December 1st, 2014
The U.S. has a rich auto culture, but there are plenty of cool vehicles that never reach North American shores. Whether you dream of a classic British Land Rover or a stylish Japanese coupe from the 1970s, the process of importing a car can be daunting and full of regulatory details that can affect the vehicle's legality. While the complete process is more complex, this is a brief overview of the most important things to keep in mind when bringing your dream car home to the U.S.:
Will this save me money?
Generally, importing a car is a relatively costly endeavor. When you transport a vehicle, you must pay for its transit. If this involves crossing the sea on a boat, that journey can add up, and the costs don't stop when the vehicle arrives. While some cars that are sold in foreign countries are considerably cheaper than vehicles in the U.S., this is often because those models lack safety features or emissions control systems that are necessary for cars marketed in the U.S. . If a car does not meet U.S. standards for safety and emissions, it must be brought in line with these regulations before it can be registered. This is an expensive process and will not be worth the effort in many cases. If you're hoping to pinch a few pennies, it's probably smartest to buy a budget car that is currently marketed in the U.S.
What if the car is old?
An older vehicle is the best option for import. While it's less likely to feature modern safety and emissions equipment, the U.S. gives cars older than 25 years exemptions from those requirements. If you've got a classic car that you want to bring here from across the pond, it won't need any special work to be street legal.
How can I be sure a vehicle is legal?
Working with a registered vehicle importer is an easy way to ensure legality. These organizations register with the federal government and advertise their willingness to modify cars for resale in the U.S. While it's possible to work with private sellers when importing a car, doing so increases the chances of getting something that isn't compliant with regulations.
Do I need a special license?
Cars imported from the United Kingdom and Japan often have the steering wheel mounted on the right side of the car instead of the left. This makes driving on the left side of the road more difficult, and forces the driver to be more cautious, as it introduces dangerous blind spots. In spite of the increased attention and skill necessary for driving a right-hand-drive vehicle in the U.S., no additional training is needed to operate an imported vehicle. Registering an import is exactly like registering a standard car in the U.S. and requires a valid driver's license.
Any insurance considerations?
Insuring an imported vehicle may be more expensive than insuring a domestic for a number of reasons. Notably, repair costs are generally much higher for imported vehicles because parts are difficult to find. This, in combination with the fact that many of the cars people choose to import are sports models or relatively rare, can boost auto insurance premiums.
What about taxes?
The amount of tax you pay when a new vehicle enters the country depends on the vehicle type. For most cars, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol demands a 2.5 percent tax on the price paid for the vehicle. That number skyrockets to 25 percent if you're importing a truck and decreases to 2.4 percent or nothing if you're bringing a motorcycle to America.