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What is car insurance?

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Written by Matt Fernell, Financial Content Writer

12 March 2019

We all need car insurance to drive, but with so much choice finding the right cover can be tricky. Understanding the basics is vital to finding the best policy.

What is car insurance?

Car insurance can pay out if your car is stolen, vandalised, catches on fire or if you are involved in an accident. It also protects you against any damage you cause to the public, their property or other road users.

You only need to claim on your policy when an accident is your fault. If another driver is to blame their insurance should pay instead. Find out more in our how to claim guide.

Do you need car insurance?

Yes. It is illegal to drive on UK roads without it.

If you own a car and drive without insurance you could face a fine of up to £1,000 or have your vehicle seized and destroyed. The GOV.UK website has more details on the punishments you could face.

The only time there is no need to insure your car is when you have officially declared it not in use and off the road through a Statutory off Road Notice (SORN).

GOV.UK website - Uninsured drivers

How does car insurance protect you?

It protects you financially, but the level of protection depends on what policy you choose.

If you cause an accident your insurance company will pay out to cover the costs. All you will have to pay is your excess amount, which will be set out in your policy. If you claim your premiums are likely to increase.

Car insurance is available in different levels, and the level you choose will determine how much of the costs are covered by your insurance company.

What types of car insurance are there?

There are three levels of car insurance cover:

Fully comprehensive

Main features: Covers you, your car, your passengers and property, as well as any third parties involved in an accident. Also protects your car against vandalism and theft.

Suitable for: Most drivers. Three quarters of UK drivers choose comprehensive cover because it offers the most complete protection. Some fully comprehensive policies will allow you to drive other cars, but not all.

Third party, fire and theft

Main features: Covers third parties involved in an accident, but also provides protection for your car against theft and damage caused by fire. It will not pay out to cover the damage to your vehicle.
Suitable for: Those looking for a cheaper policy, although fully comprehensive insurance can still sometimes cost less. Check out our guide on the different levels of cover.

Third party

Main features: This is the most basic level and covers liability for injury to others and any damage to third party property only. This level of cover is the minimum legal requirement for motorists in the UK.

Suitable for: Drivers who drive infrequently, or those looking for the cheapest possible cover. Not all insurers offer this type of policy.

Other types of car insurance

Some policies are designed for specific drivers or vehicles. These include:

How long do policies last?

Most car insurance policies last for one year, although you can choose to leave your policy early subject to cancellation fees, which can be as much as £55. Find out more about fees and cancelling you policy in our managing your policy guide.

If you need car insurance cover for a shorter period you can take out a short term policy that can last just a day or a few weeks. Our short term car insurance guide has everything you need to know.

What affects the price of your car insurance?

The cost of your cover comes down to one thing: risk.

If you are viewed as a high risk driver by an insurer they will charge a higher premium because they think you will be more likely to have an accident and make a claim.

Car insurers use the following factors to determine how much of a risk you will be.

The car you drive

  • Your car: An expensive new car can cost more to insure as repair bills are usually higher. Equally some older cars have fewer modern safety features and can cost more to insure.

  • Engine size: The general rule is the bigger your engine, the bigger your insurance payments. The cheapest cars to insure tend to be small cars with low powered engines.

  • Modifications: Any performance related modifications (i.e. engine changes or spoilers) made to your car are likely to increase your premiums. Drivers with these improvements are statistically more likely to make a claim, so the cost of your cover will go up.

Personal information

  • Address: Where you live and where you keep your car also affects your premiums. If you live in a high crime area and park on the road you will pay more than if you live in a quiet, low crime area and keep your car in a locked garage.

  • Your age: Car insurers are notoriously ageist and charge young drivers more. The average cost of cover for 17-22 year olds was £1,628.60 in the first quarter of 2018*.

*Figures from AA British Insurance Premium Index

Your driving

  • Driving experience: The more experienced you are the less you are likely to pay. If your driving history is chequered, i.e. you have had driving convictions, then your premiums may be higher.

  • No claims bonus: Your premiums will be much lower, sometimes up to 75% cheaper, if you can prove you are a safe driver with years of no claims behind you. Read our no claims bonus guide for more information.

  • Planned usage: The more you drive, the more you will pay. Insurers ask how you will use your car; commuting, leisure or both and how many miles you drive each year.

Your policy

  • Excess: You can reduce your premium by choosing a higher excess amount. By agreeing to pay more if you need to claim you reduce the risk to the insurer as they will need to contribute less. Here is how car insurance excess works.

