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Importing Your Car Into The USA

What's in this article?
  1. Importing a Vehicle into the United States
  2. Organizations that Play a Vital Role in Vehicle Importation into the U.S
  3. U.S Customs and Border Protection
  4. U.S EPA
  5. U.S Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
  6. Importing a Car Purchased in Canada to the United States
  7. Documentation
  8. Duties
  9. Importing a Classic Car to the United States
  10. Prohibited Countries
  11. Who Can Arrange Vehicle Shipments?
  12. Preparing a Motor Vehicle for Import
  13. Cleaning the Vehicle Exterior
  14. Cleaning the Vehicle Interior
  15. Paperwork Necessary for Import
  16. Duty Rates for U.S Entry
  17. Is There Way to Import a Vehicle Duty-Free?
  18. Valuable Resources
  19. US Customs
  20. Environmental Protection Agency
  21. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  22. Popular Origins
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Importing a Vehicle into the United States

Importing a vehicle into the United States can be a daunting process and it must be handled the right way from start to finish if you want to have your car accepted when it’s time to cross the U.S. border. Vehicles that are imported must comply with regulations set by numerous organizations as well as the safety standards set by the Motor Vehicle Safety act of 1966 as well as the Clean Air Act of 1968 and other standards to ensure that all vehicles entering the country are safe, reliable and up to par with those manufactured within the United States.

Organizations that Play a Vital Role in Vehicle Importation into the U.S.

Contacting an international car shipper to bring your car into the United States is necessary, but there are other organizations that motor vehicle owners can contact in the United States to get valuable information on regulations for emissions and air pollution control, safety standards and bumper standards that must be adhered to to import a motor vehicle into the country. These organizations play a vital role in having a motor vehicle imported into the United States.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) not only helps secure our borders to ensure that dangerous people are not able to easily cross into the United States, but they also monitor motor vehicle imports by setting regulations that all vehicle owners must comply with to import. Vehicles that do not meet U.S. safety standards are required to comply or they must be exported to the country of origin or destroyed. CBP has a pamphlet available for returning U.S. citizens and international visitors who wish to import a motor vehicle. The pamphlet, “Know Before You Go” can be obtained by visiting a local CBP in the U.S. or American embassies or consulates internationally or by sending a written request to:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

P.O. Box 7407

Washington, D.C. 20044

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When you hear about the EPA, you most likely think about air pollution and things that happen with power sources such as coal, electricity or even solar power. The EPA has regulations for motor vehicle imports that must be met as well, and if you want to bring a car into the United States, your car must conform to all vehicle air pollution emissions.

EPA Form 3520-1 is required for most motor vehicle imports and this includes cars, trucks, motorcycles, kit cars, disassembled vehicles, off-road vehicles and light duty car, truck and motorcycle engines. The form is not required on vehicles imported directly from their manufacturer if they are new vehicles and already have an EPA certificate of conformity along with an EPA emission control label. There are however, some vehicles that are exempt from the emissions requirement and those include:

  • Non-chassis mounted vehicles
  • Race cars and trucks
  • Motor vehicles manufactured prior to January 1, 1968
  • Unregulated fuel vehicles

For more information on the EPA and motor vehicle imports, you can visit the EPA website.

The EPA can be contacted by phone by calling: 734-214-4100

You can also contact the EPA directly by sending a written letter to the following address:

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

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U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Per the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), all motor vehicles imported into the United States are subject to federal safety, bumper and theft prevention standards and all vehicles not originally manufactured in the United States must conform to all federal motor vehicle safety standards.

This requirement means that all vehicles that are newer than 25 years old are required to comply the Department of Transportation (DOT) motor vehicle safety standards. Passenger cars that were manufactured after the year 1973 must comply with bumper safety standards and the manufacturer must have a label affixed to the vehicle guaranteeing that all standards have been met.

If a vehicle does not have the conformity sticker affixed by the manufacturer, the vehicle owner will be responsible to pay one and a half times the vehicles duty value on top of the normal Customs entry bond that must be paid at the time of import into the U.S.

To reach the DOT for further information you can call: 202-366-5291.

You can find valuable motor vehicle import information on the NHTSA website.

