MOT test explained

Cars over three years old must by law pass a yearly MOT test to show they are roadworthy. Here you can find out more about the MOT, including the five most common simple reasons why cars fail it. There’s also a checklist to help you give your car the best chance of a pass, and so avoid the potential cost and hassle of a re-test.

Key facts about the MOT test

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Once a car is three years old (four years in Northern Ireland) it must be tested each year to check it meets road safety and environmental standards.

This Ministry of Transport test is commonly known as an ‘MOT’.

MOT tests are carried out at authorised test centres around the country, all of which display an official blue sign featuring three white triangles.

An MOT involves dozens of checks on your car, ranging from the brakes and fuel system to lights, mirrors, seatbelts, windscreen wipers and exhaust system.

It doesn’t cover the condition of the engine, clutch and gearbox.

To find your nearest authorised MOT test centre, visit these websites:

How long does an MOT take?

An average MOT test takes between 45 and 60 minutes, but there are a couple of other things to take into consideration.

First, if your vehicle fails the test and repairs are needed this will take longer.

A test centre isn’t allowed to let you drive away a car that has failed an MOT until the problems are fixed, unless your existing MOT certificate is still valid, or you’re taking the car to have the faults fixed.

Second, the test might take an hour or less, but, even if there aren’t any repairs, this doesn’t mean your vehicle will only have to be at the garage for 60 minutes.

Test centres can require you to drop your vehicle off first thing in the morning and collect it when ready.

This means you should be prepared to be without your vehicle for the day.

How much does an MOT cost?

The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency sets the maximum fee official test centres can charge for an MOT.

It’s currently £54.85 for cars and motor caravans and £29.65 for motorbikes, but many garages charge less than this – sometimes up to 50% less.

Search online for “cheap MOT” or “MOT discount” to find out how you can save money on your car’s next MOT.

An MOT might also be included in the cost of a full service for your car. While servicing your car regularly is a good idea, a service, even if it includes an MOT, is likely to be more expensive than an MOT on it’s own. 

Top five simple reasons for cars failing the MOT test

Nearly two in five MOT tests fail first time.

Yet often this is because of minor faults the owner could easily have fixed themselves before they paid for a test.

Here are some of the ways your car could fail an MOT.

  1. Screen wash not topped up. This basic task takes minutes, so don’t be caught out by it.
  2. The car was dirty or full of clutter. Clear the mess from the boot and cabin and give the windows and mirrors a quick wipe.
  3. A registration plate problem. For example, the plate used the incorrect type face/spacing, or was dirty or missing altogether. If you have a personalised plate, make sure it follows DVLA rules.
  4. Stickers on the windscreen blocking the driver’s view. Make sure anything stuck to the windscreen like parking permits is outside the wipers’ sweep area.
  5. Lit-up warning light on the dashboard. The MOT has included lit-up warning lights since 2012. So make sure you know what lit-up car warning lights mean and, if you have, any sort out the underlying problem before the MOT.

Checklist to help your car pass its MOT

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Make sure you’re not caught out by any of the five simple reasons for a fail shown above, then inspect your car against our 11-point checklist below.

If you find any problems in the following areas, you can fix some yourself to help keep garage costs down.

Headlights and indicators: front, rear, headlights (main beam and dipped), hazard lights and indicators. If any aren’t working, first check for broken bulbs and replace them.

Brake lights: ask another person to check the rear brake lights come on when you press the brake pedal.

Tyres: check all the tyres have at least the minimum legal tread depth of 1.6mm, or they’ll be marked as an MOT ‘fail’.

This can easily be done with a 20p coin – see the diagram on the Tyre Safe website

Check for any damage such as splits in the tread, bulges or cuts in the sidewalls.

Also check the tyre pressure is correct – the car’s manual will list the right pressure and they might also be on the sidewall of the tyre itself - and increase it at a petrol station if necessary.

The handbrake: check the tension in your handbrake. If it slides up and down without resistance and can’t be ratcheted to a set level, there’s likely to be a problem needing fixing by a professional mechanic.

Seats and seatbelts: check the driver’s seat adjusts forwards and backwards and inspect the full length of the seatbelt for any damage.

Check all the seatbelts latch and fasten securely, and lock when you give them a sharp tug.

Windscreen: any damage wider than 10mm in the driver’s central view will cause an MOT fail, as will any damage larger than 40mm in the whole of the swept area.

Windscreen wipers: make sure your wipers clean your windscreen effectively along with the washers.

Remember, any tears or holes in the wiper rubber can mean an MOT fail.

Suspension check: check the shock absorbers by applying your weight to each corner of the car then quickly releasing it.

The corner of the car should quickly return to its original position.

If it bounces more than twice, this could mean the shock absorbers are faulty and need to be checked.

Horn: give a short blast of the horn – if it doesn’t work or isn’t loud enough to attract the attention of pedestrians or other motorists, get it repaired.

Exhaust: check for exhaust leaks by starting the engine in a well-ventilated space at normal temperature, then listen from the rear of the car for any unusual noises or abnormal smoke.

Fuel and engine oil: make sure your car is filled with enough fuel and engine oil – you can be turned away from the MOT if there isn’t enough to test your car’s emissions levels properly.

If your car fails its MOT

If your car fails its MOT, the test centre will give you a VT3O Certificate showing the reasons for the fail.

On 20 May 2018, the MOT categories for fails and passes changed.

If your car has a dangerous fault, you won’t be able to drive it away. Get a quote from the garage you got the MOT from if they do repairs, and then call around for some quotes from other local garages. You might be able to find the repairs cheaper even if they need to tow your vehicle to their garage.

If your car has a major fault you may be able to drive it away if it’s still roadworthy and your previous MOT has not expired yet.

If your MOT has run out and the car is roadworthy you can drive it to have the faults fixed and to a pre-booked MOT.

If you drive a car without an MOT under any other circumstances, or drive a car with dangerous faults, you can be fined £2,500, be banned from driving and get three points on your licence.

MOT retests

You need to fix all major and dangerous faults to make your car roadworthy and then arrange a partial MOT retest in which your car must pass before you can drive it on the roads again.

If you leave your car with the test centre for repair, you’ll be able to get a partial retest for free, as long as this is done within 10 working days of failing the MOT.

If you take your vehicle away for repairs, and return it before the end of the next working day, the test is normally free. Whether it’s free or not depends on which parts are retested

If you return within 10 working days to the same test centre for a partial retest, you’ll get charged a lower fee, but it won’t be free.

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If your MOT has expired

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If your MOT has expired, it’s illegal to drive your car on the road and you could be prosecuted for doing so.

Driving without a current MOT also invalidates your car insurance. So you might not be covered if you were to have an accident.

The only exception would be if you already had an MOT booked and were driving your car to the test.

If you’ve lost your MOT certificate

There are two ways to get a replacement MOT test certificate.

The first is free. Just go to the GOV.UK website where you can view, print and save any MOT certificate issued after 20 May 2018. All you need is the vehicle’s registration number and the 11-digit reference number, with no spaces, from the vehicle’s V5C, also known as a logbook.

The second way costs £10. You can go to any MOT test centre and give them your vehicle’s registration number and the V5C reference number.

You don’t need a MOT certificate to sell a vehicle, but many buyers will want to see it.

You also need an MOT certificate to tax your vehicle and to change the vehicle’s tax class, such as getting free tax for a disabled driver.

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