Laws And Regulations On Importing A Car Into The United States

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Laws And Regulations On Importing A Car Into The United States
Laws And Regulations On Importing A Car Into The United States

In 1966, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act was created, through which US safety standards for imported vehicles were established. In 1988, the Safety Compliance Act for imported vehicles has revised these standards.

In 1972, the cost savings and vehicle information act has established the bumper standards that apply to all imported vehicles. In 1978, this act was put into practice.

Finally, in 1968, the Clean Air Act was created which established the standards imposed on imported vehicles regarding controlling air pollution. The act was revised 2 more times reaching its current form in 1990.

If a car that was built abroad meets the United States’ emission, bumper, and safety standards, it’s likely that they’re meant to be sold in the US. Because of this, a car you’ve bought abroad will likely not meet all of these standards. 

If a seller or dealer from another country claims his car is already compliant with US regulations, he might not be honest. Before you can import a vehicle into the US, you’ll have to make the necessary modifications. Otherwise, you’ll need to either destroy or export it.

This article is meant to inform residents of the US, civilian and military employees that work for the government, as well as foreign nationals on what laws and regulations will have to be followed when importing a car into the country. 

We will discuss CBP requirements as well as the standards of other relevant agencies. Since DOT and EPA requirements are changed regularly, it’s best to contact a representative when importing a car.

As an important note, importing a car from Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, Sudan, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, or Afghanistan is usually prohibited if these countries’ governments are involved. If you want to attempt an import from this country, it’s best you first inform yourself of the United States’ licensing policy and prohibitions.

Arrangements prior to importation

Before importing an automobile into the US, certain arrangements need to be made. To process the vehicle through CBP, you’ll need to know the car’s arrival date. You can obtain it from your broker, carrier, or shipper. 

Unless you’ve hired a freight forwarder from the other country to transport your car to a port of your choosing, you will have to clear the shipment at the initial entry port. CBP officers cannot be agents or enter a vehicle on behalf of an importer. On the other hand, hiring a CBP broker for this purpose is not illegal.

Laws And Regulations On Importing A Car Into The United States

Necessary paperwork

Among the documents you’ll need to clear CBP, we name the foreign registration, sale bill, original lading bill, etc. To declare safety provisions and emissions according to which you’ll import the automobile, you’ll have to complete a DOT and EPA form (HS-7 and 3520-1 respectively). 

If you car is built in accordance with United States emission standards, there will be a label from the manufacturer in English placed on the engine as confirmation. If you want to import the car under EPA exclusions or exemptions even though it lacks the required label, you’ll have to provide eligibility proof to the entry port’s CBP inspector.

If not all emission requirements are met, the car will require an ICI (independent commercial importer) to bring it into the country unless it’s qualified for an exemption. Until you’ve completed the ICI work, your car will not be released by the EPA.

It’s the ICI’s responsibility to modify the car according to EPA standards and to ensure that it meets these standards. In some cases, modifying or importing a car with an ICI’s help may not be possible. To check if there are any problems, you should contact one as soon as possible.

Undercarriage cleaning

Imported cars must have their undercarriage cleaned. All foreign soil must be removed from the vehicle, so potentially dangerous pests are not accidentally imported. To comply with the Department of Agriculture’s regulations, you can thoroughly clean or steam-spray the vehicle. 

Avoid carrying items within the car

The car is an item itself and should not be used as a container for transporting others. While your car is in transit or on the unloading/loading dock, the things you place within the car can easily be stolen.

If you place personal belongings inside the car, most carriers and shippers will refuse to transport it. You’ll need to declare the car’s contents to the CBP when entering the country. 

If there are missing items in your report, your car and the belongings you’ve placed inside it may be seized. Even in the best case scenario, you’ll still receive a fine. Finally, if someone tries to sneak illegal narcotics within your already stuffed car, it may be seized, and you can be penalized according to the law.

Duty rates

In general, when importing a car that was manufactured abroad into the United States, regardless if it’s for sale or for personal use, new or old, you will have to pay the following duty taxes:

  • 2.5% for automobiles.
  • 25% for trucks.
  • 2.4% or free for motorcycles.

The duty tax is calculated according to the payable or paid price. If your car was built in Canada, you’ll likely not have to pay a duty tax.

If you’re a United States resident returning to the country, you can use your CBP exemption as well as your family members’ exemption (if they’re coming with you) to pay for your vehicle’s duty tax when:

  • The car is coming with you into the US.
  • You’ve imported it for your personal use.
  • You’ve bought the car during a trip, and you’re not coming back from said trip.

When it comes to CBP, you’re considered a returning resident if you’re coming back from studying abroad, from work, or from travel.

