How to Import Vehicles to the USA in 6 Simple Steps

Cars in the showroom after being imported to the U.S.
Importing cars to the USA can be a rigorous process for many importers, due to the highly regulated nature of vehicles. Learn how to stay compliant with all U.S. safety and emissions standards.
February 2, 2024
Last Modified: April 10, 2024
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Importing a car, or any other vehicle, to the United States is a heavily regulated and complicated process, making it a difficult task for personal and commercial importers alike.

According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), vehicles imported into the U.S. must comply with U.S. safety, bumper, and emission standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT). Vehicles older than 25 years do not have to comply with those safety standards. 

Before you buy a vehicle from overseas, make sure you know all the rules and regulations surrounding U.S. car imports. Learn how to navigate vehicle import laws using our guide below.

Containers of vehicles imported to the USA on a cargo ship.

How to Import a Vehicle to the U.S.

One of the reasons that importing vehicles into the U.S. is often such an ordeal is because of one simple fact. More often than not, foreign vehicles do not meet U.S. standards. 

If a car manufactured abroad conforms to U.S. safety, bumper, and emission standards, it likely means the vehicle is already being exported for sale in the United States. Simply put, that means that any vehicle you’d be importing from outside the U.S. is unlikely to meet all relevant standards, otherwise it would be for sale in the U.S. 

This makes vehicles one of the most heavily regulated imports in the U.S. The vast majority of the regulations impacting U.S. car standards come from the following laws:

  • Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966
  • Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988
  • Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972
  • Clean Air Act of 1968

Fortunately, we’re here to help. Learn how to successfully import a car using the following steps.

1. Determine Vehicle Eligibility and Compliance with U.S. Car Import Laws

In order for a vehicle to be imported into the U.S., you’ll need to ensure it complies with a wide and ranging set of U.S. safety and emissions standards. Let’s break them all down.

EPA Standards for Vehicle Emissions 

Vehicles imported into the U.S. are subject to federal emission standards, which vary depending on the type of vehicle and when it was originally manufactured. For example, vehicles that were originally manufactured after the date listed in the table below must comply with EPA emission standards.

Vehicle TypeOriginal Manufacture Date
Gasoline-fueled cars and light-duty trucksDecember 31, 1967
Heavy-duty enginesDecember 31, 1969
Diesel-fueled carsDecember 31, 1974
Diesel-fueled light-duty trucksDecember 31, 1975
Motorcycles with a displacement more than 49 cubic centimetersDecember 31, 1977

Additionally, cars must be certified to U.S. federal emission standards by their manufacturers for sale in the U.S. If they do not, the vehicle is considered non-conforming.

In order to import a vehicle that does not conform with EPA emission standards, an importer must contact an Independent Commercial Importer (ICI) to perform the import on their behalf. However, ICI’s authorized by the EPA can only be found in the U.S. These importers will insure that the car complies with all federal emission standards.

It’s also worth noting that emission standards can vary by state. While a vehicle may pass federal emission standards, it’s possible that it does not comply with the emission standards of the destination state. California, for example, has emission standards that surpass those of the EPA. 

DOT Safety, Bumper, and Theft Prevention Standards

Any car less than 25 years old must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in order to be allowed entry into the U.S.

Additionally, vehicles manufactured after September 1, 1978, must also meet the bumper standard, and vehicles beginning with model year 1987 must meet the theft-prevention standard. 

Cars meeting these standards will include a certification label placed by the original manufacturer near the driver’s side door. If you buy a vehicle abroad certified to U.S. standards, you can streamline the import process by ensuring the sales contract mentions this and notifying CBP.

However, if a vehicle lacks the manufacturer’s label confirming U.S. standards, it must be imported as a nonconforming vehicle. In such cases, the importer needs to contact a DOT-registered importer (RI) to modify the vehicle and certify compliance with applicable FMVSS. 

Additionally, a DOT bond, equivalent to one and a half times the car’s dutiable value, must be posted. This bond is separate from the standard CBP entry bond and requires attachment to the HS-7 form along with the RI contract.

It’s worth noting that if a vehicle hasn’t been previously determined eligible for importation, your RI must initiate a petition process to determine if it’s able to be modified for compliance. However, if the car under petition differs significantly from those sold in the U.S., the compliance process can become quite intricate and costly.

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Worried about the Strict Regulations? Ask Our Experts.

Our Licensed Customs Brokers Can Personally Guide You Through Your Car Imports.

Contact our Licensed Expert Consultant >

25 Year Car Import Rule

The 25 Year Vehicle Import Rule, often referred to as the “25-year rule,” is a regulation that states a foreign-made car that is at least 25 years old can be legally imported into the U.S. without having to comply with FMVSS required for newer vehicles.

The rule was implemented by the U.S. government to allow enthusiasts and collectors to import vintage or classic cars that may not meet current safety standards. This exemption is based on the idea that older cars are considered to have historical or collector value, and therefore, they are granted an exception from certain regulations.

