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US Laws and Standards on Importing a Motor Vehicle

What's in this article?
  1. Prior To Importing The Vehicle
  2. Paper Work
  3. Undercarriage Cleaning
  4. Shipping Personal Belongings Inside Your Vehicle
  5. Duty Entry
  6. Free Entry Criteria
  7. Motor-Vehicles Imported For Other Reasons
  8. Standards Regarding Bumper, Safety And Prevention Of Theft
  9. Federal Tax
  10. Regarding Emissions
  11. Caution
  12. Importing A Former U.s Vehicle
  13. Transporting Personal Or Commercial Goods With Conveyances
  14. Exceptions
  15. Permits And Plates
Importing A Motor Vehicle United States

By US law, when importing a motor vehicle, you must comply with:

  • 1966’s Motor-Vehicle Safety Act’s standards of safety, modified in 1988 in the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance act;
  • 1968’s Clean Air Act’s standards of air pollution control, modified in 1977 and 1990;
  • 1972’s Cost Savings and Motor-Vehicle Information Act’s bumper standards, implemented in 1978;

This article provides crucial information for U.S. citizens or foreign nationals who want to import a motor-vehicle into the country. It contains the requirements of the United States’ Customs and Border Protection, as well as those of different agencies whose rules and regulations we abide by. Since the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection agency’s regulations often change, it is best you contact these organizations before importing a motor-vehicle.

Prior to Importing the Vehicle

As the owner, you must prepare in advance for shipping your motor-vehicle. Contact your carrier / shipper to confirm the arrival date, so you may arrange for the CBP to process it. Your motor vehicle is cleared at the initial entry port if you do not arrange for an abroad freight forwarder to transport it to a more convenient CBP port.

It is forbidden by law for CBP officers to make entries or become agents for an importer. However, you can hire a commercial broker for your entry.

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United States Customs And Border Protection Clearance

Paper Work

The following paperwork is required for your Customs and Border Protection clearance:

  • The authentic bill of landing from your carrier or shipper,
  • The foreign registration,
  • The bill of sale,
  • All remaining documents related to your motor vehicle.

Furthermore, you will be required to declare the safety and emissions provisions by completing a DOT HS-7 and an EPA 3520-1 form. If your motor vehicle meets the emission standards of the US, it will attest this with an English written label from the manufacturer on its engine. If it doesn’t have this label, you may be required to provide eligibility proof by the port inspector as mentioned in form 3520-1.

If your vehicle does not meet the United States’ emission standards and is not eligible for an exclusion or exemption, you must import it through an ICI (independent commercial importer). EPA will only permit the release of your motor vehicle after you complete the ICI work. However, keep in mind that ICI fees are generally high and they cannot modify or import all vehicles.

Undercarriage Cleaning

To prevent the importation of pests, you are obligated by the Department of Agriculture to clean the undercarriage of your car of foreign soil. Before shipment, it is recommended you clean or steam spray your vehicle thoroughly.

United States Motor Vehicle Shippers

Shipping Personal Belongings Inside Your Vehicle

We do not recommend carrying personal belongings inside the vehicle you are about to import. They may be stolen while your car is in transit or on the docks. Also, it may cause your automobile to be rejected by some carriers or shippers.

You must declare the content of your motor vehicle to the CBP, or risk a fine and even having your car and belongings seized.

Duty Entry

Motor-Vehicles made in foreign countries are susceptible to the following rates upon their importation into the United States:

  • 2.5% for Automobiles,
  • 25% for Trucks,
  • Free or 2.4% for Motorcycles.

These dutiable rates are dependent on the payable or paid price. Many Canadian Vehicles do not require duty rates.

If you are a returning resident of the United States, you and your family members may ask for a $800 exemption by the CBP towards your car’s value if:

  1. You imported it for personal use,
  2. You bring it with you upon your return,
  3. You bought it during the trip you made outside the U.S.

CBP considers a returning resident of the U.S. one who is returning to the country from studying abroad, work or travel. After applying for the exemption, you can expect a 3% duty rate on the next $1000 of the value of your vehicle. The normal duty rate is applied to the rest of the amount.

