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How to Import a Motor Vehicle into the United States

Whether you are a United States resident who found your dream car in another country, a military or civilian government employee who is headed home after being stationed internationally or a foreign national who will now live in the U.S., there are a list of regulations that you must meet in order to import a motor vehicle into the United States from overseas.

Before you can even think about shipping it, your car must conform to the current standards issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). These regulations are necessary because most vehicles manufactured abroad do not abide by the same bumper, safety and emission standards as those in the United States.

image for guest postAlthough the EPA and the DOT standards are subject to change and you should always examine their current policies before attempting to import a car to the U.S. from overseas, these are the general regulations that you should know, especially about the shipping process.

The Steps to Importing a Vehicle from Overseas

Whatever your reason for wanting to import a vehicle from somewhere overseas, there are certain steps that you must follow in order to make your car’s entrance into the United States legally.

EPA and DOT Compliance

The two federal agencies that you must satisfy in order to successfully import your vehicle are the EPA and the DOT. If your vehicle is fewer than 25 years old, it will need to be thoroughly tested according to the EPA’s guidelines.

First, the vehicle’s emissions will be carefully measured as its wheels turn at driving speed and while the engine is running. This is done on a chassis dynamometer in order to simulate a drive of 10.5 miles in urban conditions. The EPA requires testing that includes fueling, starts and stops, accelerations and decelerations and periods of cruising and idling. These actions are simulated over an extended time period of 15-35 hours.

The EPA requires that this test gauges your vehicle’s carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrous oxide and evaporative and particulate emissions. This set of assessments is mandatory, and it will cost you around a $1000 to complete on a vehicle not already certified by the manufacturer.

Based on the results of your vehicle’s emissions testing, you may be asked to make it compliant with the current standards. Common EPA-required alterations include:

  • headlights changed or adjusted to meet U.S. standards
  • orange and red reflectors added to the front and rear of the car
  • bumpers replaced or adjusted to meet strength requirements
  • speedometers converted to display miles rather than kilometers

Once all of your compliance issues have been handled, the EPA will submit the Importation Declaration Form 3520-1 to the United States Customs Service (USCS). This form is necessary for your vehicle, car kit or disassembled car to go through the customs process.

If your vehicle is older than 25 years and in a generally unmodified condition, the EPA and the DOT make allowances for antique or vintage parts and byproducts that do not necessarily meet today’s emissions standards. Such acceptable vehicles can include:

  • vehicles built before January 1, 1968
  • race cars
  • unregulated fuel vehicles
  • cars without chassis-mounted engines

You will need an HS-7 form completed and verified for your vehicle from the DOT as well as the EPA form.

Shipping Arrangements

You are responsible for making all the arrangements for shipping your vehicle, including contacting the U.S. Customs office and coordinating the process.

Vehicles that are not eligible for an exemption or exclusion and that do not meet current U.S. emission standards must be shipped via an independent commercial importer (ICI). These ICI organizations are credentialed by the EPA and are mainly employed in shipping vehicles to the United States.

Your ICI will ensure that the EPA and the DOT testing are complete and that your vehicle is modified correctly prior to shipping. However, be aware that many ICI companies will only work with certain vehicles and that their fees are often very high at $5000 and up. Always shop around to find the ICI with the best reviews and the most competitive prices before selecting it for shipping your vehicle.

Car Preparation for Shipping

When you are preparing your vehicle for shipping, it must be properly cleaned. Most importantly, the undercarriage of the car must be free from foreign soil and potentially dangerous pests before entering the country. Your car also cannot be used as a shipping container for your personal possessions. All items inside the vehicle must be legal and declared to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon your car’s entry into the United States.

Customs and Border Protection Entry

Your forms from the EPA and the DOT inspections will help you at CBP. When your vehicle arrives at its port of entry to the United States, CBP will provide Form 7501, which is your evidence of import. In order to pass this part of the importing process, you must have with you:

  • valid proof of ownership, such as the original certificate of title
  • letter or certificate from the vehicle’s manufacturer or the EPA and the DOT
  • completed EPA and DOT forms

If all of your inspection and ownership paperwork is in order, the CBP officer will assist you in filing your entry at the border.

Duty Payments

The duty rate is based on the type of vehicle and on the price you paid for it. If you are an auto collector who is importing a rare or vintage vehicle not available in the United States, this could make your duty payment very high. Cars are subject to a 2.5% duty fee, motorcycles have a 2.4% duty fee and trucks face a 25% duty fee. In addition to this percentage, you will also owe a $500 gateway fee that cannot be exempted.

There are a variety of exemptions and exceptions that may apply to you if you are a nonresident, a U.S. citizen or a military or a civilian employee of an overseas government office.

Choosing to import a car to the United States can be exciting and worrying because of the many requirements necessary to complete the process. Once the EPA and the DOT approve your car’s condition, your vehicle must be properly cleaned and prepared for shipping. Your chosen ICI will deliver your car to the border, and your completed forms must be submitted to the CBP. When you have completed your duty payments and you have received your approval from the CBP, you are then free to take your newly important car home.

Matthew YoungAbout the author

This is a guest post by Matthew Young who is an automotive reporter from Boston. As a freelance journalist with a passion for vehicles Matthew writes about everything on 4 wheels, be it race cars, SUVs, vintage cars, you name it. When he is not at his desk writing, he can be usually found helping his dad in the garage. You can reach Matthew @mattbeardyoung.

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