How to Import a Foreign Car Into the U.S.

New cars in showroom
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Importing a vehicle into the U.S. if it was purchased outside the country can be fairly complicated. Trucks and cars imported from a foreign nation are subject to a variety of safety standards, beginning with the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which were revised by the Imported Safety Compliance Act of 1988. They also must comply with the bumper standard enumerated under the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972 (which became effective as of 1978), and air pollution control standards from the Clean Air Act of 1968, amended in 1977 and 1990. Only cars that conform with all these standards are allowed into the U.S., and it's unlikely they will comply unless the vehicles were made specifically for export into the U.S. Be prepared for a lengthy process — and possibly some expensive modifications — before your car is approved for import.

The process by which a foreign-purchased car is imported into the U.S. generally follows this process:

  1. Document the car's compliance with U.S. EPA emission standards, making whatever modifications are required.
  2. Document the car's compliance with U.S. Federal safety standards; make modifications to the vehicle, if required.
  3. Arrange for shipping — either in coordination with a car dealership or with an independent shipping company.
  4. Submit documents and pay duties as the vehicle enters the country.

EPA Requirements

The EPA has outlined the rules and regulations around vehicle importation on their website, with information on what to do, which vehicles are exempt, and procedures for getting your vehicle across the border. The EPA's rules for importing foreign-made cars are enumerated in its Automotive Imports Facts Manual. Print copies are available for free by calling the EPA's Imports Hotline (734) 214-4100, or writing to:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Ariel Rios Building, Manufacturer Operations Division (6405-J)
Investigation/Import Section
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20460

The official document used to verify that your car complies with U.S. Federal emissions standards is EPA Declaration Form 3520-1, which must be submitted to U.S. Customs during the border crossing for all vehicles EXCEPT newly manufactured cars that have a manufacturer's certification proofing they are in already in compliance. Form 3520-1 will require your vehicle's VIN, manufacturing date, and other details that can easily be found and completed.

A new car manufactured in a foreign country may already be certified as passing U.S. Federal emissions standards, but if your car is not on the list of such cars, it will need to be tested and verified to be in compliance. The emissions rating is based on laboratory results of a driving test, where the vehicle is put through a series of measures that attempt to replicate a real-world urban scenario. This includes braking, idling, starting, etc., and even includes refueling. If your vehicle is not on the list of certified vehicles, a registered Independent Commercial importer (ICI) can handle the testing and certification of the car so that it can be imported. The RI can also handle modifications that might be required to make the car eligible for import. Such modifications can be expensive, but they are the only option to make some cars eligible for import.

NHTSA Requirements

While the EPA's requirements that the car will meet emission standards, other safety considerations are overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) division of the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Not all foreign-made cars are approved for import into the U.S. The NHTSA publishes a list of approved cars, and if your car is not on that list, you will likely need to hire a DOT-registered Independent Commercial Importer (ICI) who will make modifications to the vehicle to ensure it meets the required standards. For example, the ICI may arrange for the vehicle's speedometer registered in kilometers to be replaced with a miles-per-hour gauge, or have approved headlights installed.

NHTSA's form HS_7 is the document required by Customs to verify that the vehicle is in compliance with U.S. federal standards for safety, bumper, and theft protection. This form will be filled out by the Independent Commercial Importer, if you are using one.

The Importing Process

The actual process of moving your car into the U.S. can be handled by a dealership if you are buying a new car, or you can work with an independent carrier or shipper. Notify the carrier or shipper of the expected arrival date for the car so they can make the necessary arrangements with the U.S. Customs office. If you are moving a car from Canada or Mexico, you can even drive it across the border yourself.

For protection against insects and soil-borne pathogens, the U.S.D.A (U.S. Department of Agriculture) requires that all imported vehicles be thoroughly washed or steam-cleaned, including the undercarriage, to eliminate foreign material. Make sure to have a reputable detailing shop do this work, and explain that the vehicle is being prepped for foreign export. Keep paper documentation that this work was done.

Prior to the vehicle shipping, prepare the necessary documents, including the original bill of lading, the bill of sale, the current vehicle registration, and the EPA and NHTSA forms. If you are using the services of a registered importer, also have a copy of this contract. All these documents should be available for Customs as your car arrives at the border.

Along with the required documentation, you will be expected to pay the appropriate duties and fees for the import before the car is allowed into the U.S. Normally, the duty rates are based on 2.5% of the car's purchase price (or as much as 25% for trucks), but there may be other regulations and exemptions that apply, depending on the age and categorization of your car, or the country of origin. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection keeps updated information on the fees and exemptions for importing cars into the U.S.

Registering Your Car

Before you can legally drive your imported car, remember that you will need to register it in your state of residence. This can be somewhat tricky since your car will not yet have a VIN or title documentation in the state system. Call your DMV for details on how to navigate the process. Your car may also require another vehicle emissions test before it can be registered in your state.