How to import a foreign car [Ultimate Guide]

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Since importing a vehicle can appear to be complicated, I’ve decided to write the ULTIMATE GUIDE which covers the entire process from A-Z.

Once you’ve finished reading you’ll know exactly what you need to do, and you can even refer back to it when you’re ready to import your own vehicle.

I’ll cover the following topics;

  1. Purchasing a foreign vehicle
  2. Export process (leaving the country of origin)
  3. Import process (bringing it into the country)
  4. Shipping (unless you’re driving it in)
  5. Documentation
  6. Customs duties, taxes and fees

I was in the Japanese engine business for over 6 years and I’ve imported many containers and also a few vehicles. So I will be speaking from first-hand experience.

I will also back up my information which verifiable sources, so you’ll know where I’m getting it from. This is a well-researched and data driven guide; no BS here!

What This Guide Covers

This guide does not cover which vehicles are legal to import. Jalopnik wrote a great article about the 4 ways to legally import a vehicle. You can follow Doug DeMuro as he imports a Nissan Skyline GT-R. As outlined in the article, it is quite expensive to import a vehicle which is less than 25 years old to the United States (15 years in Canada).

He wrote in his article…

“Here’s the crazy thing about all these regulations. After all the words I’ve written above; after all the EPA restrictions, and DOT regulations, and crash tests, and bumper strength laws; after all the rules and guidelines and mileage limits; after all that … the day a car turns 25 years old, it’s legal to import, with no restrictions at all. And I mean 25 years old. And I mean no restrictions.”

So this guide will assume you’re importing a vehicle 25 years or older (15 years in Canada) and i’ll also cover the process for both the United States and Canada, since that is where most of our readers reside.

Additionally, I will also cover the process for importing/exporting vehicles less than 25 years old to and from the United States and Canada.

The United States and Canada have a special relation when it comes to importing/exporting vehicles. You can import a vehicle less than 25 years old from Canada and vice versa. Most vehicles sold in North America are DOT approved by both Canada and the United States.

Sometimes there are minor changes which need be brought to the vehicle; like changing the tachometer from Kilometres to Miles, which is relatively cheap to do.

Both countries have a list of vehicles which are admissible.

I will cover this through-out the guide in sections marked EXCEPTION.

Purchasing a Foreign Vehicle

Now comes the fun part; purchasing the vehicle. I am not going to get into the details of how and where you would purchase a foreign vehicle; there are literally thousands of possibilities.

I am going to assume you have already found one; and are ready to purchase it or you are bringing your own vehicle back to the United States or Canada.

If you are purchasing a vehicle, the Exporter (car dealer) will quote you the prices for the vehicle and in some cases include insurance & freight to your nearest port.

Example:

FOB car price           $10,000 USD
Ocean freight          $1,200 USD
——————————————
C&F Los Angeles Port, United States    $11,200 USD

There is some terminology you need to know,

FOB stands for “Free On Board”, and always used in conjunction with a port of loading. Indicating “FOB port” means that the seller pays for transportation of the goods to the port of shipment, plus loading costs. The buyer pays cost of marine freight transport, insurance, unloading, and transportation from the arrival port to the final destination.

C&F stands for Cost and Freight – cost of the goods (vehicle) and freight to the destination port.

CIF stands for Cost, Insurance and Freight – cost of goods (vehicle), insurance and freight to the destination port.

Ideally you want to get a CIF cost since foregoing insurance could be risky and you want to protect from any damage or loss.

If the car dealer is not an exporter, you will have to hire an International Freight Forwarding company to import your vehicle.

There are hundreds of these companies around the world; here’s a list of 10 after a quick Google search,

  • Livingston International
  • Cosco Shipping
  • Hyundai Merchant Marine
  • AN Deringer
  • Panalpina
  • Nippon Express
  • DB Schenker Logistics
  • Expeditors International
  • Kuehne + Nagel
  • Sinotrans

Ideally you want to find an International Freight Forwarder & Custom Broker to handle the shipping and customs clearance once it arrives in North America; many offer both services and will save you from dealing with two different companies.

I will discuss this topic in more detail in the Import process section.

If you are looking for a trusted and reliable Japanese car exporter, I definitely recommend Japan Auto Auctions. They have been in business since 1998 and the owner, Simon Burger; knows the export/import process inside and out.

export process of importing a foreign vehicle

The Export Process (Leaving The Country of Origin)

Documentation

Before your vehicle can leave the country of origin you will need to assure yourself of the following,

  1. Confirm the presence of an Export certificate which the Exporter (car dealer) should have, if the Exporter does not have the Export certificate, the vehicle cannot be exported. If you are exporting the vehicle yourself; you will need to get it from the proper authorities of the exporting country
  2. Confirm the vehicle has registration papers (title)
  3. Confirm you have a bill of sale or invoice

IMPORTANT: The bill of sale MUST include the year, make, model and VIN number of the vehicle. Customs at the port of entry will require it; if it’s not on the bill they will ask you to get another one, which could cause delays and potentially incur fees.

