cars in shipping containers

How Do I Import a Car? Follow These 4 Steps

Maybe you’ve fallen in love with a sporty Ferrari or a classic BMW and are interested in getting one straight from the lands that gave them birth. Maybe you’re traveling to Italy or Germany for a vacation, and are interested in importing a car directly from those factories.

You want to know how to import a car.

Importing a car from outside the U.S. is certainly possible. There are environmental, safety, and cost factors to consider, though, before you actually buy a car overseas and decide to import it. Here are 4 steps to follow.

1. Check U.S. Environmental Regulations Before You Buy

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection website says it succinctly: environmental agencies “have very detailed requirements that can make importing a vehicle and/or its parts difficult, if not impossible, for some vehicles that were not originally manufactured for the U.S. market.”

In other words, you have to check the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for emissions and other environmental standards before you buy a car. These regulations are some of the most stringent in the world, so it may be that the car you have your eye on doesn’t meet them.

If you buy a car overseas that does not meet U.S. environmental standards, it must be brought up to them before it can pass inspection and thus be driven in the U.S. This can be highly expensive, and in some cases, may not be possible. Do your research on the import of your dreams before you buy.

For an overview of the EPA’s regulations on imports, as well as the forms you will need when you do import a car, see here.

2. Make Sure the Car You Buy Meets U.S. Safety Regulations

In addition to environmental regulations, an imported car must pass U.S. safety standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Department of Transportation (DOT) has an Importation and Certification section with rules and regulations on its standards.

A car being imported must meet what NHTSA terms the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Some of these concern bumper and other safety features. Cars that have been built overseas but meet U.S. FMVSS generally have a certification verification on the car. (It is often by the driver's side door.)

If you buy a car overseas that you plan to import, you should check with the seller that the certification is there. The NHTSA recommends that you also ask for a letter from the seller verifying this and bring it with you.

Information on the NHTSA’s laws on importation of cars can be found here. The regulations are different if the imported vehicle is from Canada. Those rules can be found here. There is also a helpful frequently asked questions (FAQ) site here.

3. Taking a Car Through Customs

When your imported car is brought through customs, you will need to show the shipper's or carrier's original bill of lading, the bill of sale, any overseas registration documents, and any other documents covering the vehicle.

When your car is brought into the U.S., you may have to pay customs fees. Generally, for cars, these are 2.5% of the price, unless you are importing a Canadian-made car. These are duty-free. There is an $800 exemption if the car is for personal use, it was bought during the trip you are re-entering from, and it accompanies you into the U.S. After the exemption, a flat 3% duty rate covers the next $1,000 of the car’s price. The remainder of the price is due at the 2.5% rate.

4. Check Any State Emissions Regulations Before You Buy

Depending on where in the U.S. you live, the state may have environmental regulations in addition to the EPA’s that your import will have to pass before it can be driven. California, for example, has anti-smog regulations in addition to U.S. rules. Check the Department of Motor Vehicles information in your state before purchasing an imported car.

In sum, you should make sure that you understand the environmental, safety, and customs issues before purchasing a car for import and beginning to import it.