Importing motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines (hereafter referred to collectively as vehicles) into the U.S. can be a very complex and confusing process. Imported motor vehicles are subject to U.S. air pollution control (emission) standards, safety standards, and bumper standards. Most vehicles manufactured abroad that conform to these rules are manufactured and exported expressly for sale in the United States. Foreign made vehicles not manufactured for U.S. exports are unlikely to meet all relevant standards. Be skeptical of claims by a foreign dealer or other seller that a vehicle meets these standards or can readily be brought into compliance.
This page provides information for importing a motor vehicle into the United States, including requirements of:
- U.S. EPA
- U.S. Department of Transportation / National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- U.S. Border Protection
Please note that additional state rules may apply including air emission rules, titles and registration.
Before attempting to import any vehicle into the U.S., you need to consider the EPA requirements covering vehicle air pollution emissions.
The Federal emission testing requirements are based on complex laboratory testing procedures. The emissions are measured while the vehicle is being driven in the laboratory on a chassis dynamometer. The vehicle is driven through a specific driving cycle representing a typical urban drive of 10.5 miles, takes 14 to 36 hours, and includes fuel filling, starting, stopping, accelerating, decelerating, cruising, idling, and sitting while parked*. The emissions measured include hydrocarbons (HC), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrous Oxides (NOx), Evaporative emissions, and particulate emissions. Commercially, testing for light-duty vehicles (e.g., passenger cars) typically costs about $1,000.
An EPA importation declaration form EPA Form 3520-1 must be submitted to the U.S. Customs Service for most vehicle importations by individuals (including motorcycles, disassembled vehicles, kit cars, light-duty vehicle/motorcycle engines). [This form is not required for motor vehicles that are imported by their original manufacturer and are new and are covered by an EPA certificate of conformity and bear an EPA emission control label.] One form per shipment may be used, with attachments including all information required to fully describe each vehicle or engine. Off-road vehicles/engines and heavy-duty engines must use EPA Form 3520-21.
Certain vehicles are excluded from emissions requirements. These include (under specified conditions):
- Older vehicles (e.g., light-duty gasoline-fueled car or truck built before January 1, 1968
- Non-Chassis-Mounted Engine
- Racing vehicles
- Unregulated Fuel Vehicle
EPA has published the Automotive Imports Facts Manual that will guide you through the necessary steps for importing a vehicle. Also, see More Resources below for additional information on EPA standards and regulations.
U.S. Department of Transportation/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Motor vehicles not more than 25 years old must conform to the Department of Transportation (DOT) motor vehicle safety standards that were in effect when these vehicles were manufactured. Passenger cars manufactured after September 1, 1973 must also meet bumper standards. The importer must file form DOT HS-7 at the time of entry, indicating whether the vehicle conforms to applicable safety and bumper standards. The original manufacturer is required to affix a label to the vehicle certifying that these standards have been met if the vehicle is intended for sale in the United States. Vehicles that do not bear a certification label attached by the original manufacturer must be entered as a nonconforming vehicle under a DOT bond for one and a half times the vehicle's dutiable value. This is in addition to the regular Customs entry bond.
Unless specifically excepted (see List of Nonconforming Vehicles Eligible for Importation), the importer must sign a contract with a DOT Registered Importer (RI), who will modify the vehicle to conform with all applicable safety and bumper standards and who can certify the modifications. A copy of the RI's contract must be attached to the DOT HS-7 form and furnished to the Customs Service with the DOT bond at the port of entry.
U.S. Border Protection
Vehicles imported to the U.S. must pass through a port of entry and be cleared by U.S. Border Protection (CBP). For Customs clearance you will need the shipper's or carrier's original bill of lading, the bill of sale, foreign registration, and any other documents covering the vehicle. You will also need a completed EPA Form 3520-1, or a manufacturer's label in the English language affixed to the car, stating that the vehicle meets all U.S. emission requirements.
The owner must make arrangements with U.S Customs for shipping a vehicle. Have your shipper or carrier notify you of the vehicle's arrival date so that you can coordinate with U.S. Customs. Shipments are cleared at the first port of entry unless you arrange for a freight forwarder abroad to have the vehicle sent in bond to a Customs port more convenient to you.
You may make arrangements to import your vehicle with an Independent Commercial Importer (ICI). In this case, the ICI will import your vehicle and perform any EPA-required modifications and be responsible for assuring that all EPA requirements have been met. ICIs can only import certain vehicles, however, and in general, their fees are very high.
Foreign-made vehicles imported into the U.S., whether new or used, either for personal use or for sale, are generally dutiable at the following rates:
Motorcycles: either free or 2.4%
Duty rates are based on price paid or payable. Most Canadian-made vehicles are duty-free.
As a returning U.S. resident, you may apply your $800 CBP exemption and those of accompanying family members toward the value of the vehicle if it:
- Accompanies you on your return;
- Is imported for personal use;
- Was acquired during the journey from which you are returning.
For CBP purposes, a returning U.S. resident is one who is returning from travel, work, or study abroad.
After the exemption has been applied, a flat duty rate of 3% is applied toward the next $1,000 of the vehicle's value. The remaining amount is dutiable at the regular duty rate.
- U.S. citizens employed abroad or government employees returning on TDY or voluntary leave may import a foreign-made car free of duty provided they enter the U.S. for a short visit, claim nonresident status, and export the vehicle when they leave.
