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Your Guide to Importing a Car to the U.S.

What's in this article?
  1. Why Is It Difficult To Import Cars To The U.s?
  2. What Happens If My Car Doesn’t Meet These Regulations?
  3. Exemptions To The Rules
  4. The 25-Year Rule
  5. The Substantially Similar Clause
  6. The Show And Display Clause
  7. How To Import A Car – The Key Steps
  8. Step No 1 – Make Arrangements For Shipping The Vehicle
  9. Step No 2 – Arrange The Required Documentation
  10. Step No 3 – Clean The Vehicle Thoroughly
  11. Step No 4 – Remove All Personal Belongings
  12. Follow The Law When Importing A Car
Your Guide to Importing a Car to the U.S.

You’ve finally found the perfect car. You love everything about this vehicle, from the way it looks to how it makes you feel when driving on the open road.

There’s just one problem:

Your perfect car isn’t available in the United States. That means you’re going to have to buy it in another country before importing it to the U.S.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple thing to do.

Car importation is heavily regulated by several organizations, including the Department of Transportation (DOT) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). You must follow the stringent car import rules these organizations set to transport your new vehicle into the country.

That’s where this guide comes in.

We will run through the steps you have to follow when importing a car to the United States, in addition to examining the key laws on importing cars you need to know about.

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Why Is It Difficult to Import Cars to the U.S.?

The main challenge when trying to figure out how to import a car to the U.S. lies in ensuring that the vehicle meets the standards set by various American laws.

First, the car has to meet all of the safety standards set out in the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. It also has to abide by comparatively new car import laws laid out in the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988.

Assuming your car meets the general safety regulations in these acts, it must then meet the bumper standards set by the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act created in 1972. After that, it has to meet the environmental standards set in 1968’s Clean Air Act, which were updated in 1990 to include more stringent controls for modern vehicles.

If your vehicle meets all of these standards, it’s safe to import. U.S. cars manufactured since 1990 automatically meet these standards, which the CBP points out on its website. It also highlights the fact that the main reason a vehicle may not be sold directly in the United States is usually that it doesn’t conform to these laws. In other words, it’s likely the vehicle you’re importing doesn’t meet these rules because you’d be able to buy it in the U.S. instead of importing the car if it did.

What Happens if My Car Doesn’t Meet These Regulations?

There’s good and bad news in this situation.

The bad news is that the CBP won’t allow the car import. USA law is clear on this. If the vehicle doesn’t meet the appropriate standards, and you refuse to do anything about it, it will either be exported to its place of origin or destroyed.

Thankfully, the vehicle will be accepted if it can be brought into compliance with U.S. import laws. Cars that are adapted to meet modern safety, emissions, and bumper standards can be imported. Unfortunately, this requires modifications to be made before the car is shipped because the vehicle won’t make it past customs if it doesn’t abide by the regulations.

Exemptions to the Rules

Though the above laws apply in the majority of cases, there are some exemptions you may be able to exploit.

The 25-Year Rule

If the vehicle was made more than 25 years ago, it doesn’t have to comply with the emissions, bumper, and safety standards set by the previously mentioned laws. The reason being, the date of manufacture likely precedes the implementation of these laws, meaning the vehicle would have to be retroactively upgraded to comply.

That’s not always possible, hence the 25-year rule.

You must complete Form HS-7 to declare that a U.S. car import meets the criteria for the 25-year rule. Furthermore, you’ll need to provide documentation to prove the vehicle is as old as you say it is. In some cases, this can be as simple as demonstrating a label or plate attached to the vehicle that denotes its age. If this option isn’t available, you must provide some other form of proof of the vehicle’s age:

  • A vehicle registration document
  • A dated sale invoice demonstrating the car was purchased over 25 years ago
  • Statements from any historical societies that confirm the vehicle’s age

The Substantially Similar Clause

This exemption is normally used when importing a car from Canada. It enables easy importing if the vehicle is deemed to be substantially similar to one that is already available in the United States. Either the U.S. government or the vehicle’s manufacturer must declare these similarities for the vehicle to be exempt.

The rule is commonly used for Canadian vehicles because American and Canadian manufacturing standards are similar. Most cars from other countries will not meet this clause.

The Show and Display Clause

If you don’t intend to drive your imported car much, you may be able to import it under the show and display clause.

This clause applies if your vehicle meets the following criteria:

  • It’s part of a production run of 500 cars or fewer
  • It will be driven no more than 2,500 miles per year

Assuming your vehicle meets these conditions, it can be imported into the United States without any modifications. As the name of the clause implies, this rule is normally used for vehicles displayed at car shows and similar events. However, it also provides opportunities for those with the means to afford limited-edition vehicles to bring their cars into the United States. In fact, the clause was instituted after several American businesspeople, including Bill Gates and Ralph Lauren, lobbied for it.

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How to Import a Car – The Key Steps

Now you understand the laws that apply to any car import to U.S. territory, you’re ready to follow the steps required for importing a car.