EXCEPTION

Exporting from Canada to the United States
You will not require an export certificate, just a valid title for the vehicle.

Exporting from the United States to Canada
U.S. Customs require notification of all vehicles being permanently exported from the United States, trailers excluded. You will be required to submit an Electronic Export Information (EEI) through the Automated Export System (AES) and submit the ITN confirmation along with your vehicle title documents and sales receipts at least three business days (72 hours) prior to the export. (AES validates the EEI data and generates a confirmation message in the form of an Internal Transaction Number (ITN).)

CBP recommends that you contact the port of crossing directly to determine exact documentation requirements, procedures for submitting documentation and hours of operation.

NOTE: If you are using a customs broker to import your vehicle, they will provide this service.

Shipping

Vehicles are shipped all over the world; every day, by used car exporters/importers and vehicle manufacturers. Most of the time on ships called RORO’s (Roll-on-roll-off) or in containers.

RORO Shipping

The easiest way to ship your car; driven directly to the vessel and secured with straps and braces to prevent movement. The inside of the ship is kept clean and dry. This is the preferred method by some of the biggest car manufacturers like BMW, Audi, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, etc. roro shipping

Container Shipping

Your car is loaded onto a 20ft or 40ft container. It’s secured to the floor with blocks and straps to prevent any movement during transportation; for those who want a safer, enclosed environment. However, this option will definitely cost 2-3x more than RORO. vehicle in 20ft container

How much does it cost?

Well that depends where it is coming from of course, but here are 2 examples.

Example 1
Germany to port of New York/New Jersey, United States
RORO – US$ 900
20ft container – US$ 2,500

Example 2
Japan to port of Los Angeles (Long Beach), United States
RORO – US$ 1,100
20ft container – US$ 2,900

NOTE: Quotes provided are for Port to Port and may vary; shipping prices fluctuate on a weekly basis.

Delivering it to your home

Once the vehicle has arrived in port and been cleared by customs, you can either pick it up from the nearest port or have it delivered to your home. Most shipping & freight forwarding companies will offer a full service solution. However, there is some terminology you need to know.

Port to Port – Vehicle is shipped from the port of origin to port of destination (not to your home)

Port to Door – Vehicle is shipped from the port of origin to your home.

Door to Port – Vehicle is picked up from the Exporter (car dealer) and shipped to the port of destination.

Door to Door – Vehicle is picked up from the Exporter (car dealer) and delivered to your door. If you live far away from a port you will need delivered to your home once it arrives in the country.

Inland Car Transportation

However, if you decide to handle the delivery of your vehicle; use a service like uShip, where you can compare prices and find the best deal. They also have an online quotation tool.

Example:

I used their tool to get a quote from Los Angeles (Long Beach) to Dallas, Texas. It’ll run you about US$ 725-750 for a 2-4 door passenger vehicle.

There are literally hundreds of companies who offer this service; simply do a Google search for “car transport”.

Photo credit eshipautotrans.com
Photo credit eshipautotrans.com

Insurance

Your shipping or freight forwarding company will be able to offer you insurance; and I highly recommend it; especially if you are going to be spending several thousands of dollars (at the very least) on your vehicle.

This is not driving insurance, but cargo insurance; in case your vehicle gets damaged, lost or stolen along the way.

If you prefer to get an independent insurer checkout Marsh Insurance Brokers; I’ve used them personally in the past.

However, there are hundreds of these companies; simply do a Google search for “ocean cargo insurance”.

import process of importing a foreign vehicle

The Import Process

This section covers the process once the vehicle has arrived at the port in the United States or Canada and getting it cleared through customs.

Get a broker!

I highly recommend you hire a customs broker to help you through this process. Their fee is definitely worth it; considering the time and headache you will save if you decide to do it yourself.

They know the in’s and out’s and are up to date on the latest procedures.

Their fee is typically between US$350-450 (including taxes and misc. fees).

There are hundreds in the United States and Canada. I also really recommend you find a broker who also does shipping. This will save you from dealing with two different companies.

Simply do a Google search for “freight forwarder and customs broker” and you’ll find a bunch.

For example: Livingston International has a dedicated service for shipping vehicles overseas (and between the United States and Canada); which includes custom brokerage services. [tabs] [tab title=”United States”]

Import Requirements

Vehicle must be more than 25 years old from the date of manufacture.

EXCEPTION

While many Canadian vehicles are manufactured to be identical to U.S. certified vehicles with respect to emission requirements (especially beginning with the 1988 model year), they may be manufactured with or without a U.S. emissions compliance label identifying them as conforming to U.S. EPA requirements. Canadian vehicles imported into the U.S. are categorized as either identical to U.S. version vehicles or not identical to U.S. version vehicles with regard to emission requirements.

Importers need to verify whether the Canadian vehicle they are importing is identical to a U.S. certified version; the United States EPA website outlines which vehicles are considered identical.

Vehicles being imported from Canada less than 25 years old must,

  • Verify whether the Canadian vehicle being importing is identical to a U.S. certified version; the United States EPA website outlines which vehicles are considered identical.
  • Conform to DOT and will require the assistance of a Registered Importer. Download this PDF for a list of registered importers.
  • Must be checked for outstanding recalls.