You can also send a written letter for information on import requirements to:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

400 7th Street, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20590

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Importing a Car Purchased in Canada to the United States

Many Americans have ventured to Canada to purchase a car, and in doing do, they have found the need to have the car brought back to their home in the United States. It would be nice to be able to simply drive the car back over the U.S./Canada border without the need to worry about import laws and regulations. After all, Canada is so close to the U.S. Due to government regulations, a vehicle owner must comply with import laws when bringing a car from Canada to the United States.

First, you will need to show proof that the vehicle meets all emissions and U.S. safety standards before it will be allowed entry. This means the owner must contact the vehicle manufacturer at least 2-3 weeks ahead of the import date to obtain a letter of clearance showing the vehicle complies with all U.S. emission and safety standards. The VIN must be included in the letter from the manufacturer.


You will need to make sure you have the following documentation:

  • Bill of Sale showing the VIN number
  • Proof of Ownership (The Bill of Sale should have the owners name)
  • Temporary License Plate
  • Canadian Insurance Card


If the vehicle gets 22.5 or less miles per gallon, you will need to pay a “Gas Guzzler” tax on top of other fees and taxes.

At Customs, you will need to pay duties and taxes to bring the vehicle into the United States. You can apply for exemption of duty fees if you meet the following requirements:

  • You must drive the vehicle into the United States
  • You must have bought the vehicle on the same trip to Canada
  • You must use the vehicle only for personal use

Once the vehicle has been cleared for import by Customs, you will need to immediately have it registered in the United States and obtain U.S. insurance of you have not already done so. You may also need a state inspection of emissions inspection depending on the state you reside in.

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Importing a Classic Car to the United States

Generally, cars that are considered classic or antique are exempt from emissions and safety standards that are required on newer vehicles. This means that if you find a great classic car while you’re visiting friends in Canada or Europe, two of the biggest countries for Americans to find classics, and you want to bring it to the United States with you, chances are that you won’t find a great deal of difficulty in doing so.

Ideally, importing a classic car is no different than importing any other car. You will need to arrange shipment with an international car shipper and pay them to transport the car overseas. Hiring the right company is going to be crucial in getting your new car into the United States safely and in cooperation with all U.S. import laws. When you have the right shipping agent, you’ll find fewer problems and a much smoother shipping experience.

There will be a couple ways to get the classic car shipped overseas, and while each mode of transport is widely used, you will need to determine which is best for your car.

  • RORO - RORO transport is an economical way to ship a vehicle overseas. It entails driving the vehicle onto the ship, securing it in place and then travel across the ocean to the destination in the U.S. There are thousands of vehicles shipped by RORO daily throughout the world and it is a safe mode of transport. The car will however be exposed to sea water and if you have a classic car, you may not want sea water to contact the car as it can cause rusting.
  • Container - Many classic car owners opt to use a shipping container when moving a classic overseas. The container is sealed and prevents sea water as well as people and other hazards from contacting the vehicle during shipment. Usually, the contents of a container are unknown to crew members and vehicles remain safe throughout the shipment.

When the car has reached Customs in the United States, you will need to pay the required duties and taxes and then will need to comply with your local laws on registration, license plates and insurance.

Prohibited Countries

Some vehicle imports will be prohibited if they involve the governments of specific countries and those include motor vehicles from the following countries of origin:

  • Afghanistan
  • Iran
  • Cuba
  • Yugoslavia
  • Iraq
  • North Korea
  • Sudan
  • Libya
  • Serbia

These regulations are set by the U.S Department of Treasury. To contact the U.S. Department of Treasury you can call: 202-622-2500.

Be sure to visit the U.S. Department of Treasury website.

For more information, you can contact the department at the following address:

Overseas Cargo Shipping

Director, Office of Foreign Assets Control

U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2nd Floor Annex.

1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20220

Who Can Arrange Vehicle Shipments?

As the owner of the motor vehicle, it will be up to you to make all arrangements to have your vehicle shipped. You can, of course, hire a reliable international car shipper to transport the vehicle internationally into the United States on your behalf. You must be made aware of the arrival date so you can arrange to have the vehicle processed through Customs and Border Protection.

Motor vehicle will need to be processed at the first entry port unless the owner has arranged to have a freight forwarder from overseas deliver the vehicle to a port with a CBP office that will be easier for you to get to for processing the import.

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Preparing a Motor Vehicle for Import

As a vehicle owner that wants to have their car, truck or other mode of transportation imported into the United States, you will need to take care of several things in advance to make sure the vehicle is ready for import.