Free Entry Criteria United States

Free Entry Criteria

  1. If you are returning on a short visit as a government employee on voluntary leave or TDY, or are employed abroad, you may import a vehicle made in another country with no duty charges. This only applies if you’re making a short visit, if you export the car upon your departure and hold a non-resident status.
  2. Free entry may also be given to vehicles imported by civilian or military employees of the United States government upon their return from extended duty assignment (140 days+) outside of the U.S. The auto vehicle must be bought abroad and be in your possession before your departure. If the time between leaving the U.S. to the vessel’s return is 120 days or longer, entitled for the discharge from extended duty is personnel belonging to the navy, aboard a vessel of the United States Navy or a vessel that supports it.

Vehicles imported this way may be subject to duty taxes if they are sold within a year of entering the country. Before completing the sale transaction, you must pay the Duty at a CBP office. You can keep your duty free vehicle within the United States indefinitely after making a formal entry for the purposes of the EPA.

  1. If you are a nonresident coming into the country, you may import a personal vehicle duty free for up to 1 year, so long as you bring it with you on arrival. If your motor vehicle does meet the safety and emission regulations of the US, you must export it within a year and you cannot sell it in the United States. The export regulations have no extension or exemption.

Motor-Vehicles Imported for Other Reasons

Foreigners can import vehicles as well as their equipment without paying duty if it’s for temporary specific purposes such as races. However, one must gain EPA’s approval in writing. The EPA grants such approvals only to vehicles designed for racing that cannot be used on highways or streets. For contests whose purpose is not money, one may gain permission to import a vehicle with no formal bond or entry for 90 days if the CBP officer approves of the owner’s good intentions and identity. If within 90 days of the importation date, you do not give a bond or export the vehicle, you forfeit it by default.

Motor Vehicles Import United States

You must also obtain approval in writing from the DOT. You may import a vehicle for racing, testing or demonstration purposes on a temporary basis, while for display and show you can import it permanently. The DOT must provide you with a written approval to export the vehicle into the United States. You can find more information on this topic at DOT’s website regarding vehicle importation requirements.

Even if it's imported for a display or show, your vehicle must respect every emission requirement of the U.S., and usually must be imported with an ICI’s help which is authorized by the EPA for testing and modification. Until the ICI completes his work, the EPA will not release your vehicle.

Standards regarding Bumper, Safety and Prevention of Theft

A HS-7 form must be filed when you import a motor vehicle to confirm it meets DOT standards. In general, motor vehicles older than 25 years, to be imported in the US permanently, must comply with every FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards). The bumper standard must be respected by vehicles built after the 1’st of September, 1978, while the standard for theft prevention must be respected by vehicles built after 1987. You can make inquiries to the DOT import hotline regarding this subject at (202) 366-5291.

When a vehicle conforms to these standards, a certification label is placed by the initial manufacturer in the side door area of the driver. When buying a U.S. standards certified motor vehicle from another country, you may speed up this process by showing the CBP a contract which confirms this fact when making the importation.

If your car does not meet these standards, you must import it as a nonconforming vehicle. Importers of nonconforming vehicles must make the appropriate modifications with the help of a registered importer from the DOT and have them certify they meet all FMVSS. As the importer, you are obligated to place a DOT bond of 1,5 times your car’s duty value along with the CBP bond. Also, you must make copies of the RI contract and the DOT bond and attach them to your HS-7 form.

Before modifying your vehicle by the RI, you must first determine if such modifications are possible. If your vehicle has yet to be assessed, you must use a petition process. If your vehicle is not similar to others sold inside U.S. borders, this may become a very expensive and complex process.

Motor Vehicles Federal Tax United States

Federal Tax

You may have to pay the gas-guzzler tax of the Internal Revenue Code’s 4064 section for certain vehicles. You may be liable for this tax regardless if you import your vehicle for personal or commercial use.

The amount to be paid is determined by miles / gallon rating designated by the EPA for this purpose. This rating may be different from the manufacturer’s fuel economy rating.

In case the EPA does not assign such a rating to your automobile’s model, it must be decided independently. You can avoid this tax if the combined rating of your vehicle’s fuel economy is a minimum of 22.5 miles / gallon.

