Importing a Car Purchased in Canada to the United States
Below we describe the basic process to import a vehicle into the United States. We are focusing on U.S. residents who are buying a car or similar vehicle in Canada. There are rule differences for temporary stays, Canadians moving permanently to the U.S., returning military personnel, employees working abroad and other types of importers.
As soon as you decide to buy a Canadian vehicle you should call or review the website of each of the following agencies to confirm the required paperwork and current process:
- U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) for the port you will be using. See our pages for your specific port to get this telephone number.
- U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Your Local State Department of Transportation
We have contact information for each on our Government Contacts page.
Selecting a Vehicle to Purchase – Meeting U.S. Standards to Import a Vehicle
If the vehicle you are importing is less than 25 years old you will need to prove that it meets U.S. safety and emission requirements. Most cars sold in the U.S. are built specifically for this market and cars built for the Canadian market may not meet all of the requirements. If your car was manufactured more than 25 years ago it is exempt from these requirements.
At least 2-3 weeks before importing your vehicle you must contact the manufacturer of the vehicle and ask for a letter stating that your vehicle complies with all applicable U.S. safety and emission standards. The letter must identify your vehicle by the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Read this letter very carefully.
- If the manufacturer letter states that the vehicle complies with U.S. safety and emission standards you are good to go.
- If the manufacturer letter states that the vehicle meets U.S. standards except for minor items you may be able to have these things fixed by an authorized dealer and then present the invoice to U.S. Customs.
- If the letter lists substantial safety items, such as passive restraint systems, you may be required to use a U.S. DOT-registered importer (RI) to modify the vehicle. This only makes sense if you are importing a very expensive car as the process of bringing it into compliance is complex and costly.
- If the letter says the vehicle does not meet U.S. emission requirements you may need to import it through an independent commercial importer (ICI). Using an ICI can be costly. You should also realize that individual state emission requirements may differ from those of the federal government. You should contact your state DOT to make sure you know what is needed to register the vehicle in your state.
We have heard stories from buyers that manufacturers are sometimes unresponsive to requests to provide these types of letters. If you are purchasing the vehicle from a dealer, you may need to push them to make the request on your behalf.
Buying the Car You Want To Import
- When you pay for your vehicle you want a bill of sale with the VIN# showing you and/or a spouse as owner of vehicle. You also want the Manufacturer’s Statement/Certificate of Origin, and the vehicle title.
- You should obtain a temporary license plate / insurance card from the Canadian Province in which you are buying the vehicle – even if you extended your U.S. insurance to cover the it.
- You will also pay GST but you can get your GST refunded later by mail or sometimes at a Canadian duty free store. You should not pay PST as a non-resident of the province.
- You should absolutely check out the vehicle history using a service such as VinAudit.com before making any purchase. This report will show you the history of the car, including any accidents serious enough to block entry or require additional testing.
Taking an Imported Car through U.S. Customs
You need to have all of the documentation for the vehicle with you when you cross the U.S. border. You will be sent inside the Customs building to fill out form CBP 7501 and possibly others. You can find copies of these forms on the U.S. CBP website.
Customs officials will inspect the car and make sure it matches the paperwork you submit. The whole process will probably take a half hour or so if there are no problems.
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.
Duties and Taxes to Import a Vehicle into the United States
Most vehicles made in Canada or the U.S. are not subject to duties. For foreign-made vehicles you will likely pay the following
- Autos – 2.5%
- Trucks – 25%
- Motorcycles – No Charge or 2.4%
As a returning U.S. resident, you may apply your $400 Customs exemption and those of accompanying family members toward the value of the vehicle. After the exemption has been applied, a flat rate of 10% is applied toward the next $1,000 of the vehicle’s value. The remaining amount is dutiable at the regular duty rate. To qualify:
- You must be driving it across the border
- The vehicle must be for personal use
- You must have made the purchase on this trip.
Certain imported automobiles may be subject to a “gas-guzzler” tax if your car has a combined EPA fuel-economy rating of less than 22.5 miles per gallon. This EPA rating may be different from fuel-economy ratings indicated by the manufacturer.
What to Do When You Get Back Home
- If you have not already done so, get the vehicle insured immediately.
- Take all of your documentation including the Customs paperwork and head to the State DOT to register the vehicle. You will then pay state taxes and fees for the license plates.
- In some states you will then need to get a smog emission test on the vehicle before registration will be complete.
- A few weeks later you will get new plates, and tags for the vehicle.