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Who Is the Biggest Importer of Cars?

Published by Tamar Hela.

What's in this article?
  1. The Importance of Understanding Car Importation Factors
  2. Trade Agreements and Car Importing
  3. Factors To Consider
  4. Environmental Concerns
  5. Impact on the Economy
  6. Top 5 Importers of Cars
  7. The United States
  8. Germany
  9. China
  10. France
  11. The United Kingdom
  12. Key Takeaways
Who Is the Biggest Importer of Cars?

Global trade in automobiles is a significant sector of the international economy. In 2021, over $100 billion of cars were imported across international borders.

Understanding the factors that influence the importation and exportation of vehicles between countries is essential for policymakers, businesses, and consumers alike.

This piece will examine some of the critical determinants affecting the trade of cars globally, focusing on the top importers worldwide.


The Importance of Understanding Car Importation Factors

For countries that import many vehicles, the policies surrounding the car trade can have significant economic consequences. Tariffs, environmental regulations, and trade agreements shape consumers' prices and the financial outcomes for domestic auto industries. Monitoring these factors is necessary to gauge impacts and inform future decisions.

For export-reliant auto manufacturers, changes in foreign demand or policies translate directly to changes in production and sales volumes. Considering some of the main influences on car importation sheds light on an essential facet of international commerce.

Trade Agreements and Car Importing

Bilateral and multilateral trade deals are outsized in structuring global automotive trade flows. Agreements try to facilitate commerce and investment across borders by negotiating tariff reductions and harmonizing technical regulations.

The impacts can be sizable - when the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement went into effect in 2020, it eliminated tariffs on automotive trade between the three nations. Such moves can shift the competitive landscape and influence where automakers choose to site production facilities.

Factors To Consider

However, conflicting environmental or labor standards between partners can also act as non-tariff barriers to trade over time. Continually re-evaluating agreements in light of evolving priorities is thus paramount.

Import tariffs likewise wield significant influence. Though tariff rates have fallen significantly thanks to agreements like the World Trade Organization, they can still amount to thousands per vehicle. For a Chinese automaker exporting compact cars to Europe, a 10% tariff adds substantially to landed costs.

This not only alters the pricing dynamic versus European brands but also influences production sourcing and trade diversion effects as companies prioritize lower-tariff regions. Changes to duties ripple through supply chains and consumer welfare.


Environmental Concerns

With motor vehicles a leading source of greenhouse gasses and local pollution, regulations tightening around emissions present new trade considerations. Tailpipe standards, fuel efficiency rules, and vehicle testing protocols now heavily influence corporate strategies and trade negotiations.

Exporting to jurisdictions with lower emission limits requires compliance upgrades, adding costs. The EU's ramping up of its CO2 regulations for imported nameplates led manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan to boost electrified options and local production for the bloc.

Similarly, China now requires upgraded air quality certification for imported vehicles to address smog concerns in significant cities. Policymakers are increasingly using standards to shape patterns of commerce as well as curb externalities.

However, differing standards can also spark protectionism if used to impede imports over legitimate public health goals unfairly. Cooperation on aligning technical rules remains paramount.

Impact on the Economy

Automobile trade flows significantly affect national economies by driving automakers' sales volumes and generating economic activity in related sectors. According to trade data, the United States imported billions in vehicles and parts in 2021; for an industrial sector supporting millions of well-paying manufacturing jobs domestically, changes in imports can ripple through employment and growth. Meanwhile, exports are a significant profit driver.

Beyond direct auto industry impacts, import surges may boost demand in transportation, infrastructure, metal fabrication, and other supplier networks. Likewise, a production shift abroad in response to duties can wound local ecosystems reliant on OEMs and tier-one suppliers. Policy decisions must weigh such macroeconomic repercussions.

Top 5 Importers of Cars

The global automobile import market saw significant activity in 2021, with five countries standing out as the top importers of cars worldwide.

The United States

Leading the pack was the United States, importing $139 billion worth of vehicles. As the world's largest economy, the vast scale of car usage and ownership in the U.S. helps explain its dominance in this category.


Coming in second was Germany, importing $71.1 billion in automobiles. The German auto industry is renowned globally for engineering excellence, and the country remains a top exporter. However, demand from consumers and fleet operators means Germany also relies heavily on imports to meet the needs of its sizable population.



In third place was China, importing $47.6 billion in cars. Despite being the leading producer globally in terms of unit production, China still turns to imports for certain premium and luxury brands unavailable through domestic manufacturers. Its rapid economic growth also feeds massive transportation requirements.


Next was France at $40.3 billion, demonstrating the country's continued importance as a consumer market for imported automakers.

The United Kingdom

Rounding out the top five, the United Kingdom imported $33.6 billion in vehicles. As with Germany, the strong domestic auto industry is supplemented by imports to satisfy consumer appetite.

These figures from 2021 underscore how much the automobile trade depends on vibrant sales in these major import-reliant economies. Sustained demand from large populations and mature economies will likely keep these countries among the top automobile importers for the foreseeable future. Their willingness to buy foreign goods keeps export economies humming.

Key Takeaways

Motor vehicle trade is consequential for international commerce and linked economies. Annual flows now regularly top $100 billion globally. Understanding influencers like trade policy, environmental standards, and macroeconomic factors is vital for diverse stakeholders in monitoring and shaping this critical sector.

While trade agreements have helped liberalize commerce to mutual benefit, non-tariff barriers remain. Finding cooperative solutions balancing the drivers of efficient trade with public welfare priorities will determine future directions.

For leading importers, attentiveness to shifts will aid competitiveness. With automobility still expanding in developing Asia and elsewhere, cross-border trade is poised to grow significantly.

A1 Auto Transport understands the many policy and regulatory factors that affect global automotive trade flows. Our dedicated team is trained on current rules regarding duties, emissions standards, documentation requirements and more in all key markets. We ensure a seamless shipping experience so you can focus on increasing sales abroad without logistical headaches.

To learn how A1 Auto Transport can reliably deliver vehicles anywhere in the world and help expand your international trade, get in touch with one of our transportation coordinators today and get a free quote!

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Tamar Hela is one of our featured writers at A-1 Auto Transport, researching everything from AI auto shipments out of China to what paperwork is required to move long distance. We can safely say she's become well versed in all things shipping and logistics while making the information easy to digest and understandable. 

Tamar has been a copywriter for over 16 years and was trained in the 7-Figure Copywriting Accelerator course through American Writers & Artists, Inc. (AWAI). She's also an incredibly seasoned copyeditor, having previously been the Chief Editor and Publishing Director for Cosby Media Productions, based in Atlanta, Georgia. 

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