It’s important to note that the 25-year rule applies to the date of manufacture of the vehicle, not its model year. Once a car reaches the age of 25 years, it is generally eligible for importation without having to undergo extensive modifications to meet current standards.

Importers should still comply with other customs and importation requirements, and it’s advisable to verify the specific regulations and paperwork needed to import a vehicle under the 25-year rule. Additionally, state-specific regulations may apply, so it’s recommended to check with local authorities for any additional requirements.

Substantially Similar Clause

The Substantially Similar Clause, also known as the “Substantially Similar Rule,” is a provision that states that a vehicle that is substantially similar to a model already certified for sale in the U.S. may be eligible for importation without having to undergo the same extensive testing and certification process as a completely new model. 

This provision streamlines the importation process for cars that share a high degree of similarity with models that have already met U.S. safety and emissions standards.

However, it’s important to note that the definition of “substantially similar” is subject to interpretation and may vary. The NHTSA and EPA assess whether a foreign-made vehicle is substantially similar to a U.S.-certified model by considering various factors, including safety and emissions standards, as well as other relevant specifications.

And as always, while this rule helps facilitate vehicle imports, it’s crucial that importers still ensure compliance with other customs and importation requirements, and note that state-specific regulations may apply.

A DOT member ensuring imported vehicles comply with federal safety standards.

2. Determine How Much it Costs to Import a Vehicle

One of the most common questions car importers have is how much does it cost to import a vehicle to the U.S.? While there is no one-size-fits-all price, vehicles are subject to an array of fees, including standard import duties, federal taxes for certain gas milages, and specific import bonds.

Vehicle Import Duties and Taxes

The import duty on foreign vehicles varies by vehicle type. Duty rates are as follows:

  • Automobiles: 2.5%
  • Trucks: 25%
  • Motorcycles: 2.4%

The applicable duty rates are determined based on the price paid for the vehicles, and are required whether the vehicle is used or new, or a personal or commercial import. 

There are some situations in which a foreign car may be entered duty-free, such as:

  • U.S. citizens employed abroad and returning for a short visit, claim nonresident status, and export the vehicle when they leave
  • Non-Residents for personal use up to one year
  • USCMA-eligible vehicles
  • Cars that have been previously exported within the past three years, and which have not been improved or manufactured to be made more valuable

DOT Bond

A DOT bond is equivalent to one and a half times the vehicle’s dutiable value and is separate from the standard customs entry bond. When posted, this bond must be attached to the HS-7 form and the RI contract.

Gas Guzzler Tax

Some cars are subject to the gas guzzler tax imposed by section 4064 of the Internal Revenue Code.

This tax is based on the combined urban/highway fuel-economy (miles per gallon) rating assigned by the EPA for gas-guzzler tax purposes. And it’s important to note that the EPA rating may be different from fuel-economy ratings listed by the manufacturer.

As the name implies, though, this tax only impacts vehicles with poor MPG ratings. If a car has a combined fuel-economy rating of at least 22.5 miles per gallon, it will not be subject to the gas guzzler tax.

Not detailed are costs like customs bonds, shipping fees, customs brokerage charges, and insurance; however, these are still costs worth mentioning.

3. Prepare the Proper Paperwork

There are a number of documents that are required on all imports to the U.S., such as a bill of lading, Pro Forma Invoice and an Importer Security Filing (if shipping by sea). For a full list, check out our article on the documents needed for import and export.

As for vehicle imports, we’ll break down some of the specific paperwork that applies, including:

  • Bill of Sale
  • Foreign Registration
  • EPA Form 3520-1
  • DOT Form HS-7
  • Certificate of Conformity
  • Letter of Recall Clearance

Bill of Sale showing VIN

In order to enter a car into the U.S., you must provide proof that you own it and that it meets U.S. standards, as discussed above. The Bill of Sale with the VIN helps verify the vehicle’s ownership and authenticity, ensuring that the VIN matches the details provided in other importation documents.

Foreign Vehicle Registration

Foreign registration is used to describe the vehicle’s registration in its country of origin or the country where it was previously registered. 

EPA Form 3520-1 (On-Road Vehicles)

The EPA Form 3520-1 is a declaration form that’s required for the importation of passenger vehicles, highway motorcycles, and corresponding engines.

EPA Form 3520-21 (Off-Road Vehicles)

The EPA Form 3520-21 is a declaration form that’s required for the importation of heavy-duty highway engines and nonroad engines (gas, diesel, marine, stationary), including engines already installed in vehicles or equipment.

DOT Form HS-7

DOT Form HS-7, also known as the “Declaration of Importation of Motor Vehicles and Motor Vehicle Equipment Subject to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety, Bumper, and Theft Prevention Standards,”  is administered by the NHTSA and used to declare that the imported motor vehicle or equipment complies with or is exempt from FMVSS, bumper standards, and theft prevention standards. 