Cleaning the Vehicle Exterior

All motor vehicles must be thoroughly cleaned prior to shipment from another country. This includes the undercarriage. While many believe this is to ensure dirt does not damage other vehicles on the shipment, it is due to safeguards being in place to prevent dangerous pests from entering the United States.

The Department of Agriculture requires that the undercarriage be fully cleaned to remove any soil from foreign countries. It’s a good idea to have the vehicle professionally cleaned and steam sprayed before it is shipped to help guarantee no trace of foreign soil is left behind that could cause the import to be delayed or denied.

Cleaning the Vehicle Interior

The exterior is an important factor in importing a vehicle, but equally important is the interior of the car. All personal content needs to be removed before the car is shipped. This is for the safety of the vehicle owner as well as the safety of shipping personnel and other motor vehicles on the shipment.

During shipment, your motor vehicle will be susceptible to thieves that may be present on the loading or unloading docks as well as many people who may be present while the vehicle is in transit to the U.S. It is best to have the car emptied of all personal content to deter potential break-ins that will damage the vehicle as well as cause a loss of valuables to the owner.

Most shippers will not load a motor vehicle if there are personal belongings inside. Vehicles found with narcotics inside will be seized and the owner may incur a penalty from CBP or law enforcement.

Paperwork Necessary for Import

You must have the following documentation to import your motor vehicle:

  • Bill of Lading
  • Bill of Sale
  • Registration from country of origin
  • Proof of ownership
  • EPA Form 3520-1 showing emissions compliance
  • DOT Form HS-7 showing safety compliance
  • Manufacturers label on engine showing emission requirements are met (In English)

Duty Rates for U.S. Entry

All motor vehicles entering the United States for import are subject to duty fees. Canadian motor vehicles are duty-free unless CBP states otherwise.

The rates are generally listed at the following percentages:

  • Automobiles: 2.5%
  • Large Trucks: 25%
  • Motorcycles: Possibility of no dutiable fees or will have duties up to 2.4%

U.S. residents that are returning to the United States from travel, study abroad or working abroad are eligible for CBP exemption and can receive a credit up to $800 that can be applied to duty fees if the import meets the following criteria:

  • The vehicle is imported only for personal use
  • The vehicle accompanies the owner on their return to the U.S.
  • The vehicle was purchased/acquired from the country the owner is returning to the U.S. from

Once the exemption is applied, a flat duty rate of only 3% will be applied for the following $1000 of motor vehicle value while the remainder will be dutiable at the normal duty rate.

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Is There Way to Import a Vehicle Duty-Free?

The short answer to this question is, yes, there is a way to import a vehicle duty-free. You must meet the requirements to do so and they include:

  • Military members as well as U.S. government employees who return to the United States after extended duty may bring a vehicle along if it conforms to the requirements with their duty free personal and household goods with no additional duty fees. The stipulation requires that the vehicle was purchased internationally and it must be in the owner’s possession before departure to the United States. Navy personnel are eligible for 120 days or longer of extended duty exemption and others with extended duty of 140 days or more will be granted exemption as well.
  • S. citizens who have been employed abroad may import a foreign vehicle duty-free if they enter the United States for a visit, claim nonresident status and export the vehicle when they leave the country. This applies to government employees as well as civilians.
  • Non-residents can import a vehicle without paying duties if they bring it with them when they enter the United States. If the vehicle does not conform to the requirements for safety and emissions, the vehicle must be exported within a full year. The vehicle cannot be sold within the year. Vehicles that meet conformation may be sold within one year but duties must be paid at the nearest CBP office prior to the sale in the United States.

Valuable Resources:

U.S Customs

U.S. Customs offers excellent resource material for citizens and international visitors to the United States who need information on importing a vehicle. For information on Customs requirements and information on other agencies involved in the process, please see: Importing a Motor Vehicle.

Environmental Protection Agency

The following EPE links offer necessary news and other information pertaining to required documentation, air pollution testing and emissions testing necessary for import to the U.S.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Joe Webster always knew the auto transport industry would be a great career option. And with decades of experience, Joe is now an established consultant for A1 Auto Transport.

Joe was born in Santa Cruz, California. During high school, Joe worked as a mechanic; a job continued to work part-time during his bachelor's degree.

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