How to Import a Car Into the US

Male customer eyeing new car in car dealership showroom

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Importing a vehicle into the United States, when it was bought outside the US, is difficult. There are very specific rules around emissions, safety, and bumper design. So the first step is to pass the US import laws, then concentrate on the state laws. We'll be importing our Canadian bought Prius, which while it's an environmentally-friendly car, we bought it in 2000 and it may not pass every law that's currently in place.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Emission Rules:

First, let's tackle the EPA rules around air pollution emissions. The US has some of the strictest emission laws in the world, so depending on where your vehicle was purchased, you may find it doesn't pass the test. The emissions rating is based on laboratory results of a driving test, where the vehicle is put through a series of measures that attempts to replicate a real-world urban scenario. This includes braking, idling, starting, etc., and even includes refueling. Now, because we bought our car in Canada and its manufacturer date is the year 2000, our car may meet US specifications. If your car wasn't manufactured in Canada, then you'll need to take the following steps.

EPA Form

The first step to vehicle importation is to download and fill out the Form 3520-1. The form will require your vehicle's VIN, manufacturer date and other details that can easily be found and completed. 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 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The next step is to check out the rules of importation put forward by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Department of Transportation (DOT). Since we bought our vehicle in Canada, we follow the rules they've outlined regarding Canadian imports. To make sure we can import it without any problems, we need to ensure the car meets the Federal motor vehicle safety standards, which must be declared in a letter from the manufacturer which also contains the car's VIN. For non-Canadian vehicles being imported into the US, importers must fill out a form that declares the vehicle meets the Federal bumper and safety standards. The form contains the standard pieces of information, but also outlines who is exempt from following these rules and standards. It's a good idea to read through it to determine whether your vehicle needs to meet the standards or not. For non-Canadian cars, it's a good idea to read through the NHTSA's FAQ section, which will answer most questions about imports. Before you dive into potential questions, we suggest you read through their overview section, which will provide the basic information you need to import your motorized vehicles.


The next step is to take your vehicle through US customs. Again, because our car was manufactured in Canada, we can import our car duty-free. However, if you're trying to take a used car across the border, you should read this great article on doing just that. If you're bringing a vehicle in from another country, you may need to pay customs fees which can range from 2.5% for cars up to 25% for trucks. You'll need to present the bill of sale and foreign registration. If you're shipping your car, then you'll need the original bill of lading. If, however, you are importing your car along with yourself, that is, you are legally allowed to live in the US, you may not be responsible for any duty fees. For more information, go to the Customs Border Control site, Department of Homeland Security, and check out their instructions on how to import a vehicle.

Smog Check

So, because we're moving back to California, our car will need to pass a smog check. From what we can tell, because we own a hybrid, we don't need to go through a smog check. It's a good idea if you are importing a vehicle into California, that you check out the ​Department of Consumer Affair's fact sheet regarding smog check rules and regulations.