After applying for the exemption, a 3% flat rate will be applied on the following $1000 of the car’s total value. A regular rate will be used for the amount left.

Entering the country for free

Government employees or US citizens that work abroad which are returning on temporary leave or TDY can bring a foreign vehicle with them without paying duty taxes if they visit only for a short while, if they take the car back with them when leaving, and if they obtain nonresident status.

The government’s civilian and military employees which are coming back into the US after a long assignment abroad can bring a conforming car along with their other household items. For this to be possible, the automobile must be bought in another country and count among your possessions before you depart for the US.

Usually, duty can be extended for up to 140 days. You can obtain an extended duty exemption if you work in the navy and have been working on a US vessel abroad, from the moment it left the country to the moment it returned, after a deployment lasting more than 120 days. 

If you sell a car you’ve imported while being exempted from duty fees within 12 months, the duty fee will need to be paid. Before you sell the automobile, you’ll need to pay the duty tax at a CBP office. Vehicles that were imported through this method which conform to US regulations can remain in the country indefinitely. For EPA purposes, all that is needed is a formal entry.

If you’re not a resident of the US, you can still import a car without paying duty for your own personal use. However, it must arrive at the same time as yourself and it can only remain in the country for at most a year. If the car doesn’t meet the country’s emission and safety regulations, it must be sent back in at most 12 months and cannot be sold within the United States.

Other reasons people might import vehicles

If you’re not a citizen of the US, you can import a motorcycle or car, including its equipment, without paying duty if its stay is temporary and you have a specific purpose for importing it, such as an upcoming race. 

But, you will need an EPA written approval for this purpose. The EPA will only grant it if the racing vehicle isn’t practical or safe for driving on highways or streets. 

If the purpose of the contest is not money, then you can import the car for at most 90 days. In this case, you won’t need a bond of formal entry as long as a CBP officer gives his clearance. If you don’t give a bond or export it before the 90 days are up, the car may be forfeited. 

You’ll need written approval from the DOT before importing it. On a temporary basis, it can be done for racing, demonstrations, or testing. You can also import a car permanently if it’s for display or show. 

You can find the necessary information regarding importing an automobile for display or show on the NHTSA website. If you’ve imported a car for display or show on a permanent basis, it must conform with the United States emission standards. Furthermore, it usually has to be imported using an ICI that’s been authorized by the EPA who will handle the testing and modifications. Until the ICI completes his work, the car cannot be given to its rightful owner.

Theft prevention, bumper, and safety standards

A HS-7 form will need to be filed by motor vehicle importers to confirm whether your car meets DOT standards. If the car is 25 years old or younger, it must meet all FMVSS standards before it can be imported into the states permanently. Bumper standards must be met by cars built after 1978 and theft prevention requirements must be met by models created after 1986. 

If your car conforms to these standards, there will be a label certifying this fact placed by its manufacturer around the driver’s door. If the car you’ve bought overseas meets US standards, you can speed up your transport by checking if this fact is confirmed by the sales contract. If it is, you can show the CBP the contract when importing the car.

If your automobile doesn’t have a certification label from the manufacturer that states it confirms to US standards, it will have to enter the country as a nonconforming automobile. In this case, you’ll have to speak to an RI (registered importer) and ask him to make the required modifications to your car. Then, he will certify that it conforms to FMVSS. 

Furthermore, you will have to place a bond at the DOT worth 1.5 times the car’s dutiable value. Besides this bond, the entry bond towards the CBP will also need to be paid. You’ll have to attach copies of your contract and DOT bond to the appropriate HS-7 form.

For your car to be modified by an RI, the representative will have to check if it can be modified in such a way that it complies with FMVSS standards. A petition must be created if your car wasn’t previously determined as eligible. 

The modification process can become costly and complex if your car is much different than others created in the US. You can find a list containing automobiles that don’t conform yet can be imported on the NHTSA website.

Federal Tax

Depending on the car you’re importing, you may have to pay a gas guzzler tax according to the IRC (internal revenue code) section 4064. Subject to paying this tax are both commercial importers and people importing cars for their own personal use.

The tax’ value is calculated according to a rating that combines fuel efficiency on highways and urban areas. This rating is the creation of the EPA. The fuel economy rating mentioned by the car’s manufacturer may differ from the EPA rating.

If there isn’t a gas guzzler rating assigned for your car model yet, then one must be determined independently. If your rating is 22.5 miles/gallon or higher, then you won’t have to pay a tax.

