Import

Importing a Motor Vehicle into the United States

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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:

Please note that additional state rules may apply including air emission rules, titles and registration.  (see below under More Resources)

U.S. EPA

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 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

For more information on exclusions, see EPA’s detailed importing requirements.

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. Customs Service

Vehicles imported to the U.S. must pass through a port of entry and be cleared by U.S. Customs.  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:

  • Autos - 2.5%
  • Trucks - 25%
  • Motorcycles - 3% or 3.4%

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 $400 Customs 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; and
  • Was acquired during the journey from which you are returning.

For Customs 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 10% is applied toward the next $ 1,000 of the vehicle's value. The remaining amount is dutiable at the regular duty rate.

Nonresidents may import a vehicle duty-free for personal use if the vehicle is imported in conjunction with the owner's arrival. Nonconforming vehicles must be exported within one year and may not be sold in the U.S. There is no exemption or extension of the export requirement. 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 Customs office before the sale is completed.

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 customs 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.

Other Requirements/Considerations

Clean 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.

Vehicle Contents. 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.  Also, many shippers and carriers will not accept your vehicle if it contains personal belongings.  The entire contents of your car must be declared to Customs on entry. Failure to do so can result in a fine or seizure of the car and its contents.

Prohibited Imports. Imports from Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, or North Korea, or that involve the governments of those countries, are generally prohibited pursuant to regulations issued by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

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.

More Resources

EPA/Air Emissions:

DOT/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

U.S Customs:

Importing a Motor Vehicle. This U.S. Customs web page provides essential information for U.S. residents, military or civilian government employees, and foreign nationals who are importing a vehicle into the U.S. It includes U.S. Customs requirements and those of other agencies whose regulations we enforce.

State and Other Requirements:

  • Non-Emission Requirements.  This useful list of non-emission requirements was complied by EPA.
  • Smog Check.  Visit Smog Check if you intend to import a vehicle into California.


Visit our other Border Center sites: Canadian Border | Port Compliance | Mexican Border | China Exports