Car Recall Guide: Your Questions Answered

So your car has been recalled. Now what?

Mechanic and Car Owner looking under the cars hood Photo: Getty Images

Maybe you received a car recall notice in the mail, or you got a notification from the Consumer Reports recall tracker. Or maybe you checked a car you’re interested in purchasing on the official government recall website and found out it still requires recall work. Can you still drive the car? Is it dangerous? Will it cost you money to fix it? How will you get to work tomorrow?

CR is here to help.

MORE ON RECALLS

Tens of millions of cars get recalled each year to correct faults ranging from software problems that can cause a car to stall unexpectedly to leaks that can cause a fire. Some recalls include millions of vehicles, while others include only a dozen or so. But every recall is important, and every owner of a recalled car has the same rights.

“Every safety defect puts people at risk, and recalls should be taken seriously,” says William Wallace, manager of safety policy at CR.

Below, we answer some of your most frequently asked questions about recalls, and address the issues you might have if your car is recalled.

Why Was My Car Recalled?

The short answer: Because a safety problem has been clearly identified that puts you and the car at risk, and it needs to be fixed. (There are also emissions-related recalls, which are usually handled by the Environmental Protection Agency, but this article primarily discusses safety recalls.)

Car safety recalls have been under the purview of the federal government since 1966, when the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was signed into law. Today, safety recalls are supervised by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, they’re typically initiated by automakers, which can face fines if they don’t disclose defects.

According to NHTSA, recalls are conducted for defects that “pose a risk to motor vehicle safety” and that “may exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacture.” In other words, steering systems that don’t work or engines that abruptly stall would be subject to a recall and paid for by automakers—but peeling paint or a faulty air conditioning system probably would not, even if those problems affect multiple vehicles. (There are sometimes Technical Service Bulletins to advise shops how to correct those kinds of common problems, and occasionally automakers will pay for those repairs outside of warranty, too.)

Sometimes, vehicles are recalled because they don’t meet a motor vehicle safety standard. Examples of these kinds of recalls include faulty headlights or backup cameras that take too long to display images.

Can I Still Drive My Car Before the Recall Repair Happens?

That depends, says John Ibbotson, chief automotive services manager at CR. “The recall notice itself will tell you if it is safe to drive or not, or if it needs to be put outside,” he says.

Recently, many automakers have told drivers to park certain recalled vehicles outside and away from structures due to a fire risk. These include the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, Ford Expedition, and many vehicles from Kia and Hyundai.

In some rare cases, such as a recent recall of certain Mercedes-Benz SUVs with faulty brakes, an automaker will issue what’s known as a “do not drive” warning. If you’ve been told not to drive your car, don’t tempt fate—there’s an especially serious issue with the vehicle that could put your life in danger.

If there is no such warning, says Wallace, you can still drive if necessary but you should get your car fixed as soon as possible. “Your car should be safe enough for you to drive to the dealership for repairs or use it for other essential purposes,” he says.

Many problems that lead to a recall have symptoms. Knowing what the telltale signs are for potential issues can help drivers make an informed decision.

Automakers may also tell you the specific instances where it’s unsafe to drive a recalled vehicle, or recommend you avoid certain activities—such as using a particular feature that may put occupants at risk or parking it close to a structure if the vehicle is at risk of catching fire. For example, Hyundai recently told owners of newer Tucson vehicles not to drive their recalled SUVs if the antilock brake system (ABS) warning light comes on, and to keep the vehicles parked outdoors so that they don’t catch a house or garage on fire.

Person using the NHTSA app

Photo: iStock, NHTSA Photo: iStock, NHTSA

How Do Recalls Start?

Automakers often uncover problems requiring recalls on their own, usually after receiving warranty claims, hearing complaints from dealers or drivers, or when a factory worker or supplier uncovers a problem in the manufacturing process. Factories document the car-building process so thoroughly that manufacturers can often narrow down the specific days a faulty part was installed on vehicles, or the exact vehicles that weren’t built up to standards.

For example, when a water flow meter failed at a Toyota engine factory, a few hundred engine blocks destined for Toyota and Lexus cars didn’t cool properly and developed cracks. Dealers that received those vehicles complained to Toyota that the brand new cars on their lot were leaking coolant, and the company began an internal investigation. The automaker was able to determine which cars had faulty engine blocks after cross-referencing the serial numbers of the engine blocks that were cast before the water flow meter was repaired.

Other times, NHTSA investigates an issue after receiving complaints from the public. If you have a safety complaint about a vehicle, learn how to report it here.

“If a manufacturer knows one of its vehicles has a safety defect and it doesn’t report the issue to the government in a timely manner, or portrays something as a minor issue when the company knows it’s really a safety defect, then the manufacturer is breaking the law,” says Wallace. That’s what happened when GM hid deadly issues with ignition switches in some of its vehicles for years before finally recalling the cars in 2014. If an automaker is found to have hidden a safety defect, NHTSA can fine the company more than $22,000 for each violation and up to $111 million total for a series of related violations.

How Will I Find Out About a Recall?

For recalls of all sizes, car companies must send official recall notices via first-class mail, with "Safety Recall Notice" and federal logos printed on the label. “The notice must explain any potential safety hazard and detail when and how people can get the problem corrected,” Wallace says.

Mailed notices often go out days or even weeks after a recall is first announced online, however. Sometimes mailed recall notices don’t reach second or third owners, and automakers may be unable to contact vehicle owners who have changed addresses without notifying their local registry of motor vehicles. That’s why CR recommends signing up for a recall reminder service—such as CR’s Recall Tracker—or using NHTSA’s website.

