I recently bought a car in the US - as a foreign national. It took me a while to get over the complexities of what I needed but in the end it is not a difficult process. Once you know what you are doing. This blog could apply to anyone who wants to do a road trip across the USA or if you are there for a summer or short period.
Well, here is what you need (in California anyway):
1. Money - have a budget, you can get a cheap car
2. An address, friend, relative, doesn't matter
What are the steps:
1. Find perfect car. Use Autotrader, Craigslist or another source, call the people on the ad. Make sure the car is not salvage i.e. clean title. Make sure it is currently registered and ensure that it has had a recent smog test (California only I think?). You can also use Car Survey to tell you what people have said about their cars. The general rule that I found was that American cars are generally unreliable and that foreign cars will last longer. One car, a 2000 Ford Taurus drove well in test drive but when we looked at Car Survey we realised that this could bring problems for us. We narrowed our search to Honda and Nissan in the end.
2. Check Kelley Blue Book value. This is a site that can tell the approximate value of the car you want to purchase based on the specifications that you enter. Remember that you are going on what the seller tells you. Normally a dealer will charge more than a private seller so there is that to consider but a dealer may give you a guarantee or some sort of comeback.
3. Check the history of the car. There are a couple of sites online that charge a small fee to check the history of the car. Carfax is one of the most well known. You will need the cars VIN - ask the seller - which is the Vehicle ID number and in theory was given to each mechanic every time there was an issue with the car. It will tell you if the car is stolen, how many owners it has had and some other useful information.
4. Make your purchase. Ensure you get a signed receipt from the seller, doesn't have to be official but just something for your records. They will sign over the registration title to you which you will need.
5. Register the car in your name. You can make a DMV appointment online. Take the title to your local DMV (this is for California - may be different in other states) and have the car registered in your name.
6. Insure yourself to drive the car. If you are a foreign national you can get insurance. You do not need a social security number for this. All you need is the VIN, your name, address, driving license details - from your own country obviously and money to pay. It will cost slightly more than California residents with state license but not that much more. Do not use Guru, they are inefficient and unreliable. I recommend Calico Insurance but remember there are many insurance companies who will compete for your quote. The broker earns a commission from the sale. Make sure your cover is what you require and understand the terminology such as "15/20/15" and what this means.
7. You are free to drive if you have made all of the steps above. Remember in the US that you can turn right on red at most traffic lights, that a 4 way stop sign yields right of way to whoever got there first or if you meet at the same time, to the person on the right. In Los Angeles at least, the traffic runs smooth and there are traffic lights at almost every second block so there is no need to speed as you will not get there quicker.
Parking is a pain! Really, an absolute pain. The Parking Enforcement people are really really pedantic and have absolutely no mercy. They would give their dying mother a ticket if she was one centimetre outside the line. So, park in the same direction as traffic - seriously! Park inside the white lines of the spaces. Always read the street signs. Park within 30cm of the kerb and always set a reminder about a metre - cos they will give you a ticket. One tip to remember, Americans are lazy and don't want to walk so you can often find free parking one block away from where you are going so have a little drive around.
At nighttime you will fall mercy to the scam of valet parking. Tip a minimum i.e. as in the 50c or $1 difference that the $9.50 valet costs. If they want to complain about their pay they can ask their employer to give them more of the $9.50 rip off charge they're getting to park at their feckin restaurant!