Certificate of Conformity

A Certificate of Conformity (COC) is issued to the car manufacturer by the EPA and certifies that the vehicle complies with the applicable emissions standards, and is valid for only one model year of production.

Letter of Recall Clearance (if applicable)

If a vehicle has been subject to a recall, the manufacturer may issue a letter notifying owners or importers of the recall. This letter typically provides information about the recall, the specific issue, and how it has been corrected.

4. Prepare the Vehicle for Inspection

As you might expect, a vehicle will be thoroughly inspected when it enters the U.S. to ensure that it meets all of the safety and emissions standards specified in the import documentation. 

However, one sometimes overlooked aspect of the inspection process involves ensuring the car, and specifically the tires and undercarriage, are free of dirt and debris. This is done to prevent the accidental import of any foreign soil or pests into the country.

CBP recommends having your vehicle steam-sprayed or cleaned thoroughly before shipping.

5. Choose Mode of Transportation

In order to actually get your vehicle into the U.S., the owner will need to make arrangements for shipping into the U.S. The shipment will be cleared at the first port of entry, so you’ll need to decide what transportation method works best for your situation.

  • Ground: If you’re importing a car from Canada, Mexico, or anywhere else in the American continents, you obviously have the option of simply driving your vehicle across the border. This can be done by yourself or by arranging transport with a commercial vehicle carrier. Once at the border, CBP will inspect your vehicle, and if given the all clear, may be entered into the U.S.
  • Ocean: Shipping by sea is the most common method of transportation, especially for vehicles imported from Europe or Asia. This is typically done using Roll-On, Roll-Off (RORO) shipping. Once you choose your port of entry, you can begin the shipping process, which may take up to several weeks or months. Notably, cars imported by ocean freight require an Importer Security Filing be submitted. 
  • Air: Air freight is obviously the fastest but also the most expensive shipping method. But if you need your vehicle imported fast, it’s always an option.

6. Arrange for Plates and Registration

U.S. car importers will need to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in their state of residence to arrange temporary license plates and clarification on the exact documentation needed for entry. Once done, your vehicle will be able to be officially registered.

Temporary Vehicle Imports

What if you only need to import your vehicle for a short amount of time? There are some situations in which cars are allowed entry into the U.S. without being brought into compliance with safety and emissions standards.

  • Non-Resident Importers: For non-U.S citizens importing a vehicle, it can be given approval for entry for one year. It can not be sold during that time, and it must be exported at the end of one year if it is not brought into compliance. Notably, there is no exemption or extension of the export requirements.
  • Research, Investigation, Demonstration, Training, Or Racing: This one is fairly self-explanatory, but if a vehicle may be imported for any of these reasons without full compliance with U.S. vehicle regulations. However, these vehicles may not be used on public roads (unless necessary for testing), and the importer must still submit EPA 3520-1 and DOT HS-7 forms at the time of entry.
  • Foreign Diplomat or Member of Armed Forces: A foreign dignitary or armed forces member who has been authorized by the Department of State may temporarily enter a non-conforming vehicle while in the U.S. However, the vehicle must be exported at the end of their tour of duty.
  • Intended for Export: A non-conforming vehicle intended for export must be marked “FOR EXPORT” on the vehicle or engine itself, as well as on it’s container. It must also be marked as such on the DOT HS-7 form.
Hundreds of vehicles parked at port ready to be imported to the U.S.

Where Does the U.S. Import Cars From?

As of the International Trade Administration’s most recent data from 2021, the countries from which the U.S. imported the most vehicles from included:

U.S. Imports of New Passenger Vehicles and Light Trucks (2021)

CountryImport Volume
Mexico2,133,305
Japan1,336,201
Canada913,362
South Korea823,979
Germany284,793
Source: https://www.trade.gov/data-visualization/new-vehicle-trade-data-visualization 

Import Vehicles into the U.S. with USA Custom Clearance

Need help importing a vehicle into the U.S.? The experts at USA Customs Clearance are here to help. 

The rules, regulations, and laws surrounding cars and other motor vehicles are complicated and confusing, especially for the first time importer. Failing to achieve compliance can result in serious fines, if not complete seizure and refusal of entry of your vehicle. That’s where our helpful staff comes in.

Our CBP-Licensed Customs Brokers are experts in all things importing and customs clearance. Schedule a personalized, 1-on-1 consultation and get all of your questions answered. We can provide custom tailored guidance for importing your specific vehicle into the U.S.

Still have questions? Give us a call at (855) 912-0406 or fill out our contact form to learn more.

A woman with a headset is answering calls, there is a desktop screen open in the background.
USA CUSTOMS CLEARANCE
Need Help Importing Your Vehicles?

Worried about the Strict Regulations? Ask Our Experts.

Our Licensed Customs Brokers Can Personally Guide You Through Your Car Imports.

Contact our Licensed Expert Consultant >
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