Major recalls are often part of national news coverage, including on CR.org.

Sometimes a recall will include only specific vehicles, rather than every vehicle within a given model year. This explains why you may hear about a recall but not receive a notification. But it is best to be proactive. It’s important to have your vehicle’s unique vehicle identification number (VIN) on hand when checking for recalls. A VIN is a 17-digit combination of numbers and letters, and it can usually be found at the bottom outside of the windshield on the driver’s side. You will need this number not only when checking for a recall but also when contacting your dealer to schedule a repair—so keep it handy.

To check whether your vehicle has any outstanding recalls, go to nhtsa.gov/recalls and enter your car’s VIN. If there’s an open recall on your specific vehicle, it will appear there. 

NHTSA car recall template letter

Photo: NHTSA Photo: NHTSA

Are Recall Repairs Free?

Most of the time. Federal law requires all safety recall repairs to be provided free of charge on cars that are up to 15 years old. That’s counted from the time the car was sold to the first owner, rather than based on model year or the date of manufacture. But if your car is older than that, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of luck, says Wallace. “For cars more than 15 years old, automakers and dealers will often voluntarily provide a safety recall repair free, so we encourage you to ask,” he says. For example, a large airbag recall in 2020 included millions of Honda, Isuzu, and Mitsubishi cars from as early as 1998.

If your car is 15 years old or younger and a dealer refuses to perform a recall repair or tries to charge you for the fix, Wallace says you should contact the car’s manufacturer and let it know.

How Long Does It Take to Fix a Recalled Car?

Today, owners can sometimes fix a recall themselves through an over-the-air software update. Automakers including Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla have previously used over-the-air updates to address product recalls. The process is just like updating a phone or computer.

If a physical repair is needed, it can take weeks after an initial recall announcement for dealerships to be informed and equipped to make repairs. Once they’re ready, however, most recall repairs are quick. But other recalls are more involved.

Sometimes, automakers initiate a recall before a fix has been developed, as is the case with a recent Nissan Frontier recall. If that happens, owners will get two notices—one when the recall is announced and one when a fix is available. Other times, dealers don’t have access to enough replacement parts to fix all the cars that need a repair, which infamously happened during the early days of the Takata airbag recall.

Occasionally, a recall repair doesn’t do the trick and a car needs to be brought back in to be fixed. In the case of some Nissan Altimas, the vehicles had to be brought in for repairs a total of four times! And in a few cases, repairs are so involved that a dealer might need to send a car back to the factory, which could take several weeks.

When you schedule a recall repair, ask your dealer how long you should expect it to take. 

In some extremely rare cases, an automaker may buy back or replace your entire vehicle. This usually happens only if there is a defect that cannot be repaired, like what happened after Subaru uncovered faulty welds in a handful of new Legacy sedans and Ascent and Outback SUVs in 2018. A welding robot at the factory had been programmed improperly, and because the faulty welds compromised the vehicles’ structural integrity, they had to be scrapped.

Will I Get a Loaner Car?

For the most part, car manufacturers don’t owe owners of recalled cars anything more than a timely and safe repair—not even a cup of stale showroom coffee. For example, when BMW issued an airbag-related recall in 2019 that ordered owners not to drive their vehicles, the automaker said that those affected wouldn’t get substitute transportation.

Although provision of a loaner car isn’t required by federal law, manufacturers will occasionally provide one, and it doesn’t hurt to ask if your car is subject to a recall. Dealers can choose to offer a loaner vehicle at their own expense, as well.

But in reality, you aren’t likely to need a loaner because most recall repairs can be addressed in an hour or two.

What If I Already Paid for a Repair?

If you’ve already paid to have an issue fixed that is later subject to a recall, you may be eligible to get money back from an automaker. But the repair has to have been completed within a specific time frame, and the reimbursement request must be filed very quickly after receiving a recall notice. In some cases, owners have only 10 days to ask for money back, and they must always submit documentation of how much the repair cost. Specifics about dates and eligibility for reimbursement are listed in recall notices.

According to NHTSA, even outside of these specific limits, manufacturers have often voluntarily agreed to reimburse vehicle owners for repair costs that would later have been covered by a recall.

Can a Used Car That’s for Sale Have an Open Recall?

Unfortunately, yes. Federal law specifically bans the sale of new cars with open recalls, but no similar law exists for used cars.

That means consumers are largely on their own. Before you purchase a car, enter its VIN at nhtsa.gov/recalls and check to see whether it has any unrepaired recalls. (You should be able to find the VIN on a dealer’s online listing for the vehicle, or on the car itself if you’re at the dealership.) If there are any outstanding recalls, make sure to get them fixed ASAP.

If you’re buying from a used-car dealership, ask that it addresses the open recalls before taking delivery. Like a consumer, it can bring the car to a new-car dealership to have the work performed free of charge. Some retailers may not be equipped to do this. As with buying from a private seller, you may need to handle this task yourself.

With any used car, you should have a mechanic inspect it before you purchase it. Although this inspection will cost money up front, it’s well worth it: If the prior owner neglected to get recall work done, they may have skipped maintenance and repair issues, too.

Should I Be Worried About My Car Because It Was Recalled?

Generally speaking, no. A timely, comprehensive recall that fixes a problem is evidence that automakers and regulators are taking safety seriously.

“Recalls can be inconvenient, but they’re actually a good thing,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center. “While they can vary in terms of severity, a recall means that a manufacturer will fix or take corrective action to address a safety issue, which is why they should be taken seriously.”


Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.