10 easy ways to cut your car insurance costs

How does the car insurance group affect your premium?

Each car is assigned a car insurance group by the Group Rating Panel, which is made up of members of the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and Lloyds Market Association (LMA). There are 50 groups. Group 1 is the cheapest to insure, and group 50 is the most expensive.

Cars are assigned a group based on several factors including:

  • Repair costs and times

  • The car's performance, e.g. acceleration and top speed

  • Safety features

  • New car value

  • Car security


  • Group 1: Vauxhall Corsa Hatchback 1.0ltr

  • Group 50: Range Rover Sport 5.0ltr V8

If you want to keep the cost of your insurance as low as possible, look for cars in the lower insurance groups. You can find out what cars sit in what groups on the Parker's website.

Parkers website - Car insurance groups

Can you get cover for every type of car?

There are certain types of car which are tricky to find cover for. Not all car insurance companies will offer policies for:

  • Performance cars

  • Classic cars

  • Kit cars

  • Modified cars

  • American or imported vehicles

To get insurance for these cars you may need to look at providers that specialise in them, though they will likely cost you more.

If you are a new or young driver many insurance companies will refuse to cover you to drive certain cars, usually vehicles with large engines or sports cars. Even if you can find cover it will almost certainly be very expensive.

If you have previous driving convictions, even speeding points on your licence, you may also find your cover is more expensive or your options are limited. There are insurers that offer specific cover for drivers with more serious convictions, but again the premiums are likely to be high.

Is it worth adding extra cover?

Insurers will offer extra cover options to try and increase the cost of your insurance, but they could give you valuable protection if you use them. Common add-ons include:

  • Breakdown cover: This will provide assistance should you break down on the road. For more on what this gives you read our guide, and compare policies here.

  • Legal cover: This covers expenses if you have to take legal action after an accident. Here is more on how legal cover will protect you.

  • Key cover: This will cover the replacement of your car keys if they are lost or stolen, which can cost over £200. It can also include the cost of locksmith charges and new locks. Some policies cover the cost of transport to a repairer and any car hire charges.

  • Windscreen protection: Protects against the cost of repairing or replacing your windscreen, rear or side windows if they are chipped or broken.

  • Courtesy car: Offers the use of an alternative vehicle when your car is stolen or off the road following an accident. Check each policy first as some insurers will not provide a car if your vehicle is written off.

Insurers may offer one or more of these add-ons as standard, so it is worth shopping around if you think you would benefit from added cover.

If you want specific extras, like breakdown cover, consider comparing standalone policies first as they may be cheaper than adding them to your car insurance policy. Doing this also provides you with a wider range of cover options to choose from.

Here is a more detailed look at the extras available, and whether they are worth adding to your policy.

Which car insurance extras are worth having?

Should you pay monthly or annually?

Paying for your insurance in one go annually is usually the cheapest option if you can afford it.

This is because when you pay monthly you will usually be charged interest on top of your premium, with some insurers charging up to 30% APR.

You can avoid this by using a 0% purchase credit card to pay for your insurance and then clear the balance within the interest free period, although some insurers may charge a small fee for paying by credit card so check to make sure the overall cost is worth it.

Should you get a 0% purchase credit card?

Compare 0% purchase credit cards

Car insurance FAQs

General FAQs

Yes, but it is illegal to claim on more than one policy if you have an accident.

This is the number of miles you declare you will drive during your policy. If you drive over the limit your insurer could deny any claim you make.

The main driver is the policyholder and the person who drives the car most often. Named drivers can be added to the policy and can legally drive the car.

Add-ons FAQs

Yes, most fully comprehensive policies cover them as standard. If it is not included it can usually be added as an optional extra for an additional cost.

It can. You can get windscreen cover as part of your car insurance policy, with some insurers offering it as standard or as an optional extra.

Not many policies offer breakdown cover as standard, but it can often be added as an extra. Alternatively you can purchase a standalone breakdown cover policy.

Most do as standard. If a courtesy car is not included in your policy it can usually be added as an extra.

It can, providing you have added legal cover to your policy.

Cover FAQs

Yes, but If you regularly drive off-road in a 4x4 vehicle you should look for specialist 4x4 insurance.

You will be covered for commuting provided you have stated this on your application. If you make regular business trips you may need business cover.

The safe answer is no. Even if they have a fully comprehensive policy they may not be covered to drive any other car than their own.

Yes, vandalism is covered by most policies.

Towing following a breakdown or accident is usually covered by your breakdown policy. If you have this as part of your car insurance then you will be covered.

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