How to Import a Car to the United States – A Primer

Picture of Schuyler "Rocky" Reidel

Schuyler "Rocky" Reidel

Schuyler is the founder and managing attorney for Reidel Law Firm. | How to Import a Car to the United States - A Primer

Driving up to the Canada/US border, Steve took time to enjoy the stares.

The dealer had mentioned it was an attention-getter.  And he was right!

Public roads would be a great testing ground for the brand new Canadian vehicle.

Here is the ideal situation when importing a personal car.  But to copy this success, you need to follow certain guidelines.

Have no fear, we’ll provide the roadmap shortly.

What Is Required To Import a Car to the United States

First, we’ll cover some common questions our clients originally came to us with.  It’s the logical first stop.

After that, we’ll advance to the finer details.  Here we go.

Can I Legally Import a Vehicle From Canada?

The short answer is yes.  But we should elaborate.

To begin, the vehicle owner must be confident that there aren’t any problems with the paperwork involved in a sale. 

If your vehicle meets all federal requirements, which we’ll address in a bit, move on to car customs. 

When there’s a lack of existing criteria, your other option is to outsource.  Certain large cities will have a Department of Transportation (DOT) registered importer.  

In this case, trust them to handle border protection procedures on your behalf. 

Can I Buy a Car in Canada and Ship It to the US?


The purchase of Canadian cars is popular.  With less red tape, an owner can ship to the USA.

Download and fill out the following forms ahead of time:

  • DOT Form HS-7
  • EPA Form 3752-1

And double check that you comply with any emission standards in the United States.  These are set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Can I Bring a Car From Mexico to the US?

Once again, the answer is yes.  

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must see proof of the sale in your name.  As the owner, carry a receipt of sale for evidence.

But don’t worry.  Should this detail slip your mind, a CBP officer can use the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to verify.

Now you’re free to register the car from Mexico!

How To Find a Car That Meets US Import Requirements

For a new or used car, it must adhere to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).  The core piece of applicable legislation for these relevant standards is the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966.

But there are others.

In order for the vehicle to meet the FMVSS, it must do so in 3 areas:

  1. Safety
  2. Emissions
  3. Bumper

Take time to vet each prospective vehicle.  Here’s the reason why.

Imported cars which don’t pass the test have limited options: 

  • Compliance
  • Exporting
  • Destruction

All require time and money.  You can decrease this risk however.

We’ll start with one simple visual check.  Open the driver’s door of the particular vehicle and look for a DOT sticker.

Next, pop the hood and direct your eyes near the engine.  Do you see an EPA sticker?

Congratulations!  These easy steps are your first towards full compliance.  

Documents You Will Need To Have in Order To Import a Car Into the US

Instead of spending time on research for the proper paperwork, you can review our list below.  

But first, if you don’t already have one, get a normal CBP entry bond.  It covers any of your vehicle’s dutiable charges and state taxes in the event that you can’t.

Import frequency will determine what type to file:

  • Continuous
  • Single-entry

Since that’s out of the way, we’ll move on.

Forms your need:

  • Bill of sale on the car
  • Original bill of lading from shipper or carrier
  • Any foreign registration
  • EPA Form 3520-1
  • DOT Form HS-7

Mentioned earlier, the emission clearance will be labeled by the manufacturer near the engine.  

The Process of Importing a Car, From Finding a Shipping Company to Getting the Vehicle Cleared by Customs

A semi-disclaimer for you before using the following steps.  EPA and DOT rules can change.

There’s good news though.  We keep up with current methods so you don’t have to.

Process to follow: 

  1. Decide if your import is eligible
  2. Determine safety and emission standards
  3. Find out the associated costs
  4. Map out your port of entry and shipping method
  5. Put together your documents for imported cars
  6. Prepare for the actual inspection
  7. Order license plates

A quick note on step 3.  The duty and tax that you pay will vary, so give us a call at (832) 510-3292 and we’ll help with a more accurate picture.

But generally, expect the following duty rates on a new or used foreign vehicle:

  • Trucks (25%)
  • Cars (2.5%)
  • Motorcycles (2.4% or free)

Certain individuals do qualify for duty-free vehicles.  That includes some US citizens, military, nonresidents, and government employees.

We’re available to supply the specifics if you believe that you qualify for this exclusion.

And just like that, you have the general overview to get the process started.  But keep reading for a few extra hints.

Tips for Importing Cars Into the US

Now is a good time to provide inside information from the personal use market.  Just promise you won’t tell them we shared it.

A non-conforming vehicle can still be imported in a couple of circumstances:

  1. Temporary entry of the car
  2. Dealerships using it for display purposes

We love exceptions.  Surely you do too if either applies to your situation.

Another tip applies to Canadian vehicles.  The USA and Canada have similar regulations around emissions and safety.

So, if your car is comparable to one sold by an American manufacturer, take heart.  You can receive another exclusion.

Use the Substantially Similar Clause and import your purchase!

We already covered the general steps from start to finish above.  You can organize the customs process by working with an international trade law expert like us.

A smooth hand off of your imported personal use vehicle is possible. 

Before we sign off, there’s one more piece of information to cover.

Reidel Law Firm Assisting Car Imports

You probably don’t have time to decipher the “legalese” around subjects like:

  • DOT bond
  • Canadian vehicle restrictions
  • Independent commercial importer rules

Naturally, this is an assumption.  But it’s based on discussions with our customers. 

We can help you handle the legal aspects of any import issues.  It is our specialty after all.

Plus, it removes the need for any sort of course on these topics.

Our international trade law division also supports:

  • Export Compliance
  • Litigation before the Court of International Trade (Section 337, anti-dumping/countervailing, and other trade related cases)
  • Trade Compliance Audits and Training

Reach out to see how we can help your imported truck or other vehicles hit the road sooner!