How to Import a Car

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How to Import a Car
How to Import a Car

Automobile manufacturers make different cars or different variations of their cars for different markets. For example, European markets love wagons while they are next to impossible to sell in US markets. For the most part, drivers tend to buy cars within their own markets. But if you fall in love with a set of wheels that you can’t buy in the US, it is certainly possible to buy abroad and import the car. 

Buyers should be aware that environmental regulations are strict when it comes to cars, and between the regulations and cost, it can be daunting to import a car

1

Check US Environmental Regulations for Automobiles

Check US Environmental Regulations for Automobiles

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets forth fairly strict regulations for emissions and other environmental factors that impact automobile sales. If you are buying a car in the US market, the model has already passed all the necessary tests. However, cars purchased from outside of the US may not be sold with the same guarantees.

If you are interested in a car that does not meet US emissions standards, you will need to have the necessary alterations made to bring the automobile up to US codes before it can be imported or driven in the US. In some cases, it may not even be possible. So, before you go to the hassle and expense of buying a car that cannot be imported, start with an understanding of what is required in the US and use that information to inform your shopping experience.


2

Get Familiar with US Safety Standards

Get Familiar with US Safety Standards

The EPA isn’t the only governing body with a say in what automobiles can be imported to the United States Department of Transportation also enforces a set of safety regulations that are enforced for all vehicles on American roads. 

The DOT keeps a list of eligible vehicles for common imports. Non-confirming vehicles may not be able to be imported at all, so checking your vehicle against the list of eligible vehicles is an important pre-sale to-do item. 

Keep in mind that bringing your car up to US code can be very costly. Compare your options. If you decide to proceed with an import, here is what comes next.


3

Bring Your Car Up to Code

Bring Your Car Up to Code

Start by looking for a reputable dealer that has experience shipping cars overseas for US import. If you are unfamiliar with the intricacies, it can really help to work with someone who has experience with these types of imports. 

In many cases, dealerships will have an in-house service department or will be able to make a referral to the type of service department you will need to make modifications to your vehicle. Although stay vigilant when dealing with foreign dealers and mechanics. Many claim that their cars meet US regulations, but US Customs and Border Control says that it is uncommon unless the car was manufactured to be sold in the US.

The next thing that you will need to consider is budgeting for US taxes that will be due on the vehicle upon registration in the US. Automobile taxes vary by state, so you will need to check with your local DMV to properly budget for taxes. 

And finally, look over the details of warranty coverage and check with your insurance agent to make sure your vehicle will be covered once it leaves the country where it is purchased, during shipping, and once it arrives in the US.


4

Choose a Shipper and Make Arrangements

Choose a Shipper and Make Arrangements

Finding and buying a car overseas is the first half of the battle. Choosing the right shipper to bring your car to the US is the other half of the battle. A reputable shipper will offer more than the lowest price. For starters, you should look for a shipper that offers the right services, including pick up and delivery in the countries that you need. 

Things to look for in a shipping company:

  • Services Offered
  • Shipping Methods
  • Reputation
  • Insurance Coverage
  • Deposit Requirements
  • Cost
  • Added Fees
  • Customs Support

A good partner in shipping will provide timely arrangements and a resource of experience that can be invaluable if trouble pops up during shipment or customs clearance.


5

Prepare Your Vehicle for Shipment

The steps to prepare a vehicle for shipment may vary depending on whether the vehicle is new or driven in the origin country prior to importing it to the US. If it is a new purchase, the dealer should be contractually obligated to take care of these things for you. 

Start by cleaning the vehicle’s exterior, including the undercarriage. While shipping insurance documentation is a good practice to have the vehicle cleaned prior to shipping, the US department of agriculture has specific requirements regarding the cleaning of the undercarriage. To prevent delays in customs, it is a good idea to have the vehicle professionally cleaned.

The interior of the car should be cleaned and all personal items removed prior to shipping. Not only are personal possessions unsecured during shipping, but some items may raise eyebrows during customs clearance, and you don’t want to give them any reason to delay your car from clearance.


6

Complete Paperwork

Complete Paperwork

In most cases, your shipper will walk you through the paperwork requirements to import your car into the US. For starters, you will need proof that the vehicle meets US emissions and safety standards. This may require a certified letter from the vehicle manufacturer. You will also need:

  • Bill of Sale 
  • VIN Number
  • Proof of Ownership
  • Temporary Registration
  • Insurance Card
  • Bill of Lading (Shipment)

Complete and accurate paperwork is vital for a smooth customs clearance. Delays in customs can add weeks or months to the shipment. And it can be extremely difficult to resolve problems and get your property released in the United States. When problems do arise, it can really pay off to work with a reputable shipping company that has experience working with customs.


7

Pay Customs Fees and Import Taxes

Once your vehicle has been cleared for import by customs, it is time to pay up. If you are importing a vehicle from Canada, there are a few workarounds to save money on these fees. For example, you may be able to get an exemption if you can drive the vehicle into the United States. On the other hand, classic cars and gas guzzlers get hit with additional taxes.

Automobiles are currently assessed a 2.5% duty. Although, if you are returning to the states from a work or study assignment abroad, you may be able to apply for an exemption. In order to qualify, the vehicle must be used only for personal use and must be accompanying its owner, who is also returning to the US. Military members and ex-pats are the most common individuals who deal with importing a car after an assignment abroad.


8

Arrange Pickup or Domestic Shipping to Final Destination

Arrange Pickup or Domestic Shipping to Final Destination

Once your car arrives in the US and clears customs, your shippers’ obligation may be fulfilled. That could mean that your car is sitting halfway across the country. One option is to work with your shipper to arrange ground transport with delivery to your door. Another option is to fly out and pick your car up, driving it back. 

The latter choice requires a little planning because you will need to make sure that the car arrives in good running order and that you have the necessary insurance coverage lined up to legally operate the vehicle on US roadways. As long as all of your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, it should be ok to use either method to get your vehicle to its final destination.

The Bottom Line

Importing a car to the US requires some legwork, but it is possible. Individuals who are on assignment abroad through the US military or as expatriate employees may need to purchase a car abroad and import it when they return home. In most other cases, it is almost always more economical to buy a car from a US dealer. If you are looking for something unique, consider special ordering from a manufacturer in lieu of importing a car that may or may not meet US regulations.

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Joe Webster began his journey in the auto transport field by attending the University of Southern California (USC), where he graduated with a Bachelor of Business Marketing. 

After college, he started his career in the auto transport industry from the bottom up and has done virtually every job there is to do at A-1 Auto Transport, including but not limited to: Truck Driver, Dispatch, Sales, PR, Bookkeeping, Transport Planner, Transport Manager, International Transport Manager, Brokering, Customer Service, and Marketing. Working with his mentor Tony Taylor, Joe Webster has learned the ins and outs of this industry which is largely misunderstood. 

With over 30 years experience in the industry, we've been helping people ship their vehicles, motorcycles, RV's, heavy equipment, household goods and more across the country or overseas without a hitch. Ask us anything.


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