 

What is a Registered Importer?

Registered Importers (R.I.’s) are garages and mechanical shops that are licensed by DOT to perform conversions on foreign cars to US standards. Typical conversion work includes headlamps, side markers, door beams, bumpers, speedometer and fuel line.

Custom duty and taxes

Duty free if manufactured in Canada or Mexico with appropriate NAFTA certificate and motorcycles with engines less than 700ccs.

Duty is 2.5% for passenger vehicles, 25% for trucks, and 2.4% for motorcycles with engines greater than 700ccs.

More details on the US Customs & Border Protection website.

Documents Required

  • Bill of sale or invoice
  • Registration papers
  • EPA form 3520-1
  • DOT form HS-7
  • NAFTA (if applicable)
  • Letter of recall conformity from manufacturer (if applicable)

 

Once the vehicle has been shipped the Exporter (car dealer) must mail you the original bill of lading, original foreign vehicle registration (title) and export certificate. The bill of lading and bill of sale MUST include the year, make, model and VIN number of the vehicle. Customs at the port of entry will require it; if it’s not on the bill they will ask you to get another one, which could cause delays and potentially incur fees.

NOTE: Make sure you receive these documents BEFORE the vehicle arrives at port in the United States or Canada.

Translation

If the vehicle’s foreign registration and export certificate is in a language other than English; you will need to have it translated. Customs will not accept it otherwise. You can use a service such as Rev Business Translation.

Dealing with customs

You will need to deal directly with customs at the port of entry. Here is a list of CBP offices and ports of entry.

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[tab title=”Canada”]

Import Requirements

Your vehicle must be 15 years old or older by month and year of manufacturer to be admissible for import. You must be able to provide proof of admissibility either by first registration date or by a letter from the manufacturing company.

Your vehicle must be thoroughly washed prior to leaving the foreign country as a soil inspection will be performed by Canada Border Services Agency at the time of arrival. Additional charges will result if your vehicle is found dirty and is required to me moved to a specialized cleaning facility.

EXCEPTION
You can import vehicles less than 15 years old from the United States. Information on specific vehicles can be found by visiting Transport Canada’s web site.

Importing vehicles into Canada is administered by the Registrar of Imported Vehicles and includes an online tool which determines vehicle admissibility, modification requirements, documentation and inspection locations.

RIV is a very useful tool and I highly recommend you use it.

 

Custom duty and taxes

  • 5% GST
  • 6.1% Duty
  • $100.00 excise tax for in dash air conditioning
  • $43.00 soil inspection fee (covers up to three vehicles on a single bill of lading)
  • For vehicles arriving by ro/ro vessel port and handling charges will apply
  • For vehicles arriving by container you will be subject to agent fees, destuffing/drayage fees as well as container usage charges
  • All vehicles may be subject to port storage

Documents Required

  • Bill of sale or invoice
  • Foreign vehicle registration (title)
  • Export certificate
  • English translation of the foreign registration or export certificate
  • Bill of lading

 

Once the vehicle has been shipped the Exporter (car dealer) must mail you the ORIGINAL bill of lading, original foreign vehicle registration (title) and export certificate. The bill of lading and bill of sale MUST include the year, make, model and VIN number of the vehicle. Customs at the port of entry will require it; if it’s not on the bill they will ask you to get another one, which could cause delays and potentially incur fees.

NOTE: Make sure you receive these documents BEFORE the vehicle arrives at port in the United States or Canada.

Translation

If the vehicle’s foreign registration and export certificate is in a language other than English; you will need to have it translated. Customs will not accept it otherwise. You can use a service such as Rev Business Translation.

Dealing with customs

You will need to deal directly with customs at the port of entry. Here is a list of CBSA offices and contact information.

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Once you have collected all your documents and filled out the forms; you will need to submit the list of Documents Required to Customs or to your broker.

Once you have paid all your duties, taxes and fees, Customs will release your vehicle and you will be free to pick it up from the port or arrange a transport company to deliver it to your home.

Conclusion

Importing a foreign vehicle doesn’t have to be hard or stressful. Once you have all the information available, like in this guide, the process will go smoothly and you can finally have your dream car, or close enough; because we can’t import R35 Skyline GT-R’s yet, so mine will have to wait.

I welcome your feedback and comments. If you have imported a vehicle before let us know about your experience.

If you think I’ve omitted something please send me an email.

Do you plan on importing a foreign car? If yes, which one and from where?

Leave your comments below.

Sources: CBP, CBSA, A & A Contract Customs Brokers, Livingston Intl, uShip, Registrar of Imported Vehicles. Photo credit: Stance Nation

Posted by Hans Desjarlais

After accidentally locking himself in a scrapped '85 Renault for several hours at the age of 5 years old, Hans developed a love/hate relationship with cars which eventually became an obsession. Right out of high school Hans started his first business importing and selling Japanese engines. After selling the business in 2008, he launched Import Insider to obsessively cover the auto industry and offer advice and tips to import car enthusiasts.

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