How to file a car insurance claim

Middle-aged man and young adult woman examining their cars after an accident Middle-aged man and young adult woman examining their cars after an accident Image:

In a Nutshell

In order to pay for repairs or the replacement of your vehicle after it’s damaged, you’ll need to file a car insurance claim. Gathering the right information at the scene of an incident and contacting your insurance company soon afterward are key to getting back on the road quickly.

Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors' opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when it’s posted.
Advertiser Disclosure

We think it's important for you to understand how we make money. It's pretty simple, actually. The offers for financial products you see on our platform come from companies who pay us. The money we make helps us give you access to free credit scores and reports and helps us create our other great tools and educational materials.

Compensation may factor into how and where products appear on our platform (and in what order). But since we generally make money when you find an offer you like and get, we try to show you offers we think are a good match for you. That's why we provide features like your Approval Odds and savings estimates.

Of course, the offers on our platform don't represent all financial products out there, but our goal is to show you as many great options as we can.

Car insurance is one of those things you might not think about much — until you need to use it.

A range of events could require you to tap into your insurance. According to a 2016 report from Freeway Insurance, some of the most common are an accident involving another party, weather damage, theft or vandalism.

To get your insurance benefits, you’ll need to file a car insurance claim. Here’s what you need to know and the steps you’ll need to take to get back on the road as soon as possible.


  1. Get to safety
  2. Gather information
  3. Contact your insurance company
  4. Get back on the road

1. Get to safety

If there’s been some sort of damage-causing incident, the first thing to do is take care of yourself and anyone around you. Make sure the scene is safe.

Then, if you’ve been in an accident, or if someone has broken into, vandalized or stolen your car, call the police. They can help with safety and request emergency services if needed. In some states, you’re required to call the police after an accident, so make sure you know the law in your area.

Your insurance company will likely ask for the police accident report on the incident. The police report can serve as a record of what happened and helps make sure the insurance company gets accurate info. You can check in with the police to get a copy of the report, in many cases within a day or two of it being filed. 

2. Gather information

When something happens to your car, it’s normal to feel shocked — but it’s essential to stay focused on collecting accurate, thorough information to file your car insurance claim.

  • Take photos of any damage. Photos provide a record of what happened to your car and any other vehicle(s) involved. Note where and when the incident happened and get photos of the scene, too, if possible. You’ll need as much detail as possible for your claim.

If there has been a natural disaster, remember that even after a storm, fire or earthquake, the situation may be dangerous. Be careful and wait until conditions are safe to document the damage.

  • Talk to the officials who respond. Get information from the police officer who responds to the incident. A badge number and a phone number will help if you need to follow up and get more information later on in the claims process.

If your car has been stolen, give the police a thorough description of your car and license plate number. Share your vehicle identification number and registration number if you have them on hand.

FAST FACTS

How do I handle a claim if police didn’t come to the scene?

You will still be able to file a claim if police didn’t respond to the scene. If the damage is minor and there are no injuries, or if weather conditions are bad, they may not come. If that happens, you can go to the police station to file a report as soon as possible. This may be required in some states if the damage exceeds a certain amount.

  • Hold onto any receipts. If you need towing, roadside assistance or any other services because of the incident, keep all receipts. The insurance company may reimburse you for them, based on your coverage.
  • Don’t admit (or accuse) fault. You’ve probably been told to not admit fault at the scene of a traffic accident. That’s good advice — and it goes both ways. Leave determining fault to the officials, whether you think you’re to blame or someone else. The police and your insurance company can sort this out. Based on your state’s legal framework, the insurance company can determine how much fault — if any — each driver may hold.
  • Note the other person’s information. Write down the other driver’s contact information, insurance company and policy number, make and model of the car, and license plate number and state. If possible, get the names of other passengers involved, too. If there were any other witnesses, write down their names and contact info as well.

