License plates serve an important purpose; they allow people outside a vehicle to identify it. This aids drivers with popular model cars in a popular color to climb into the correct vehicle, but it also helps police to write a speeding ticket or track down a stolen vehicle.
Most license plates are metal and made to last. But most states also offer temporary license plate tags made of paper or plastic to stand in before the official plates are issued. Tennessee is no exception. It offers temporary plates – aka temporary operation permits – for vehicles straight off the dealership's lot, as well as vehicles involved in a title or a registration dispute.
Motor Vehicle License Plates in Tennessee
Tennessee license plates are rectangles made of aluminum. They contain the registration numbers and characters that have been assigned to the vehicle.
In many states, the license plate stays with the vehicle when it is sold or traded, but in the state of Tennessee, license plates belong to the owner of the vehicles and cannot be transferred to another person. The plate remains with the owner and can be transferred to another vehicle they own for a $1 registration fee.
The Vehicle Services Division of the Department of Revenue regulates the issuance of vehicle license plates, but they do not administer them. Each county clerk's office in the state administers the registration of plates and assigns them to drivers when registration is renewed.
If Tennessee drivers renew online, the new plates are mailed to them for a fee of $5.
Tennessee License Plate Designs
The design of the license plates changes regularly when the state allocates the money; a new design comes out every eight years if funds are approved in the General Assembly’s annual budget.
The newest version of the Tennessee license plate design, issued in 2022, has the following characteristics:
- Appearance. Blue with white letters and contains the seal of the state in the center with the words "The Volunteer State" printed on the top left corner to the left of the state map.
- County Name. Written at the center bottom of the plate.
- Digits. The plate has three alphabet letters
and four numbers separated by the state's flag emblem.
Note that only one plate is required in Tennessee, not two. In most cars, it goes on the rear of the vehicle, not on the front. Motor vehicle owners whose cars, trucks or motorcycles came out of the factory with license plate lights must keep those lights in good repair. The plates must be lit up by the lights whenever the vehicle headlights are illuminated.
Temporary Tags for Dealership Motor Vehicles
In certain circumstances, temporary tags are available from the county clerk at the Tennessee Department of Revenue. Very often, these temporary operation plates are used for vehicles being sold by motor vehicle dealers. These are called dealer drive-out tags, or green tags. They are used by the person buying an automobile, truck or car from the dealership while they are waiting for their permanent vehicle registration plates.
Similarly, trailer manufacturers can get five-day temporary plates for trailers, called yellow tags. Similar to red tags, these yellow tags can be used by those who buy trailers in Tennessee and need to transport them home or to their home state.
Red Tags for Vehicles With Title Problems
A vehicle owner can apply for a red tag, or temporary operation permit, if they experience issues with the vehicle's title that delays getting the official plates. These are not intended for, or available to, vehicles that fail inspection requirements or for salvage vehicles.
Note that red tags were available under earlier law in Tennessee for failed emissions tests. The law had permitted the owner of a car that fails emission testing to get up to two temporary tags, after which time they would not be able to drive the vehicle until repairs are complete and testing is passed. Red tags can no longer be use for this purpose.
Red tags, also known as temporary operation permits, are issued by local county clerks. An owner must bring:
- Documents proving ownership
- Proof that they are tackling the title issue, whatever it is
- Their driver's license
- A fee of $10
The temporary tags are valid for a maximum of 30 days.
Off-Highway Vehicle Temporary Operation Permits
The Tennessee Department of Revenue is also authorized to issue off-highway vehicle temporary operation permits in lieu of registration plates.
These are available only for Class I and Class II off-highway vehicles defined in the Tennessee Code as:
Eligibility for Off-Highway Permits
The only vehicles that are eligible for temporary off-highway permits in Tennessee are those owned or leased by nonresidents. Can Tennessee residents apply for these temporary off-highway vehicle operation permits? They cannot. They are intended only to legalize the vehicles of those who do not spend the entire year in the state and so do not require permanent license plates.
- Cost. This off-highway vehicle temporary operation permit costs $6, in addition to applicable county fees, and is valid for 30 days. It can be renewed for an additional 30-day period for another payment of $6.
Anyone wanting to get an off-highway vehicle temporary operation permit must appear in person at one of the Department of Revenue's county clerk office locations. The application must include the completed official form, personal identification and all applicable fees.
- You can get up to two temporary tags for failing emissions testing, after which you will not be able to drive the vehicle until repairs are complete and testing is passed.
- Temporary tags are valid for 30 days.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.