Importing A Classic Car Into The USA (Step-By-Step Guide)

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You found the car of your dreams, a foreign-made classic, but it is overseas. Read on for a step-by-step guide to importing a classic car into the USA.

The last thing you want to do is muck up the import of your car and have it impounded or tied up in litigation for years. Are there specific conditions or forms you must use when importing a classic car into the United States? What about driving a car in the US? Are there changes or modifications you must make for the DOT to certify the car? And what if it is just a display or show car? Are there limitations to what kind of cars can be imported? How much will import a classic car cost? There are just so many questions and not nearly enough answers.

According to federal regulations, any vehicle under 25 years old must comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Any vehicle older than 1997 (25 years) is not bound by the FMVSS and can be imported by simply having the proper documentation and paying the duty fees.

Importing a car from overseas doesn’t have to be a complicated nightmare. In fact, for most classic car owners, the car simply has to be declared through customs. Once cleared, the car is shipped to your port of entry, where you can pick it up or have it shipped directly to you. But there are sometimes regulations from the exporting country that need to be met. If the car is under 25 years, then you are in for a lot more paperwork if you intend to use it as a daily driver.

So if you are unsure of what is involved, we have some answers for you.

Table of Contents


What Are The US Regulations for Various Cars?

The regulations you will face from Uncle Sam for importing an automobile or truck will depend on the year it was made and whether it is required to pass federal regulations.

Classic Cars (Over 25 years) do not have to comply with the federal regulations regarding buying and importing vehicles. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards Act of 1966 sought to regulate specific design and safety standards for vehicles, limiting the number of unsafe vehicles being driven on American roads. They cover all aspects of a car, from design specs to materials that can or cannot be used to safety standards like bumpers, mirrors, or even seatbelts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is charged with the authority to enforcement of these regulations. In addition, new cars (21 years or less) are subject to specific EPA regulations (emissions and the like) before entering the USA, but classic cars are exempt.

The excellent news for cars older than the 25-year import law is that these classic car imports do not have to undergo stringent testing to be approved for import. The owner simply has to mark the appropriate box on an HS-7 declaration form, and that form is handed or sent to Customs at the time of importation. That form can be downloaded from the NHTSA website at

The folks at the Customs department will assess the age of the vehicle based on the date the vehicle was manufactured. (The date should be affixed to the doorjamb of the car). If not, you will need to prove the car's age by an invoice of the first sale or a registration document showing that the vehicle was registered at least 25 years before. A statement from a historical society can also be used.

Here are some of the steps to successfully importing a Classic Car.

Do Your Homework Before You Buy!

Don’t forget that duty rates and fees must be satisfied at the time of importation from any country other than Canada. (Our neighbors from the north allow free importation, although you still need a Canadian bill of sale, registration, and tag). For all other countries, the rate is 2.5% for automobiles and classic cars based on the car's worth at the time of import.

You should ensure that you are aware of any needed documents by the country of origin. Some countries require that the car be registered in the place of origin before shipping. Most require a bill of sale or documentation of the manufacturer's date, similar to what the US will require.

Determine Your Costs for Shipping, Duties, and Fees

You will want to know what it will cost to ship the vehicle. Several companies ship classic cars from overseas, some of them expensive. You will want to find a reputable company that is well-rated. Check for a list of companies and their ratings.

Inspect the Vehicle (if possible)

It is always a good idea to inspect the vehicle personally if possible. There is a lot of bogus information on the Internet, and because you are dealing with a foreign entity, it is always best to lay your hands on the car before it is purchased. While that might not be the option in every case, an excellent reputable mechanic should always inspect the car, so you don’t have any problems once it arrives on your doorstep.

File the Necessary Paperwork

This step goes without saying. To be legal, you must ensure everyone who needs their forms gets them.

Pick Up Your Vehicle from the Port of Entry and Pay Your Dues or Fees

Every vehicle gets sent to a particular port of entry, where it can be inspected and then released to the rightful owner or shipping company. You don’t need to be present if you have hired a company to handle the red tape. If you are doing it on your own, you will need to be heading to the port as soon as the authorities notify you that the car has arrived so that you can show the proper docs and receive the keys to your car.

Consider how to get the car to your driveway or garage. Most of the time, it is better to transport the car than drive it. (for one thing, transporting it keeps the miles off of it and prevents you from having a breakdown in the middle of the desert when something happens to a component of the car).

New Vehicles

Importing a newer vehicle is much more complicated. For starters, you should ensure that your documents are in order. You will need;

It should be noted that there are sometimes regulations set by the country of origin that must be followed or paperwork filed before a new car can be imported. For a brief overview of some of that paperwork or how to determine if your vehicle meets FMVSS and EPA standards, check out the NHTSA website at

It is a good idea to ensure that the vehicle you want to import meets all DOT and EPA guidelines. Do not take an importer's word for it, do the homework yourself. In the words of CBP, any imported vehicle that does not comply with standards will be “brought into compliance, exported or destroyed,” and you will be out a significant amount of cash.

Display and Show Vehicles

Specific high-performance or racing vehicles are not intended to be daily drivers, but collector's items can be imported without conforming to federal mandates. These vehicles are usually deemed to be of historical or technological significance and have to be very rare. They cannot be driven more than 2,500 miles per year and must meet other requirements. For more information about importing a show and display car, see the NHTSA info page at

Are there Any Other Regulations Involved?

Every car (classic or new) that is imported into the US must also meet the rules of the country of origin. Be sure to check with the authorities in the country you are bringing the car to ensure that all the proper paperwork has been filed. If not, you could be trying to straighten out the mess long distance, which rarely works out.

For example, in Canada, a car must be registered with a license tag and proof of insurance from whatever territory or province the car is being imported from. A certified bill of sale, certificate of ownership, and VIN must also be provided for verification.

In Australia, you must have a completed HS-7 and form 3520-1 from the EPA regardless of the car's age.

In Japan (which is very expensive to import from), you need an English version of the Export Certificate, Bill of lading from the shipping company, and other documents. The cost to ship and pay tariffs from Japan makes it rare for a collector to import from here.

It is always best to check with the laws and regulations of the country or province of the place you are importing the vehicle from to ensure that no policies or hoops need to be met. A certified retail importer can help with any issues that might come up.


Matt Lane

Matt Lane

My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.

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