you drive your vehicle off of the shipping barge with your out-of-state plates still attached, you have 10 days to either make the transfer to Hawaii plates or obtain a permit. Getting a permit and registering a vehicle are relatively similar. A permit is temporary and generally will not exceed 12 months.
- Fill out a permit form. Currently, the only county that has a version online is Hawaii. If you are in another county, at least this can give you an idea of what the form contains.
- Hawaii Inspection Certificate (this will note that you have proper insurance coverage).
Renewing your vehicle registration is an annual event and can be handled via mail or in person. The City and County of Honolulu also has an online means of updating and paying your registration.
In Hawaii and Maui counties, if your vehicle is non-operable, you may opt to put it in official storage. This means you won't have to pay its registration renewal fees and taxes.
To do this, complete an application for replacement license plates form at the motor vehicle office. Then, hand over the vehicle plates and emblem. Be sure to bring your registration so that it can be marked to indicate your vehicle is in storage.
You may also follow this procedure for vehicles that are operable, but won't be used for a long period of time.
Remember, if you don't take these steps, you'll still have to pay your registration fees, even if you're not taking the vehicle out on the road.
The City and County of Honolulu and the County of Kauai have similar policies. Call(###) ###-####(Honolulu) or(###) ###-####(Kauai) for details.
Driving Privileges for Non-Citizens
Visitors from other countries may drive in Hawaii for up to one year as long as they have a valid license from their home country, and an International Driver Permit (IDP). The permit, which basically translates the license to make it understandable to U.S. officials, is issued in the visitor's home country.
Visitors should be sure to carry their license, passport, and IDP with them whenever driving.
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