How to import a car to USA that was purchased overseas

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Any attempt to import an auto onto American soil is an involved process. This article aims to clearly inform the reader about the various steps. If you’re the proud owner of a Ferrari 550 Marinello or a bargain-priced Volkswagen Eurovan, read on to understand whats bringing your new prize home entails.

Every step of this process must be compliant with the rules and regulations set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) every step of the way. While there a few things to follow, adhering to the list structurally makes for a problem-free voyage for your new car and many less headaches for all involved. The EPA’s regulations covering vehicular pollution — emissions — and the DOT’s safety standards must be met.


EPA and DoT Compliance

The Agency’s testing requirements for imported autos begins in a laboratory. Emissions measurements are carefully gauged as its wheels turn at driving speed with the engine on while on a chassis dynamometer. A precise driving program designed to emulate a standard urban driving routine of 10.5 miles is applied to the car. While on a fictional 10.5 hour “trip,” the car fuels up, starts and stops, accelerates and decelerates, cruises and idles while parked — all over a simulated time period between 15 and 35 hours.

The testing sequence above must comply with US Federal guidelines. Measured emissions of carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), nitrous oxide (NOx) and evaporative and particulate emissions are evaluated by state of the art computers. This test is mandatory and routinely costs around a thousand or more dollars. While not all vehicles require modifications, primarily based on factors like model and age, other basic changes required to bring a vehicle into compliance include but are not limited to:

  • Bumper strength testing and adjustment or replacement.
  • Headlights must be adjusted to meet US standards or replaced with ones that do.
  • Orange and red reflectors on the front and rear of the car must be installed.
  • The speedometer must be converted to display miles, not kilometers.

Upon confirmation of compliance, the owner submits EPA Importation Declaration Form 3520-1 to the United States Customs Service (USCS). This form must also be submitted for car parts and vehicles in states of disassembly, kit cars, light duty vehicles, motorcycles and motorcycle engines. It’s important to know that Form 3520-1 is not required for any brand new motorcar imported by their original manufacturer that is also accompanied by its previously assigned EPA emission control label and Certificate of Conformity.

Possessors of vehicles older than 25 years are likewise subject to fewer requirements by the DOT. Antique and vintage cars in a generally unmodified state face a relatively painless importation process. Form HS-7 is the form you will submit. Heavy-duty vehicles and engines, off-road and utility vehicles require Form 3520-21. Exclusions from filing of Forms 3520-1 and 3520-21 apply to:

  • Autos manufactured before 1968
  • Racecars
  • Unregulated fuel vehicles
  • Vehicles that operate without chassis-mounted engines
  • Paying Duties

Many importers are wealthy auto collectors and enthusiasts who want a vintage car or one that is not yet available in the US. Duty rates differ based on vehicle type. The sale price of the vehicle determines the percentage you pay — keep this in mind if the specimen is an exceptionally valuable one. Motorcycles may still incur a 2.4% duty based on their cylinder sizes. There is also an additional $500 gateway fee to physically plant the car that cannot be exempted.

  • Cars: 2.5%.
  • Motorcycles: either free or 2.4%.
  • Trucks: 25%.
  • Commercial Importers

Unless the manufacturer of a new auto ships your property for you, you’ll need to contract a Independent Commercial Importer (ICI). ICIs are credentialed by the EPA to enter into the business of importing vehicles onto American soil. The ICI you pay is the organization that will present the vehicle’s Certificate of Conformity. While ICIs operate on behalf of the EPA, it should be known that they are independent are not endorsed by either the DOT or EPA.

An ICI will provide an estimate of the overall cost to bring the vehicle to compliance and shipped into the country. Consult more than one ICI to get an idea of the charges to transport the make and model of your auto. In other words: shop around, do your research, get some feedback and choose the ICI with the best average procedures and prices for getting your wheels here. It depends on the distance of travel and whether the destination port is located on the East Coast or the West Coast, but an ICI can charge anywhere from $5000 and up once all is said and done. The vehicle is driven into a cargo box and secured with lines for the voyage.


Importing an auto in the United States appears to be a time-intensive process. Yes, it is: it can take weeks or months. However, the time waiting will be the worst of it. Bringing your vehicle into compliance with US EPA and DOT standards and contracting a reliable, reputable ICI will get your new or antique car imported with relative ease.