What is an MOT?

All you need to know about the inspection that ensures used cars are safe: the guide to the MOT

BuyaCar team
May 25, 2018

The MOT test is the official safety check all cars must have, by law, on the third anniversary of their registration and every 12 months from then on.

The test is carried out at an MOT testing station, which may be part of a garage or independent and dedicated solely to doing tests.

If the car passes the test it is awarded a pass certificate, valid for 12 months. The test is a snapshot: a report about the car’s condition on one particular day. Although the car may pass the test and be granted an MOT certificate, it can't be assumed the car will be just as safe the day after the test or six months later.

The MOT test isn’t concerned with non-safety related areas or components such as a faulty gearbox or a blown cylinder head gasket. So a used car with an MOT certificate isn't guaranteed to be mechanically sound.

In May 2018 the test had a major shake-up involving the creation of new defect categories that are now recorded on the car’s history, plus tougher emissions tests for diesel cars. At the same time, most vehicles older than 40 years became exempt from the MOT test.

Testing takes around 40 minutes and the maxium it will cost you is £54.85, although you can get it for much less if you shop around. It’s often bundled in with servicing at a lower price.   

When does a car need an MOT?

When it reaches the third anniversary of its registration, and every 12 months after that.

You can have a car tested up to one month, minus a day, before the current certificate runs out and still keep the old renewal date. For example, if the MOT runs out on May 15, the earliest you can have it tested and keep the same renewal date is April 16.

If you fail to have your car tested and are caught driving it, you could be fined up to £2,500, be banned from driving and get three penalty points for driving a vehicle in a dangerous condition.

Even if you are driving to a garage to get your car repaired, you can still be fined if police consider it dangerous.


What are the changes to the MOT test in May 2018?

Under the old rules, the items that caused a car to fail were simply marked as ‘failed’. If a fault was not considered to be serious but still a potential safety risk, it was described as an advisory, but didn't cause the car to fail.

Since May 20, faults have been classified under three different labels: minor, major and dangerous. A minor fault, previously known as an advisory, will not be sufficient to fail a car. However, major and dangerous faults will be.

There is some confusion as to the precise differences between them. As an example, a steering mechanism with a slight oil leak would be a minor fault, but if it was dripping oil, that would be a major. If the steering wheel was in danger of becoming detached, that would be a dangerous fault. Either way, these major and dangerous faults would be reason enough to fail the car.

The intention is to give owners a clearer idea as to the seriousness of their car’s faults. The term ‘dangerous’ is also in line with the Road Traffic Act which says that driving a vehicle in a dangerous condition is a criminal offence. The aim is to discourage motorists from driving away from the test centre in a car with a dangerous fault.

Meanwhile, testers will be getting tougher on diesel particulate filters (DPF) designed to trap and destroy exhaust particulates. They became mandatory on diesel cars in 2009, although some cars were fitted with them before then. Testers will refuse to test a car if they believe the DPF has been removed or tampered with.

In addition, any car with a DPF fitted that emits ‘visible smoke of any colour’ from its exhaust, will be awarded a major fault and failed.


What’s tested in the MOT?

The MOT test is a test of all those features that make the car safe to drive, safe for other road users and safe for the environment, so that’s everything from lights to brakes, from steering to tyres, from seatbelts to body structure and from exhaust emissions to the driver’s view of the road.

The test is not concerned with the condition of the engine, clutch or gearbox so don't think of it as a car inspection on the cheap. Also, panels such as plastic sills and engine undertrays are not removed in the test. These can trap moisture and cause rust which wouldn't necessarily be spotted by the tester.


What are the most common failures?

Lights lead the list at 30% of failures, followed by tyres at 10%, brakes at 9.6%, and the windscreen, wipers and mirrors at 8.5%.


How can I check a car’s MOT status?

Visit the government’s MOT status check website and enter the car’s registration.


What if my car fails the MOT test?

You’ll be given a ‘refusal of an MOT certificate’ which will be recorded on the MOT database. If the MOT is still valid, you can drive the car away but if it has run out, you can only drive it to a garage to have the defects rectified (the garage that did the MOT might be able to fix the car), and then to a partial or full re-test.

The retest is free but only if certain components are retested by the same test centre within 24 hours. If the car is retested within 10 days it will only need a partial retest but there may be a charge at the discretion of the test centre.

You can appeal a fail but first, discuss any problems with the test centre. If you’re still not satisfied, visit the DVSA complaints website and complete the online form.


Can I be fined for driving a car that has failed its MOT?

Although you are permitted to drive your car to a garage to have it repaired before retesting, you could still be fined up to £2500 for driving a car on the road in an unroadworthy condition, so it’s probably safer to leave the car with the garage that tested it, for repair.


What if I don't have my car tested?

You are not able to take it on the road, unless you are driving to a garage for repairs, or to the test centre. If you are caught driving without an MOT, you could be fined up to £1000.

Even if you are driving to a garage to get your car repaired, you can still be fined if police consider it dangerous. See below.


Does my car need servicing if it has an MOT?

Yes. The MOT focuses on areas critical for safety, while a service is designed to keep your car running smoothly and reliably. Servicing may involve changing air filters or replacing oil. Neither of these are covered by an MOT. Getting your car serviced on schedule is required by your lender if you have a car on finance. If you own your vehicle, then regular servicing will make it a more attractive purchase for future buyers.


How do I spot an MOT test centre?

Garages that are licensed for MOT testing advertise the service widely. They also display the official blue sign with three white triangles (below).


What happens if my car passes the test?

You’ll be given a certificate while the pass will be recorded on the MOT database.


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