Emission requirements

The motorcycles, heavy duty engines, light duty trucks, and passenger cars mentioned below must conform to US emission standards:

  • Motorcycles built after 1977 that have a displacement above 49 cubic cm.
  • Heavy duty engines created after 1969.
  • Light duty trucks built after 1975 that run on diesel fuel.
  • Cars built after 1974 that run on diesel fuel.
  • Light duty trucks and cars built after 1967 that run on gasoline.

For cars to be sold in the United States, their manufacturer must certify their compliance with the country’s emission standards. Any car that doesn’t comply with these standards is classified as nonconforming. To import a nonconforming car, you can obtain a list of certified ICIs at the EPA. 

ICIs that are authorized by the EPA are located within the United States. Therefore, it’s best you speak to an ICI to conform testing and modification costs before starting the process of importing the nonconforming car. If you can’t find a certified ICI willing to take responsibility for your car, the EPA may deny its entry.

Each state may have different emission requirements than the US government. You’ll have to satisfy these requirements to register your car within your desired state. So, before importing it, we recommend you speak to the right authorities for information on this matter. However, you should also know that complying with the emission requirements of a certain state does not automatically mean you’ll conform to EPA standards.


The EPA and DOT advise anyone who wants to import nonconforming vehicles to check what modifications and prohibitions will affect their project and to adapt accordingly. In some cases, a car may require such extensive modifications that importing it may simply be too expensive or even impossible.

Importing a vehicle after previously exporting it

If you’ve shipped a car from the US for your own private use, you can bring it back without paying duty fees if you give the CBP proof that it’s a car which used to be registered and owned in the US. You can use a registration card issued by the state or a sale bill from a dealer operating in the United States.

You must declare accessories and repairs done onto your car abroad when returning. These may attract duty taxes.

You may not be able to procure unleaded fuel in various countries. If your car used leaded gasoline in the other country, you’ll need to replace its oxygen sensor and catalyst when bringing it back into the United States.

If you don’t want to spend more money on replacing them, you can obtain an EPA authorization to take them out before shipping the car overseas. You can then reinstall the original oxygen sensor and catalyst when returning the vehicle. But, you’ll have to bring the car into the US without a bond, based on your guarantee that the reinstallation is done.

Laws And Regulations On Importing A Car Into The United States

Shipping personal or commercial goods with conveyances

To transport commercial goods privately, you’ll need to pay duty taxes and buy a fee decal. If you’re moving goods, which you plan on using personally, within your own automobile, you won’t have to buy a decal. But, you will have to pay the duty tax. You can use rental cars to move personal items without buying a decal, but the driver cannot be paid for the transport.

Exceptions to the rules

Some automobiles don’t have to meet safety and emission standards. However, they may need DOT and EPA declarations and they may not be sold within the United States. These are:

  • Cars imported for your own use for at most a year if you’re not a resident. You’ll have to export the car when the year ends with no extensions or exceptions.
  • Cars that are the property of people working as foreign diplomats, in the armed forces, or those belonging to a class that have authorized free entry given by the State Department according to international law.
  • Cars imported temporarily for competitions, demonstrations, or testing if they’re not licensed for driving or using on public highways and roads. Only if driving them on highways and roads is essential for the test can these cars be driven there.

When entering the country, the people responsible for these automobiles must provide the appropriate paperwork. Furthermore, these agencies must give written approval in advance before you can proceed.

Driver’s Permits and Plates

An international marker should appear on all imported cars. Having an international driving permit will also be useful. To obtain these documents, you can consult the automobile club in your area or the international automobile federation.

Residents of the United States that import used or new vehicles must consult with their state’s DMV regarding obtaining license plates for their cars. You’ll also need to find out what papers the DMV will need from the CBP.

Citizens of South or Central American nations included in the 1943 Inter American Convention can drive their vehicles within the US for up to a year as tourists. If their documents expire sooner, then they’ll have to export the car sooner as well. During this period, a United States driving permit or United States license plates will not be needed if the car has an international registration card and registration marker. The person driving the car will need an international driver’s permit as well.

If you’re a motorist tourist going to the US from a country that’s part of the 1949 International Road Traffic Convention, you can use your car within the country for 12 months while maintaining your old registration tags or license plates. Their old driver’s license will also be valid.

If you’re a motorist from Mexico or Canada, you can tour the United States without needing new driver’s permits or license plates thanks to the agreements ratified between these nations.

If you’re a motorist coming from a foreign country that does not belong to the above mentioned list, you’ll need to be examined and obtain a US driving permit before you can operate a car in one of the states. Finally, if you’re employed in the United States and are also a foreign national, you can use the license tags from your old country between the entry port and your US destination.


Joe WebsterWritten By:Joe WebsterConnect with Joe Webster on facebookConnect with Joe Webster on linkedin

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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