Step No. 1 – Make Arrangements for Shipping the Vehicle

You must plan car importation well ahead of time to give yourself a chance to notify the CBP of the vehicle’s arrival date. Make arrangements with your shipping company and get an exact time and date for entry to an American port. Provide the CBP with these details so you can arrange for the appropriate checks.

In many cases, your shipping company will handle this step for you. It’s also worth noting that car import rules prohibit the CBP from acting as any sort of agent for the importer, meaning it can’t make import entries on your behalf.

Step No. 2 – Arrange the Required Documentation

There are a lot of documents to complete before a car can be imported internationally into the United States.

Starting with the CBP, it requires you to provide the following on all imports:

  • The vehicle’s foreign registration document
  • Your bill of sale
  • The shipper’s bill of lading
  • Any other documents related to the vehicle, such as statements from appropriate historical societies

The DOT also requires you to complete Form HS-7 in all circumstances, regardless of whether the vehicle is over 25 years old or not. Finally, you must complete the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Form 3520-1 to confirm the vehicle meets current emissions standards or demonstrate it has an exemption.

If you’re importing a car that doesn’t meet current emissions standards and has no exemption, you must do so via an independent commercial importer (ICI). An ICI is a commercial entity that has obtained permission from the EPA to import vehicles legally into the United States. Think of them as intermediaries that will test, modify, and certify your vehicle for legal entry into the country. ICIs generally have narrow expertise that focuses on a specific make or model of vehicle. If you need to use an ICI, contact the organization before beginning the shipping process to confirm that it can certify the vehicle you wish to import.

Finally, it’s important to note that ICI certification doesn’t grant automatic vehicle entry. The EPA examines the testing documented in the certificate to ensure it meets appropriate standards. It also checks any modifications made to ensure they conform to current car import rules. If the EPA finds that the vehicle is incorrectly certified, it may be exported to its country of origin or destroyed.

Step No. 3 – Clean the Vehicle Thoroughly

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also gets in on the act of applying various rules to importing vehicles into the United States. Your vehicle’s undercarriage must be completely free of any foreign soil that could contaminate American soil and potentially affect the country’s ecosystem.

Have your vehicle steam-sprayed and cleaned from top to bottom before it is shipped to the U.S.

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Step No. 4 – Remove All Personal Belongings

If you’re importing a vehicle that you owned while living in another country, you may have left personal belongings inside.

Remove those belongings before shipping the car to the United States.

Your possessions are vulnerable to thieves when in transit, particularly during the time it spends in loading and unloading docks. Furthermore, most carriers refuse responsibility for the loss of any personal items during shipping. Some will outright refuse to transport a vehicle that contains personal items.

Beyond concerns about theft, you also have to consider customs.

You must declare any personal possessions inside the car to the CBP before it’s permitted to enter the United States. Failure to declare items that the CBP later discovers can lead to a fine and the seizure of both the items and your car.

Follow the Law When Importing a Car

Car import rules are exceptionally strict. Attempting to skirt them can lead to fines, vehicle exportation, and even the destruction of your car.

Don’t let that happen.

By following the laws on importing cars, you ensure your vehicle makes it onto U.S. soil safely. The critical challenge here is that these laws are both complex and changeable. The rules you may have followed when importing a car a few years ago may not be the same as the rules you must follow today. Staying on top of regulatory changes is vital, as is maintaining contact with the CBP to ensure your car is treated properly when it reaches the U.S. border.

But what if you don’t want to deal with all of the hassle?

That’s where A-1 Auto Transport comes in.

We’re car shipping specialists who have made over two million deliveries to more than 190 countries. That means we know what rules you need to follow to import a car into the United States or export it to another country. Our shipping service includes helping you to gather and file the documentation required to legally ship your vehicle into the United States.

If you’d like to learn more about our car importation service, get in touch online or call us at 1-800-452-2880.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Vehicle Import Duties Work?


What Is the “Gaz Guzzler” Tax?

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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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The first one couldn’t decide on a schedule. He would constantly change the pickup date till I got frustrated and canceled. The second was insufferable, very rude on the phone, even worse in person.

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A-1 Auto Transport is a disclosed agent for the following shipping companies:

Trans Global Auto Logistics, Inc.
3401 E Randol Mill Rd
Arlington, TX 76011
NO. 018191NF
CFR Rinkens
15501 Texaco Avenue
Paramount, CA 90723
NO. 013055NF
ABC Worldwide LLC
2840 NW 2nd Ave #105
Boca Raton, FL 33431
NO. 025472F
CSI Logistics
435 Division Street
Elizabeth, NJ 07201
FMC 22206
Intl Cargo
45 Campus drive
Edison, NJ 08837
NO. 17858N
ShipYourCarNow LLC
1160 South Rogers Circle Suite 1
Boca Raton, FL 33487
NO. 025646
Merco Air & Ocean Cargo, Inc.
6 Fir Way
Cooper City, FL 33026
NO. 021869F
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