How to Import a Car Into the US

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It is become a common aspect to bring cars from one country to another, especially if you plan to migrate to the destination country. Sometimes, people prefer to buy cars from neighboring countries and bring them to their home country simply because the car is either cheaper outside or they want a specific model that is not available with their country.

Regardless of your reason to import car into a country, there is an elaborate process involved. In this article, we will look at the specific process involved to import a car into the U.S.

Before we go into the process, it is important to keep some things in mind while importing a car to the U.S.

How to Import a Car Into the US

Aspects to Consider

U.SA has stringent restrictions when it comes to importing a car and they have certain standards. The car that you import should meet those standards.

Generally speaking, the car that you bring in should conform to the specifications laid down in the following legislation.

  • Motor Vehicle Safety Act, 1966
  • Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act, 1988
  • Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act, 1972
  • Clean Air of 1968, that was later amended in 1977 and 1990

A mere cursory glance is enough to understand that cars made for use in other countries will not conform to the specifications laid down in these laws, unless the car was manufactured only with the extent to export it to the U.S.

So, if you buy a car that does not meet the standards specified in the U.S, the onus is on you to ensure that necessary changes are made and certificates are obtained before you import the car into U.S.

It is important to know this information because there have been many scams in the past where foreign dealers trick you into buying cars that are compliant with U.S standards. This is not possible unless the car was manufactured for exporting to the U.S and you happen to buy it directly from the exporter, which is highly unlikely.

So, keep in mind that any car that comes into the U.S should be modified to meet the necessary regulations, otherwise it has to be destroyed.

Now that you understand what it takes to import a car, let us get into the procedures.

Port of Entry

As soon as your shipping company brings the car into the U.S through any port of entry, you have to be present in person to process the vehicle through Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Shipments are usually cleared only at the first port of entry. If you prefer to have the vehicle shipped to a secondary port of entry because it is convenient for you, then the vehicle will be shipped only with a bond.

American laws explicitly prohibit any CBP officer from acting as an agent or signing on behalf of an importer. But, you can choose to hire a commercial CBP broker to handle these procedures for you.

Required Documentation

To clear CBP, you should carry the shipping company’s original bill of lading. bill of sale, foreign registration, insurance and any other document pertaining to the vehicle. Other than these documents, you should also complete EPA form 3520-1 and DOT form HS-7. These forms describe the existing emissions and safety provisions present in the vehicle. In general, vehicles that clear all the necessary emissions required by U.S laws will have the manufacturer’s label on the engine compartment in English only. If your vehicle does not have this label, the CBP officer may require proof of eligibility to do the import or would ask you to import under certain EPA exemptions that are mentioned in form 3520-1.

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If the vehicle that you bring in does not meet these emission requirements, the best option is to import it through an Independent Commercial Importer (ICI), who will ensure that necessary changes are made to your car so it meets the EPA requirements. CBP will not allow you to take your vehicle without ICI work is done.

It is important to note that not all vehicles can be modified by ICI, and the vehicles that cannot be modified will either have to be exported back to the country of origin or it has to be destroyed. Also, the fees charged by ICI is extremely high. So, be prepared to shell out a good sum of money for ICI process, if your vehicle does not meet the emission requirements laid down by the EPA.

EPA Requirements

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has listed down the federal emission standards that should be met by all cars coming into the U.S. These standards are applicable to the following vehicles.

  • Gasoline cars and light-duty trucks manufactured after December 31, 1967.
  • Diesel cars manufactured after December 31, 1974.
  • Diesel light-duty trucks manufactured after December 31, 1975.
  • Heavy-duty engines manufactured after December 31, 1969.
  • Motorcycles with a displacement of more than 49 cubic centimeters manufactured after December 31, 1977.

As mentioned before, cars that are manufactured for export to the U.S alone will tend to meet the stringent requirements laid down by the EPA. If you want to import a car that does not conform to these specifications, it is best you contact ICI to discuss the costs of modification and the procedures for the same.

Thorough Cleaning

The U.S authorities are wary about any pests entering their soil through your car. So, they will check the under carriage of your cars before it can enter the U.S. This is mandated by the U.S Department of Agriculture. This is why make sure to clean your car thoroughly before importing it to the U.S to avoid any problems later.