3. Contact your insurance company

Depending on the incident, you may decide against filing a claim and pay out of pocket to avoid a potential increase in your insurance rates. This might make sense if you were involved in a single-car incident and don’t have collision coverage, no one was hurt, no one else’s property was damaged, and the cost of the damages is less than your policy deductible — the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket.

If you do decide to proceed with a car insurance claim, contact your car insurance company as soon as possible, once you’re safe. Call the company’s claims number, which is usually on your insurance card (you should also be able to find it online). Many major companies allow you to file a claim online or through a smartphone app.

When you reach your insurer, explain what happened with as much detail as possible. This is where that information and documentation you took down at the scene comes in handy.

Accident

If you’re reporting an accident, your insurance company will try to determine who is at fault, based on inspections of the vehicles and property involved, info provided by those involved and any other available documentation, like photos or police reports.

FAST FACTS

Who's at fault?

As a general rule, your insurance company will make a determination about fault for insurance purposes. In making that determination they can consider statements, photos and police accident reports. Insurance companies can also take into consideration the laws in the particular state.

Theft, natural disasters and other single-vehicle issues

If you aren’t in a multiple-car accident, one of two types of insurance coverage may pay for car repairs or replacement, depending on the scenario.

  • Comprehensive coverage: Coverage for repair or replacement after theft, vandalism, natural disaster or damage caused by hitting an animal or falling objects (for example, a rock hits and shatters your windshield)
  • Collision coverage: Coverage for repair or replacement of your car in a single-vehicle accident if your car rolls over or if you hit another car or object

Check with your insurance company to confirm whether you have comprehensive or collision coverage and ask about your deductible. Both are optional, but your auto loan lender may require these types of coverage if you lease or finance your car.

How often should I shop for car insurance?

If you’ve experienced a car theft or break-in, let the claims representative know of any personal property that was inside the vehicle as well. Ask whether those losses will be covered under your auto insurance policy. If not, they may be covered under your renters or homeowners insurance.

Also, be sure to report the theft to your finance or leasing company, since it’s technically the owner of the vehicle.

Throughout the entire claims process, stay in communication with the insurance company. It can keep you updated on your claim’s progress.

4. Get back on the road

After you provide the incident details to your insurance company, the next step is a vehicle inspection, if needed. An insurance claims adjuster or appraiser will evaluate your car’s damage and determine whether it can be repaired.

Scenario #1: Repairs

If the car can be repaired, the adjuster will provide a cost estimate and may give you a list of nearby auto body shops. If you have an auto body or repair shop you prefer to use, the insurance company may be able to honor that request.

From there, the body shop will determine how long the repair will take. According to a 2016 survey, the average length of time for body shops, from car drop-off to pick-up, is about nine days.

The insurance company may pay the repair shop directly or instead pay you so you can handle the repair bill yourself.

Scenario #2: Replacement

If the damage is extensive, the adjuster may determine that the car is a total loss. This means that the cost to repair your car is greater than the value of the car itself, or the vehicle is unable to be safely repaired. In this case, the insurance company may compensate you (or your finance company, if you finance or lease your car) for the actual cash value — the market value of the car at the time of the accident.

With a theft, your comprehensive coverage can work in a similar way. You or your finance company may get compensated for either the actual cash value or replacement cost value, depending on the policy you have. With a replacement cost value policy, the insurer may pay you for the cost of a new car that is the same make and model as your totaled car.

With some policies an insurance company may cover a rental car while your claim is processed and any repairs take place. Check to see if your policy includes rental reimbursement.

After your car has been repaired or replaced, check in with your insurance company to finalize any paperwork needed to close the claim.


Bottom line

The process of filing a car insurance claim can be similar across insurance companies. But who pays for damages, how much is covered and whether you are covered at all vary, based on your state and the details of the insurance policy.

That’s why it’s important to contact your car insurance company as soon as possible after an incident. They can help you better understand the claims process and your coverage.

It’s also a good idea to periodically review your car insurance policy documents so that you understand what’s covered in certain events.