Breeze Customs Guide
ifty years ago, very few vehicles on the road were not made in the United States. But in recent years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of imported vehicles from other countries. On a global level, the value of imported vehicles was USD 643.5 billion in 2020, of which 26.9% came from North American importers. The United States, in particular, imported cars worth USD 145.7 billion in 2020.
Importing a vehicle into the U.S. from another country is no small feat. There are a lot of rules and regulations that you need to follow to be able to import a vehicle legally. You will have to pay taxes (if applicable) and show compliance with EPA, DOT, and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). At Breeze Customs, we’ve done this process hundreds of times and have created a step-by-step guide for you to follow — with the ins and outs of importing vehicles into the United States.
All vehicles imported into the United States must follow strict requirements for emission standards, safety standards, and bumper standards. These requirements are administered by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transformation (DOT). As an importer, it is your responsibility to establish to U.S. Customs that the imported vehicle conforms to all import rules and regulations.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates emissions from all on-road motor vehicles, including automobiles, trucks, vans, and motorcycles. If EPA does not certify a vehicle, it cannot be driven on public roads in the United States.
The EPA also sets fuel economy regulations as part of the Clean Air Act, which means that a vehicle must meet certain emission standards before it can be imported into the U.S. As part of the importation process, an EPA Form 3520-1 must be submitted to CBP for each motor vehicle (including motorcycles, disassembled vehicles, kit cars, and light-duty vehicle/motorcycle engines) imported into the United States.
- The Department of Transportation (DOT) is the agency that sets safety regulations for all major modes of transportation in the U.S. It also oversees vehicle safety standards for imported vehicles and can deny entry to any vehicle that does not meet those standards. Part of DOT, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for administering all aspects of transportation safety.
Vehicle importers must submit a DOT HS-7 Form before shipping a car from abroad to the United States. This form certifies that a vehicle meets all federal safety standards and ensures it will be allowed entry into the country without being detained at the port and either returned to its point of origin or destroyed by customs.
Any vehicle imported from another country must comply with the following laws and regulations:
- The Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act of 1972
- The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966
- The Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988
- The Clean Air Act of 1968 (revised in 1990)
- The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS)
Now that we’ve introduced the agencies, acts, and standards that regulate the import of vehicles, let’s discuss the steps you need to follow to import your vehicle into the United States successfully.
- Step 1: Check that your vehicle is eligible for importation
- Step 2: Ensure compliance with EPA and DOT regulations
- Step 3: Determine the cost of importing your vehicle
- Step 4: Choose your transportation method and port of entry
- Step 5: Prepare your import documentation
- Step 6: Get ready for an inspection
- Step 7: Arrange for registration, plates, and permits
The 7 Steps for Importing a Vehicle into the United States
Step 1: Check that your vehicle is eligible for importation
The process of importing a vehicle starts with determining if your vehicle is eligible for import into the United States. Admissibility is based on whether your vehicle was manufactured to meet U.S. safety and emission standards.
If your imported vehicle is very similar to another model manufactured in the United States, you can import it using the Substantially Similar Clause. So, if you’re importing the vehicle from Canada, chances are it is already admissible since the two countries share very similar environmental and safety rules and regulations.
Nonconforming vehicles may be imported into the United States in one of two circumstances: by certification or by exemption. If you’re temporarily importing a vehicle, it may be admissible without needing to comply with EPA regulations. And if you’re importing it for show or display, you will not need to register or certify it for road use. Otherwise, to ensure the admissibility of your imported vehicle, it must be in full compliance with EPA and DOT regulations, which we’ll cover in the next step.
Step 2: Ensure compliance with EPA and DOT regulations
You must ensure that EPA and DOT labels are affixed to your vehicle to determine its true eligibility for import into the United States:
EPA Vehicle Emissions Label
- The EPA vehicle emissions label [see label here], known as “Vehicle Emission Control Information,” is located under the hood of light-weight vehicles and trucks. It indicates the type of fuel used, miles-per-gallon rating, fuel consumption level, fuel costs, and emission ratings. The label also contains the manufacturer’s name and trademark and an unconditional statement of compliance with EPA emission regulations.
The following passenger cars, light-duty trucks, heavy-duty engines, and motorcycles are subject to federal emission standards:
- Gasoline-fueled cars and light-duty trucks originally manufactured after December 31, 1967.
- Diesel-fueled cars originally manufactured after December 31, 1974.
- Diesel-fueled light-duty trucks originally manufactured after December 31, 1975.
- Heavy-duty engines originally manufactured after December 31, 1969.
- Motorcycles with a displacement of more than 49 cubic centimeters originally manufactured after December 31, 1977.
EPA compliance is not required for vehicles older than 21 years. If your car does not meet all U.S. emission standards, it must be imported through an Independent Commercial Importer (ICI) to comply with EPA. It is worth noting that ICI fees are typically very high.
DOT Certification Label
- The DOT certification label [see label here], usually located in the vehicle driver’s side door post, verifies that the vehicle meets all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and allows CBP to grant importation approval.
DOT compliance is not required for vehicles older than 25 years. If your car does not meet all National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requirements by DOT, you will need to work with a Registered Importer (RI) to have upgrades completed for safety and admissibility.
Personal Use Exemption
If you do not have both of these labels which qualifies your vehicle for US EPA and FMVSS – you can import the vehicle under ‘Personal Use’. However, you will need to obtain a ‘Certification of Conformity’ from the manufacturer of the vehicle to present to U.S. Customs upon arrival at the border. Manufactures will only grant this certificate to individuals who declare their vehicle import as 2B on Form HS-7.
Note: You must declare your vehicle under ‘Personal Shipment’ for this exemption to apply when you do not have both labels, any vehicle will be denied if declared as a commercial shipment, and does not have labels.
