How to (legally) import a vehicle into the US

May 29, 2015

Lancia, Peugeot, Alfa Romeo – all classic vehicle makers, all with vehicles you won’t find driving on U.S. streets. Even manufacturers you see on a daily basis – Honda, Volkswagen, Ford – have models made solely for European and Asian markets. You want one, but you can’t exactly head to the nearest dealership and just sign some papers.

import_a_carThis is where vehicle importing comes into play. You can have that right-hand drive car of your dreams, all for an affordable price, but you’ll need to navigate the U.S.’s import laws first.

This brings us to our goal: How can you, the average American driver, import a vehicle? The answer begins with age.

How old is your dream car?

Many of the rules and regulations surrounding import laws relate to the age of the vehicle. This has to do with emissions standards – the U.S. is on the stricter side, and they want the vehicles on their streets to be eco-friendly and up to code.

“Age matters, especially when importing a vehicle.”

There is a simple question to determine a vehicle’s import eligibility: Is it older than 25 years old? If the answer is yes, then you can import it without any restrictions from the U.S. government (as long as it has the original engine). If the answer is no, then we move on to our next point.

Is it compliant?

At the end of the day, the U.S. simply wants an imported vehicle to be in compliance with today’s vehicle rules and regulations. To clarify, this means being able to pass a modern inspection test, with all the emissions and safety bells and whistles.

Of course, for you, this is far from simple. Most foreign vehicles under 25 years old are called non-conforming: They were manufactured under different rules and regulations than the U.S. ones. Think of it like you are the vehicle manufacturer here in the U.S. – this means you have to go through the same process they do, all for your imported vehicle.

The steps include:

  • Buying multiple vehicles so they can be crash tested
  • Passing U.S. emissions tests
  • Replacing any parts that don’t meet U.S. standards

That’s right, you’ll have to buy more than one of your dream car if you want to make it compliant before importing. Obviously, this option will get expensive.

What can you do?

This may all sound like too much to handle, but importing doesn’t have to be tricky. The easiest and cheapest option is to buy a foreign vehicle older than 25 years old. If you want a younger model, consider shopping in Canada. Canadian rules and regulations are similar to the U.S., so any vehicle legal there will have fewer hurdles to become legal here.

And, this doesn’t cover what to do once it gets here. Your import will need the right insurance. There is no specific insurance for imported cars, but like with American models, more safety features will often lead to lower rates. So, compare policies and make sure you shop around. Some agencies may not be open to covering imports, while others will be experienced in the field.

Finally, consider importing through a professional import dealership. They’ll have listings of affordable vehicles and help you navigate the associated paperwork. Above all else, do it legally, as illegal imports will be crushed, and that is not a sight you want to see.

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