No Personal Possessions

Your car should not contain any personal possessions at all. Never use your car as a carrier for personal belonging because

  • There is always a high possibility for the items in your car to get stolen during loading, unloading, when it is parked in docks or stored in transit.
  • Most shipping companies will not agree to import your car, if it has any personal belongings in it.
  • All the items contained in your car should be declared at the time of entry. This can be quite a hassle for you. When you do not declare, you’ll have to pay a hefty fine or the car can be seized as well.
  • If any banned substance like narcotics is found in the car, it could lead to severe  punishment.
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For these reasons, it is best you do not put any kind of personal belongings in the car that is imported to the U.S.


You should pay duty fees on any car that is brought into the U.S. The rates are 2.5% for automobiles, 25% for trucks and 2.4% or free for motorbikes, depending on the bike. All Canadian vehicles can enter free of charge. These values are calculated based on the total cost of the car.

If you are a U.S resident, you can get a refund of $800 CBP exemption for every family member accompanying you, and this exemption will be applied towards the total duty value of the car. For the next $1,000 of the vehicle’s value, a flat rate of three percent is applied. The rest is dutiable at the prevailing rates.


  • The car should accompany you on your return.
  • It is imported purely for personal use
  • It was purchased during your journey after which you are returning back home.

Note that U.S resident means someone who is returning back to the country after work, travel or after completing studies abroad.

Free entry is granted in the following situations.

  • U.S citizens who are employed abroad or government employees can bring their car free of duty, provided they are on a leave, have come back only for a short visit and will export the car when they leave.
  • Military personnel and civilian employees of the U.S government who are returning back after their assigned duties outside the U.S are eligible to bring their personal car along with their household items free of charge. The only criteria is the car should have been purchased abroad and should have been in the owner’s possession until the departure date.
  • Non residents can import a vehicle free of charge, provided it is for personal use for up to one year and when the vehicle is imported at the time of owner’s arrival. However, vehicles that are imported under this provision have to exported back within one year and it cannot be sold anywhere in the U.S. No kind of extension or modification will be made to this requirement.
  • Non residents can also import a car for a temporary period of time for specific purposes such as taking part in races. However, prior approval from EPA is necessary for this import. The EPA will examine the vehicle and will deem it fit and safe for use on streets and highways.
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In all other cases, the necessary duty has to be paid and the car should be modified to meet the existing legislation in place.

Driver Plates and Permits

All cars that are being imported to the U.S should have the International Registration Marker and the driver should have an International Driving Permit, that is usually given out in five languages. It is best you reach out to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office to know more about the permit needed and the documentation that their DMV would require from CBP.

If you a citizen of Central and South American countries, you can drive a car in the U.S for touring purposes only for a period of one year or until when the documentation expires, whichever is earlier. No U.S license plates or U.S driver permits are needed, but the car should have the International Registration marker and the driver should have an International driving permit.

Any motorist visiting the U.S can drive in the U.S for one year with their own license plates with their own personal drivers’ license. However these motorists from the countries that are a part of the Convention on International Road Traffic of 1949.

Residents of Canada and Mexico can tour the U.S in their own cars, without needing U.S license plates or U.S driver’s license. Also, foreign nationals who are employed in the U.S can use their foreign license to drive from the port of entry to their destination within the U.S.

Anyone coming to the U.S from countries that do not fall in the above categories should get a U. S driver’s permit after going through the necessary processes and examination. This could even entail an application for temporary license followed by a permanent U.S license.

Safety and Theft Prevention Standards

There are stringent guidelines for protecting the safety of cars, so you should ensure that theft prevention standards are met while importing the car.

In general, any car that is less than 25 years old should comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to be imported permanently to the U.S. Vehicles with model year 1987 and later should also adhere to the theft prevention standards laid down by the act.

Any vehicle that is manufactured to meet this standard will have a label affixed on the driver’s side door.  If this sticker is present in a vehicle that you buy outside the U.S, you can expedite the process by presenting the necessary documentation.

Thus, these are the procedures to import a car into the U.S.  If you buy a car outside the U.S, it may be impractical and sometimes even impossible to make modifications that conform to the specifications laid down by the different legislation. So, it is important to keep this aspect in mind before buying a car outside the U.S and bringing it into the country. You may be better off buying a new or a used car after you enter the United States.

Originally posted 2023-11-30 23:58:15.

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