Step 3: Determine the cost of importing your vehicle
There are several costs to consider when importing a vehicle into the U.S. These include:
- Import Duties: U.S.-made vehicles may qualify for free trade, but foreign-made vehicles are dutiable at the following rates:
- 5% for vehicles
- 25% for trucks
- Either free or 2.4% for motorcycles
- Customs Bond: A customs entry bond is required for every imported vehicle. You can obtain a Single-Entry Bond (for one-time imports) or a Continuous Bond (for multiple imports within a 12-month period).
- DOT Bond (for nonconforming vehicles): If your vehicle does not have a DOT certification label, it must be imported as a nonconforming vehicle, and you must then register with a DOT-Registered Importer (RI) and post a DOT bond. The bond’s value must be 1.5 times the vehicle’s dutiable value.
- Gas-Guzzler Tax: Certain imported automobiles may be subject to the Gas-Guzzler Tax. The amount of the tax is based on a combined fuel-economy rating assigned by the EPA for gas-guzzler tax purposes. The higher the fuel economy, the lower the tax. No tax is imposed on vehicles with a combined fuel-economy rating of at least 22.5 miles per gallon.
- Insurance: Once you import your vehicle, you will want to purchase an insurance policy because, to drive in most states legally, you’ll need to meet minimum vehicle insurance requirements set by the state. If you’re shipping your vehicle from abroad, it’s also a good idea to have an insurance policy that covers the shipping process.
- Brokerage fees: If you choose to work with a customs broker, be prepared to pay a small fee in return for their services. Most vehicle importers prefer to work with a customs broker to streamline the vehicle importation process.
- Shipping fees: Unless you decide to drive the vehicle across the border yourself, you can expect to pay shipping fees to import your vehicle. The cost will depend on the method of transportation, which we’ll discuss in the next step.
Step 4: Choose your transportation method and port of entry
The next step is to choose your transportation method and port of entry. The most common methods of transporting imported vehicles are:
- Air Freight – This is by far the most expensive method of importing a vehicle, but it only takes several days to arrive at the destination.
- Ocean Freight – This is the most common means of importing vehicles into the United States. The process typically takes about 30-45 days from start to finish.
- Land Transport – This option can be faster and less costly than ocean freight, depending on the country you are importing from.
You can drive the vehicle across the border yourself or arrange shipping through a commercial carrier or a privately-owned transportation company. Your choice will depend on the type of vehicle you want to import, its condition, and its value, among other factors. You also need to consider how much it will cost to ship your vehicle.
There are more than 300 land, air, and sea ports in the United States. You will need to choose a port of entry that handles imported vehicles and is closest to your destination state. This interactive port of entry map provides detailed information about each port and its requirements. We recommend speaking to a customs broker to simplify the process and help you choose the most suitable port of entry.
Step 5: Prepare your import documentation
Now that you’ve determined your shipping method and port of entry, you’ll need to prepare your import documentation. The paperwork required to import vehicles into the United States is:
- A U.S. Customs Proforma Invoice
- The carrier’s Bill of Lading (BOL) (generated by your carrier and provided to your customs broker)
- A Bill of Sale showing VIN
- Foreign Registration
- A copy of the Vehicle Registration
- An EPA form 3520-1
- A DOT form HS-7
- A USMCA/CUSMA Certificate of Origin (if applicable)
- A Letter of Recall and Conformity from the Manufacturer (if applicable)
You can file these documents yourself or hire a customs broker to submit them on your behalf.
Step 6: Get ready for an inspection
Inspections are integral to the import process, as they verify that your vehicle complies with all federal safety and emission standards. An inspection will check that your car has all the necessary parts — such as lights and mirrors — installed properly and that any equipment required for safety or emissions is in good working order. Moreover, it will check that your vehicle’s tires match the ones on the manufacturer’s sticker on the doorjamb and that the vehicle’s odometer reading matches the reading on its title. You may also have to pass an emissions test to register your car in the United States.
To ensure that your vehicle passes the inspection:
- Take care of all the paperwork ahead of time.
- Clear your vehicle of any personal belongings.
- Ensure the vehicle is clean of dirt and debris, especially the tires and undercarriage.
Do not use your car as a storage container to ship goods. The entire contents of your car will then need to be declared to customs, and you may have your car subject to seizure or incur additional costs.
Step 7: Arrange for registration, plates, and permits
Once you’ve submitted your import documentation and passed the inspection, you’re ready to register your vehicle with your state’s DMV and acquire license plates and permits.
For registration purposes, your responsibility as an importer is to establish that the imported vehicle conforms to import rules and regulations. You can do so by contacting the vehicle’s manufacturer and asking for a certificate of compliance with U.S. standards. Most manufacturers are already aware of the regulations and will issue a certificate of conformity when requested. You will need to have the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on hand when speaking to the manufacturer since vehicles and their attributes are tracked with this number.
When U.S. Customs verifies that your vehicle conforms with EPA and DOT requirements, an informal entry (Customs Form 368) must be completed and submitted to your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for registration. The process of acquiring plates and permits may be different from state to state, but in general, you will need to:
- Apply for a permanent vehicle registration
- Provide proof of insurance for your vehicle
- Pay any applicable taxes and fees associated with registering a new vehicle (these vary by state)
- Obtain license plates, which may be purchased from your local DMV location
- Obtain any necessary permits, such as a license plate sticker or emissions test certificate
How Breeze Customs can help you import your vehicle
At Breeze Customs, we’ve helped hundreds of importers bring their vehicles into the United States without any hassle. From checking your vehicle’s admissibility to preparing and filing your documentation, we’ll take the work off your shoulders. Book a meeting with your very own Breeze Customs Concierge to get started today on importing your vehicle(s) today.