Car insurance and Indian reservations

Car insurance requirements are different on reservations, and coverage can be harder to get

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

  • Licensed Insurance Agent — Property and Casualty

Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Insurance Writer

  • 4+ years in the Insurance Industry

Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. He specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers make informed decisions.

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If you live in the United States, almost all 50 states require you to have car insurance to legally operate a car. But what about if you live on one of the more than 300 Indian reservations within U.S. borders?

If you live on an Indian reservation or are planning to drive through one, insurance can be a little different. Because they operate with tribal and cultural sovereignty, reservations are not controlled by normal U.S. state laws.

Read on to learn more about what you need to know about auto insurance and reservations.

How reservations work

Since the beginning of European arrival in what is now the United States, native peoples have been forced from their land. This happened through treaties and voluntary moves, but more often also through forceful ejection and violence. Native Americans were then moved to areas of land set aside to be run by U.S.-recognized tribal nations. 

Reservations are governed by federally recognized tribes. Through this tribal sovereignty, they can pass laws, regulate energy, create treaties and hold court hearings[1]. The laws within a reservation may differ from the laws outside it. Each reservation is governed by different laws and customs related to the tribe or tribes’ unique culture.

Driving on native lands

The first thing to do if you are planning to visit an Indian reservation is to research the laws there. Also, make sure you are welcome. Many reservations have museums, events, parks, casinos or other businesses that welcome outsiders, but not all do. Some do not allow outsiders, and some require you to have an invitation to visit. 

Secondly, be aware of the traffic laws that apply. In the context of motor vehicle safety, tribes have inherent authority as sovereign nations to protect the public health and welfare of their citizens with traffic laws. Many are similar to those of the U.S. such as requiring seat belts or not allowing driving over a certain blood alcohol level[2].

You should also be aware of speed limits. If you get a ticket while on a reservation, it’s a bit more complicated because you are subject to tribal law, not U.S. law. You will likely need to get a lawyer with experience in tribal law to sort things out. 

Does your car insurance extend to reservations?

If you are planning to drive through or to a reservation, your normal car insurance coverage will likely extend. That said, you may want to check with your provider to double-check before your trip. 

It also may be a good idea to carry uninsured or underinsured motorist insurance because that can protect you in case of an accident regardless of fault. Comprehensive insurance is also a good idea to protect you and your vehicle from a wide range of perils.

How does car insurance work for people who live on reservations?

Car insurance is a crucial aspect of responsible vehicle ownership, providing financial protection in the event of accidents, theft or other unforeseen circumstances. However, when it comes to Indian reservations in the United States, obtaining car insurance can pose unique challenges for residents.

People living on Indian reservations can generally obtain car insurance, but the process may differ from that in non-reservation areas. While insurance providers do offer coverage to individuals on reservations, there are several factors that make the situation distinct.

  • Jurisdictional complexity: One of the primary challenges in providing car insurance on reservations is the complex jurisdictional landscape. Because reservations are considered sovereign nations, with their own legal systems and regulations. This creates a unique situation where state laws may not apply directly, leading insurance companies to navigate a complex web of federal, state and tribal regulations.
  • Lack of infrastructure: Some reservations may lack the necessary infrastructure, such as well-maintained roads and access to emergency services. Insurance providers may view these factors as increased risks, potentially affecting coverage availability and premium rates.
  • Economic disparities: Residents of some reservations face economic challenges, with higher poverty rates compared to non-reservation areas (25.4% poverty rate compared to a U.S. average of 17.6%)[3]. As a result, residents may struggle to afford car insurance, and insurance companies might perceive the financial risk as higher. This can lead to variations in premium rates and coverage options compared to non-reservation areas.
  • Cultural and social factors: Cultural and social factors also play a role in shaping car insurance on reservations. The tight-knit nature of many reservation communities may influence the perception of risk and affect the way insurance companies underwrite policies.

Finding car insurance if you live on a reservation

Because of all of the above, usually car insurance companies that specialize in tribal groups and reservations are what is available to choose from. If you live or work on a reservation, you will need to look for a policy specifically designed for people on Indian reservations. It’s recommended to get several quotes for comparison. That said, comparison engines like The Zebra may not have the specific carriers you need, so the legwork of searching may fall on you.

Here are some carriers that do support people living or working on reservations (Note: The Zebra doesn't work with these carriers, and thus hasn't vetted them. Please do your own research to find the best policy for you.)

Likely the carriers you get quotes from will still consider rating factors like your driving history, your car, where and when you drive and demographic factors like your age. It’s recommended that even if your tribal nation doesn’t require it, you still carry insurance, especially if you plan to leave the reservation in your car at any point.


Wrapping up

While people on Indian reservations can generally obtain car insurance, the unique challenges posed by jurisdictional complexities, economic disparities and cultural factors contribute to differences in coverage and pricing. If you are driving through a reservation, make sure to be respectful of all local laws and customs.