- Military and civilian employees of the U.S. government returning at the end of an assignment to extended duty outside the CBP territory of the U.S. may include a conforming vehicle among their duty-free personal and household effects. The auto must have been purchased abroad and be in its owner's possession prior to departure. Generally, extended duty is 140 days or more. Navy personnel serving aboard a U.S. naval vessel or a supporting naval vessel from its departure from the U.S. to its return after an intended overseas deployment of 120 days or more are entitled to the extended-duty exemption. Conforming vehicles imported under the duty-free exemption are dutiable if sold within one year of importation. Duty must be paid at the most convenient CBP office before the sale is completed. Conforming vehicles so imported may remain in the U.S. indefinitely once a formal entry is made for EPA purposes.
- Nonresidents may import a vehicle duty-free for personal use up to (1) one year if the vehicle is imported in conjunction with the owner's arrival. Vehicles imported under this provision that do not conform to U.S. safety and emission standards must be exported within one year and may not be sold in the U.S. There is no exemption or extension of the export requirements.
Cars Imported for Other Purposes
Nonresidents may import an automobile or motorcycle and its usual equipment free of duty for a temporary stay to take part in races or other specific purposes. However, prior written approval from the EPA is required and such approval is granted only to those racing vehicles that EPA deems not capable of safe or practical use on streets and highways. If the contests are for other than money purposes, the vehicle may be admitted for 90 days without formal entry or bond if the CBP officer is satisfied as to the importer's identify and good faith. The vehicle becomes subject to forfeiture if it is not exported or if a bond is not given within 90 days of its importation. Prior written approval must be obtained from DOT. A vehicle may be temporarily imported for testing, demonstration, or racing purposes. A vehicle may be permanently imported for show or display. Written approval from DOT is required and should be obtained before the vehicle is exported from the foreign country to the U.S. Information on how to import a vehicle under show or display is available at DOT's NHTSA Vehicle Importation Regulations website. A vehicle permanently imported for show and display must comply with all U.S. emission requirements as well, and in general must be imported through an EPA-authorized ICI for modification and testing. EPA will not allow the vehicle to be released to its owner until ICI work is complete.
Cleaning the Undercarriage
To safeguard against importation of dangerous pests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the undercarriage of imported cars be free of foreign soil. Have your car steam-sprayed or cleaned thoroughly before shipment.
Your Car is Not a Shipping Container
For your own safety, security, and convenience, do not use your car as a container for personal belongings.
- Your possessions are susceptible to theft while the vehicle is on the loading and unloading docks and in transit.
- Many shippers and carriers will not accept your vehicle if it contains personal belongings.
- The entire contents of your car must be declared to CBP on entry. Failure to do so can result in a fine or seizure of the car and its contents.
- Your vehicle may be subject to seizure, and you may incur a personal penalty, if anyone uses it as a conveyance of illegal narcotics.
Prohibited Imports Importations from Afghanistan (Taliban), Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Serbia/Montenegro/Kosovo, or Yugoslavia that involve the governments of those countries, are generally prohibited pursuant to regulations issued by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Before attempting to make such an importation, information concerning the prohibitions and licensing policy should be obtained by contacting:
Director, Office of Foreign Assets Control
U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2nd Floor Anx.
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20220
You can call either (202) 622-2500 or (202) 622-2480, or fax (202) 622-1657; or visit the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control website.
Gas-Guzzlers. Certain imported automobiles may be subject to the "gas-guzzler" tax. The amount of the tax is based on a combined urban/highway fuel-economy (miles per gallon) rating assigned by the EPA for gas-guzzler tax purposes. This EPA rating may be different from fuel-economy ratings indicated by the manufacturer.
If the EPA has not assigned a gas-guzzler fuel-economy rating for the model automobile you import, a rating must be independently determined. No tax is imposed on automobiles that have a combined fuel-economy rating of at least 22.5 miles per gallon.
- Imports of Vehicles, Engines and Equipment. Links to various documents and points of contact related to importing vehicles.
- The Automotive Imports Facts Manual provides comprehensive information on importing your vehicle. The Facts Manual is recommended reading for all vehicle importers.
- The Quick Overview of Vehicle Imports Requirements provides a way to quickly identify the EPA requirements for many imported vehicles.
- EPA publishes a list of Canadian Vehicles Approved for Import. Canada has harmonized vehicle emission standards with the U.S. and many vehicles made for sale in Canada are eligible for import to the U.S.
- Independent Commercial Importers (ICIs) are businesses authorized by EPA to import, modify and test vehicles to demonstrate conformity with U.S. emission requirements.
- The EPA Kit Car Policy explains the EPA requirements for manufacture and import of replica vehicles.
- Smog Check. Visit Smog Check if you intend to import a vehicle into California.
DOT/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). General instructions for vehicle importation, including Canadian and non-Canadian vehicles.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). An extensive list of frequently asked questions concerning vehicle importation.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) list of Approved Vehicles. This is a good place to start. If the vehicle you want to import is not on this list, it will be very difficult to import it. If it is on that list the next step is that it MUST be imported/ brought up to snuff through a "Registered Importer" and meet all US DOT and EPA requirements.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) list of Registered Importers. This list contains contact information for businesses that have been approved as a Registered Importer (RI) of non-conforming motor vehicles for 2006. The listing, which is sorted by state, then alphabetically by business name, is periodically updated as new RIs are approved or existing RIs withdraw from business.