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5 steps to import a car into the US

Be prepared for paperwork.


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How to import a car into the US

If you have your eye an an overseas car, it is possible to have it imported into the US. But prepare yourself for paperwork and three-letter acronyms for government departments, because you may need to file forms with the EPA, DMV, DOT and CBP.

Here are the five steps you’ll need to take to get your foreign car stateside:

1. Purchase your car

It’s a good idea to either fly overseas to inspect the car yourself or find someone you trust in the country you’re purchasing the car to check it out and make sure it meets any necessary requirements to be imported into the US. Once the car is imported, it’ll be extremely difficult — if not impossible — to return it if something doesn’t work right.

Once you’re sure you want the car, you’ll need to find a way to pay the seller in their currency. The easiest and most affordable way to do this will likely be to use a money transfer company, though you can also use a wire transfer from your bank.

2. Handle all necessary import paperwork

Depending on the make, model and year of the car you’re buying, this can get complicated. The car may need to meet requirements from US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Department of Transportation (DOT) — or all three. You’ll also want to sign up for car insurance, fill out all the necessary forms, properly clean the car to avoid bringing contaminants or invasive species into the country and calculate the duty you’ll need to pay.

You can find an overview of what you’ll need to import a car on the US Customs and Border Patrol website, but you might also want to consider hiring a customs broker to help you through the process.

3. Arrange for your car to be shipped over

Compare prices and check online reviews to find an international shipping company that you trust. You’ll likely need to have the seller bring your car to the shipping port or pay someone else to do it. Then you have two options for shipping your car over:

  • RORO shipping. Short for roll-on, roll-off, this is where your car is driven on to the boat and then driven back off when it gets to the US port. This is usually the cheapest option, but may not be available for far-away countries.
  • Container shipping. This is where your car is put into a shipping container for the duration of the journey. It’s generally more expensive, but offers more protection for your vehicle and is more common for long journeys.

4. Bring your car home

If you’re not picking up your car at the US port of entry yourself, you’ll need to arrange for a company to ship it to your home. In some cases, your international shipping company may be able to do this — but not always.

If you’re hiring a company to pick up your car, they’ll need a notarized letter authorizing it. And you or the person picking up your car should bring all relevant paperwork for it to the port.

5. Register your vehicle

You’ll need to register your car before you’re able to drive it. Registering an imported car can be a bit trickier than registering a car you bought in the US because it won’t have a title or VIN in the system. To make the process run as smoothly as possible, find out what you’ll need to do ahead of time from your local DMV or state office.

Depending on where you live, you may also need to get an emissions test when registering your car.

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How to find assistance with your import

If the above process sounds long and arduous, that’s because it is. The US government wants to protect the public, industry and the environment from the impacts imported vehicles can have, which is why there are lots of hoops to jump through.

If you need help with your import, consider using:

  • A private customs broker. They can help ensure you have all the correct paperwork in place so that your car clears customs when it gets to the US.
  • An independent commercial importer (ICI). They have credentials from the EPA and can help ensure your vehicle meets all EPA standards to be imported. You can find a list of ICIs on the Environmental Protection Agency website.

Why would I want to import a car?

There are a couple of reasons why you might want to bring a car from overseas to your driveway:

  • You want to buy a car not available for purchase in the US.
  • You’ve recently moved to the US and want to bring your car over.
  • You want to buy a car that you’ve seen available cheaper overseas.

Before deciding to import a car, keep in mind that aside from the initial cost of bringing it over, you may have to pay more or wait longer for parts if it gets broken. And if it’s an uncommon model, it may be difficult to find a mechanic for routine maintenance.

Bottom line

If your dream car isn’t available in the US, it might be possible to bring it over. But you’ll likely need to jump through a number of hoops, including filling out paperwork, transferring money to an overseas buyer and potentially finding a lender for your overseas car.

Frequently asked questions

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