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Procedures for Importing an Automobile or Other Vehicle

It is important to know that any imported vehicle, new or used, must comply with U.S. safety, fuel savings, and air pollution control standards.  If an imported vehicle does not conform to these standards, it must be brought into conformity; otherwise it must be destroyed or exported.  Both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise that although a nonconforming car may be conditionally admitted, modifications may be impractical, impossible, or require such extensive engineering that the labor and material cost may be prohibitive.  Foreign automakers can also certify whether or not an automobile conforms to U.S. standards. Additional information on importing an automobile can be found on the U.S. Customs Web site at www.customs.gov under Publications, Videos and Forms in the Importing and Exporting section, and on the DOT website and on the EPA website.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also requires that the undercarriage of imported cars be free from foreign soil before they can be entered into the United States. This may be done by steam spray or by thorough cleaning before shipment.

Safety, Bumper and Theft Prevention Standards
Importers of motor vehicles must file form HS-7 Declaration (available at ports of entry)  at the time a vehicle is imported to declare whether the vehicle complies with Department of Transportation requirements.  As a general rule, all imported motor vehicles less than 25 years old and items of motor vehicle equipment must comply with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in order to be imported permanently into the United States.  Vehicles manufactured after September 1, 1978, must also meet the bumper standard, and vehicles beginning with model-year 1987 must meet the theft-prevention standard.  

Vehicles manufactured to meet these standards will have a certification label affixed by the original manufacturer near the driver’s-side door.  If you purchase a vehicle abroad that is certified to U.S. standards, you can expedite your importation by making sure the sales contract identifies this fact and by presenting the contract to U.S. Customs at the time of importation.

A vehicle must be imported as a nonconforming vehicle unless it bears the manufacturer’s label certifying that it meets U.S. standards.  If it is a nonconforming vehicle, the importer must contract with a DOT-registered importer (RI) to modify the vehicle and certify that it conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.  The importer must also post a DOT bond for one-and-a-half times the vehicle’s dutiable value.  This bond is in addition to the normal Customs entry bond.  Copies of the DOT bond and the contract with the RI must be attached to the HS-7 form.  Before an RI can modify your vehicle, it must first be determined whether the vehicle is capable of being modified to comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.   The process of modifying your vehicle may become very complex and costly.  A list of vehicles that have already been determined capable of being modified by an RI may be obtained from the RI or from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Web site at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/import.  Additional information may be obtained by writing to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NSA-32), Office of planning and Consumer Programs, 400 7th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20590; or call: DOT Auto Safety Hotline at 1.888.327.4236: or by faxing your request to 202. 366.1024.

If you do not have a copy of U.S. Customs’ brochure Importing or Exporting a Car, the EPA standards are briefly described below. Customs will require a formal entry, regardless of value for all importations of nonconforming vehicles unless the nonresident exemption is claimed.

Trailers, motorcycles, and mopeds are also subject to DOT standards.

Federal Tax
Certain imported automobiles may be subject to the gas-guzzler tax imposed by Section 4064 of the Internal Revenue Code. The tax is imposed on an automobile that has a fuel economy standard of less than 22.5 miles per gallon. Additional information may be obtained from any local district office of the Internal Revenue Service.

Emission Standards
Unless otherwise noted, importers of passenger cars, light trucks, motorcycles and heavy duty engines must complete and submit an EPA entry form (EPA Form 3520-1) to Customs upon entry. These forms may be obtained from Customs at the port of entry.

The following passenger cars, light trucks, motorcycles and heavy duty engines are subject to Federal emission requirements:

•    Gasoline fueled cars and light trucks originally manufactured after December 31, 1967.

•    Diesel fueled cars originally manufactured after December 31, 1974.

•    Diesel fueled light trucks originally manufactured after December 31, 1975.

•    Motorcycles greater than 49 cubic centimeters displacement originally manufactured after December 31, 1977.

•    Gasoline or diesel fueled heavy duty engines originally manufactured after January 1, 1970.

•    Methanol fueled vehicles or engines manufactured for 1990 or later model years.

•    Compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquid petroleum gas (LPG) vehicles or engines (including propane) manufactured for 1997 or later model years.

Note that any nonconforming motor vehicle or engine, which is 21 years old or greater and has not been modified within that time, is considered by EPA to be exempted from Federal emission requirements.

Beginning with the 1996 model year, Federal emission requirements also apply to some non road motorized equipment, such as lawn and garden equipment, and farm and construction equipment.

For those vehicles that are subject to U.S. emission standards, the following must be complied with upon entry into the United States:

Passenger Cars or Trucks Originally Manufactured to Meet U.S. Emission Standards
All 1971 and later model cars or trucks in this category can be identified by a label in a readily visible position in the engine compartment. This label will indicate that the vehicle was originally manufactured to comply with U.S. emission standards. For pre 1971 models, you should verify the original compliance of the vehicle with the vehicle manufacturer.
Vehicles originally equipped with a catalyst or oxygen sensor are no longer subject to EPA's requirement that the vehicle be bonded on entry. Vehicles that have had the catalyst and oxygen sensor removed, or had these components damaged through use of leaded fuel, are still required to have these components replaced after importation.

Passenger Cars or Trucks Not Originally Manufactured to Meet U.S. Emission Standards
These vehicles must be imported through an independent commercial importer (ICI). The EPA entry form (EPA Form 3520-1) must be submitted by the ICI, not the vehicle owner. A list of these ICIs may be obtained at the port of entry or from the EPA. There are no ICIs located overseas and the EPA does not accept conversions performed overseas. The ICI will be responsible for modifying and testing the vehicle in order to demonstrate that it complies with all U.S. emission requirements. Such conversions typically cost several thousand dollars and take several months to complete. The EPA assumes no responsibility for the quality of the work performed by an ICI or its contractual arrangements, including costs. Since ICIs do not necessarily accept all models, and some models may be difficult to convert, the EPA suggests that the importer complete arrangements with an ICI prior to shipping the vehicle to the United States.

Inquiries regarding emission requirements should be addressed to the attention of: The Environmental Protection Agency, Imports (6405 J), 1200 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20460.  You may also contact the EPA by phone at 202.564.9240, fax 202.564.2057, or access the Imports Faxback System to obtain documents including a current list of ICIs at 202.564.9660.

Shipping Arrangements
For your own safety, security and convenience, DO NOT use your car as a container for personal belongings.  The practice of shipping personal belongings packed in an automobile is discouraged for the following reasons:

•    The goods in the car must be available for Customs inspection, which means you cannot lock your vehicle.  If you do, Customs may break the lock to inspect the goods.

•    Your personal belongings are susceptible to theft while waiting to be loaded on the carrier, while being transported to the U.S., or after being unloaded in the United States.

•    Many shippers and carriers will not accept your vehicle if it contains personal belongings. The carrier is required to list the automobile and its contents on the ship's manifest. If the contents are not listed, the carrier is subject to fines or penalties.

•    The vehicle and its contents may be subject to seizure and you may be subject to fines or penalties if you or your agent do not declare the complete contents of the vehicle at the time the automobile is examined by U.S. Customs.

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