Car insurance is an interesting product: Everyone has it, but no one wants to use it. Even though you want to avoid using your policy, more than 5 million accidents are reported to the police each year, so you should probably know how to file an insurance claim. If you do have a claim, here’s how the process should go.

What to Do Immediately After an Accident

The first thing to do after an accident doesn’t involve your insurance company. At this stage, all you need to worry about is getting you and your car to safety. Once you do that, you should start collecting information.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has a handy tool for collecting information after an accident. It’s called the WreckCheck app. You can download it for your iPhone or Android device , or print out the NAIC’s auto accident checklist , which will help you track the same information as the app.

Once you’re safe, there are three things you should do:

1. Get Information from Other Drivers

In an era of identity theft, you may not want to give out your personal information after an accident. The NAIC says all you really need to exchange is the information on your proof of insurance cards. That includes:

  • Policyholder’s name
  • Vehicle information
  • Insurer name
  • Agent name & phone number
  • Policy number

Get this information from all drivers involved in the accident.

The NAIC says not to let anyone take a photo of your license. This is to protect yourself from identity theft.

2. Get Information from Witnesses

Testimony from witnesses can be a big help if there’s any dispute over how the accident happened. Get the names and contact information of anyone who saw the accident.

3. Take Photos and Notes

Before anyone leaves the scene, make sure to take some photos. The NAIC says to take snap shots of the following:

  • License plates of the cars involved in the accident
  • Your car’s damage
  • Any other cars’ damage
  • Any other damaged property

You should also note the time and dateof the accident and the details of how it happened. It’s important to keep the facts straight with an accident, and it’s best to note the details as soon as possible.

Other Advice

  • Call 911 if there are injuries.
  • Call police to report the accident.
  • Stay courteous.
  • Don’t admit fault.
  • Don’t sign any documents unless they’re from police or your insurance agent.

What to Do If the Damage Isn’t from an Accident

If the damage isn’t from an accident, you should do anything you can to safely prevent further damage. For example, if hail broke your windshield, put a tarp over it to protect your interior from rain or more hail. If it’s not safe to do so, just leave it be and call your insurer.

If the damage is from vandalism or theft, call police before you report it to your insurer.

Getting Insurers Involved

After you deal with the aftermath of the accident or damage, the next step is to get your insurer involved. You should start the process as soon as possible. Even if the accident was someone else’s fault, you should contact your own insurance company. Your insurer is your advocate and will help you through the process no matter what.

Start by calling the number on your proof of insurance card, which will connect you with either an agent or a claims hotline. Once you’re connected, you’ll provide information about the accident and have a claims representative assigned to you. While on the phone with your insurer, ask about the following:

  1. Your claim number
  2. Whether you should get the other driver’s insurer involved
  3. Any forms or documents you’ll need to file your claim
  4. Your rental car options
  5. When your claims representative will be contacting you
  6. How estimates will be handled. Do you need to take your car to a repair shop, or will they send someone out to you?

Take notes when talking with company representatives so you have all the details on paper. It may also be smart to note who you speak with and what days you spoke with them.

Getting Your Car Repaired

Repair claims are usually handled pretty quickly. About half the time, it takes 8 days or less to go from filing a claim to having it paid, according to a survey from J.D. Power.

First, your claims representative will get a repair estimate in one of two ways. They’ll either send someone out to check out the damages, or you’ll take it straight to the repair shop.

When it comes time for repairs, your insurer will likely recommend a repair shop or a group of shops. They do this because they may have agreements with one or more shops that will allow them to get your repairs done quicker and at a lower labor cost.

You don’t have to use a repair shop suggested by your insurer. They are, after all, only suggestions. You can choose to get the repairs at another shop that you’ve used before. But there’s a catch. If the insurer’s estimate is cheaper than the one from your preferred shop, you may have to pay the difference. So if their shop says $1,000 for the repairs and yours says $1,100, you may have to pay the extra $100 to have it repaired at your preferred shop.

When it comes time to pay for the repairs, your insurer will usually pay the repair shop directly. If you have a deductible, you’ll also give that amount directly to the repair shop.

Total Loss Claims

After a bad accident, your insurer may declare your car “totaled” or a “total loss.” This means your car is worth less than the cost to repair it. In this case, your insurer will pay you the actual cash value of your car. If you have a deductible, it will be subtracted from the amount they owe you.

Some states have limits on when insurers can total a car. For example, your insurer might be able to total your car only if the repair costs are at least 75% of the actual cash value.

Disagreements with Your Insurer

If you disagree with your insurer’s decisions, discuss it with the company. Your claims representative will explain how they calculated your repair estimate or determined the actual cash value of your car.

If you reach a dead end with your insurer, you can get insurance regulators involved. Most state insurance departments have a consumer services division that can help you. They’ll walk you through what your insurer is and is not required to do and help get your issue resolved

Did You Know?

Claim payments

According to a survey from J.D. Power, a little over half (51%) of claimants get their repairs paid within 8 days of filing a claim.