Regarding Emissions

Emission standards of the federal government must be respected by the following vehicles:

  • Cars built after the 31’st of December, 1974 and light duty trucks build after the following year which run on diesel;
  • Light duty trucks and cars running on gasoline that were built after the 31’st of December, 1967;
  • Motorcycles build after the 31’st of December, 1977 that move 49 cubic cm or more;
  • Heavy duty engines build after 1969.

The manufacturer must certify the automobile’s adhesion to United States emission standards, so it may be sold inside the country, otherwise it is treated as nonconforming. You can obtain a list of certified ICIs from the EPA to contact regarding importing nonconforming automobiles. These ICIs are all based in the United States, so they can advise you on the costs of testing and modifying your vehicle for importation. The ICI will make sure your car meets all requirements.

Note: After the 1’st of July, 1988, the 5 years or older vehicle one time exemption by the EPA is no longer available. The EPA often stops the entry of certain models and makers if they've used an uncertified ICI, or he does not take responsibility for the automobile.

The requirements of each state regarding emissions may not be the same as the federal government’s. Before the importation, contact the authorities to properly register your vehicle. However, remember the EPA’s requirements may differ from those of the state.

Motor Vehicles Import Caution United States


The EPA, as well as the DOT, supports the idea that the costs of modifying your vehicle into compliance may surpass even the price of the shipping itself. We strongly advise you research these modifications and prohibitions before purchasing a vehicle from abroad.

Importing a Former U.S. Vehicle

You may avoid duty taxes when returning a private use, non-commercial vehicle into the United States by contacting the CBP with proof of its previous registration and ownership in the U.S. You can use as proof a U.S. dealer’s bill of sale for your automobile or registration card issued by the state. Any accessories or repairs done abroad may inquire duty and should be declared.

There are countries where you can only buy unleaded fuel. In such cases, the oxygen sensor and the catalyst must be removed when returning the vehicle to the United States. To cut down on expenses, you can obtain the EPA’s approval to remove these parts before shipping the car. For such approvals, you may contact the EPA at (202) 564-2418. The oxygen sensor and catalyst will have to be reinstalled when returning the automobile to the United States. However, this allows you to reenter your automobile without a bong, but only if you agree to reinstall the parts.

Transporting Personal or Commercial Goods with Conveyances

To transport commercial goods in a conveyance owned privately, you may have to pay duty and buy a decal for your user fee. You do not have to buy a decal to transport personal goods in your own vehicle, though a dutiable payment may still be necessary.

You may use rental automobiles to transport private goods without buying a decal if you do not have a paid driver operating the car.

Vehicles Test Requires Exceptions United States


There are motor vehicles that may not be sold in the United States, may need DOT and EPA declarations, yet need not conform to federal standards of safety and emission. These are:

  1. Personal use vehicles imported by foreigners for no more than a year. There are no extensions or exceptions on the day of exportation.
  2. Motor vehicles of diplomats, armed forces and other individuals from another country who accompany those who’ve been offered free entry by the State.
  3. Automobiles that are imported for competition, demonstration or testing purposes, if they are not driven or licensed to be driven on public roads. Exceptions may be made if the test requires the vehicles to be driven on public highways or roads. Those responsible for these motor vehicles must submit to the CBP the DOT HS-7 and the EPA 3520-1 forms at the time of entry. One must also obtain the necessary written approvals along with these forms to be handed over to the CBP. If your automobile has been refused before the approval, returning it may be very expensive and the costs are suffered by the owner.

Permits and Plates

All imported vehicles must have an IRM (international registration marker). An international driving permit can be very useful in such situations. Visit a local motor vehicle club or an international motor vehicle federation for such documents.

Residents of the United States should speak to their state’s DMV (department of motor vehicles) regarding the paperwork required from the CBP and acquiring provisional license plates.

If you are a national of a country from South or Central America who ratified 1943’s Inter-American Convention, you can drive your vehicle in the United States, without a driver’s permit or license plates issued by the U.S., for up to one year or for as long as your documents allow it. This is permitted only if the driver has an international driving permit and the car is carrying the international registration card or marker,

Due to prior agreements between the United States, Canada and Mexico, you can drive a motorcycle in the U.S. without a U.S. permit or license plates. Motorcycle drivers from countries other than the above must take an examination for a United States driving permit. Foreign license tags may be used by foreigners with jobs in the United States from the place they entered to their destination.

United States Motor Vehicles Import Permit
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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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