Buying a car in Canada and bringing it back to the USA is thought of as a complicated, time-consuming process that often is seen as ‘not worth it’. My friend, JJ, recently completed this process and I tagged along with him to write about the experience and hopefully provide some light on the importation process.
—TL:DR— This article has a pretty extensive explanation of what you’ll need to buy a vehicle in Canada and bring it back to the USA along with our story of what happened when we actually did just that.
JJ is a friend and co-worker of mine, and is arguably more passionate of an auto-enthusiast than I am. When we are together, we talk about all aspects that is automotive with a fervor that makes us rather insufferable many of our co-workers. Recently, he sold his snowmobile and it had been over 12-months since his last vehicle purchase, a manual-trans 2015 Mazda 3 hatch. This was way too long in-between purchases so he had to remedy that ASAP.
Due to some life-changes, he wanted to pick up a cheap, solid-running vehicle that could handle Buffalo, NY winters. By doing that, it would allow him to either trade-in his Mazda-3 and his wife’s aging Prius on something a bit bigger or just sell the Prius outright if she wanted to drive the 3.
While we are daily Craigslist scavengers, he wasn’t able to find anything that he was really interested in with his ~$4000 budget. My suggestions included cars like this: Buick Roadmaster, AMC Gremlin, Mazda RX-8, Datsun Maxima Wagon, a Saab 9-3 with blown engine, etc.... Fortunately JJ has a bit more sense than me and completely ignored any of my suggestions.
One day at work, while expressing his frustration about not being able to find a car on Craigslist, another of our co-workers mentioned that he should look on Kijiji. For those of you who don’t know what Kijiji is, it’s basically Canada’s version of Craigslist. That means it’s just like Craigslist but with better manners, and far better grammar in the ads.
After a bit of discussion, we determined that buying a car in Canada and bringing it back to the USA can’t be that hard. We live minutes from the border and we are both knowledgeable and experienced border-crossers. Also, with the advantageous exchange rate, his $4000 budget becomes an $18000 budget! (Not really, but the current exchange rate is about $1.34CAN for every $1.00US).
After around a week of scouring Kijiji, he found a 1999 Nissan Frontier V6, 4x4, extended-cab pickup with 166k miles that looked promising. He called the seller up and it turns out he runs a VW/Euro repair shop about 40-minutes away in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. This pickup is his work-truck and he is selling it because he wants to replace it with a crew-cab pickup. We figured that given how much of a PITA working on euro-cars is, that this truck has probably been maintained pretty well as it has to be so much easier to work on and maintain. He decided to take a ride up there to check it out. It had the scratches and dings of a work-truck, but it was solid, with a rust-free body, drove nice and straight, and everything worked! He put down a deposit and started to make arrangements to bring it back home.
Now here are the things that we discovered are needed/required when buying a car in Canada and importing it back to the USA. Note that this if you are doing everything yourself and in-person. Having a shipper, or 3rd party importation is quite different and I’m not covering that process here.
Proof of Citizenship- This one should be a no-brainer. Any time you cross the border, you should have a Passport, Enhanced Driver’s License, Legal Permanent Resident Card, Etc… You need this more to get into Canada and return to the USA than to actually buy the car, but I figure it should be mentioned. A full list of approved documents can be found HERE. If you are a Legal Permanent Resident of the US or have some kind of other Non-US Citizen status, you should probably inquire as to what you might need document-wise to enter Canada. I found this bit of info in regards to that HERE.
A Form of Payment- Once again, this is an obvious one. But considering you are buying a vehicle in a foreign country, you have a few things to consider. JJ negotiated with the seller that he will pay him the agreed amount in Canadian currency. He went to a local shopping mall that had a currency exchange and traded in his green, unassuming American cash and got a stack of wildly-colored, thin pieces of what feels like plastic which apparently passes for money in Canada. I really don’t know and wasn’t able to learn much about wire-transfers of bank, cashier’s checks from country-to-country. Also, if you don’t have a way to exchange currency nearby where you live, pretty much every land-border crossing and even most airports will have currency-exchanges available.
SPECIAL NOTE: If you are travelling with over $10000USD cash or its equivalent, you have to file a FinCen-105. The form is free and is simply a reporting-form for larger amounts of currency coming both INTO AND OUT OF the USA. Not reporting the currency can result in the seizure of it. So, if you are leaving the USA with over 10k to buy a car, you have to stop at the border and give them the form and then you are on your way. You won’t have to file one on your way back because you no longer have the money. More info can be found HERE.
Proof of Insurance- JJ didn’t want to rent a trailer and neither of us had a truck to tow it with anyways, so driving the new truck back was our most realistic option. JJ made a call to Ontario’s version of the DMV and asked what he would need to get a temporary permit to be able to drive the truck back. In typical Canadian fashion, the lady was quite nice and helpful. She informed him that all he needed was the signed-over ownership document from the seller, proof of insurance for the truck, a bill of sale, and $24.00 for the permit. A call to his insurance company with the VIN and he got his proof of insurance e-mailed to him.
Proof of US Market Compatibility- A somewhat regular topic both on Oppo and Jalopnik is the DOT and EPA regulations banning cars that are 25 years old or newer from being imported into the USA. There are a number of instances when new vehicles can be legally imported, but it is quite specific. Basically, the car has to have a specific model/trim/engine combo that was made in the USA in the same year. The US Customs & Border Protection Officers (CPB) will be looking for what is called a ‘Letter of Conformity’ indicating that the vehicle meets US DOT and EPA standards.
You might ask “How does one get this ‘Letter of Conformity’?” You would get this from the manufacturer of the vehicle. This NHTSA site has a list of phone contacts for various manufacturers. I would imagine that they would need the make/model and VIN to confirm that it meets US standards. In JJ’s case, he didn’t even need this this. This particular truck was originally bought new in California and was later exported to Canada. Therefore it had all the US DOT and EPA stickers already on the vehicle. Importing a previously exported vehicle like this is probably the easiest type of importation to do.
Importation Forms- Eventually you are going to arrive back at the US Border. If you don’t want to get yelled at, strip-searched, and your new-to-you car ripped apart, you better have your paperwork in order (I kid. I kid. CBP was quite pleasant with us through the process). Besides your bill of sale, signed-over title, and letter of conformity (if needed), you will be filling out 3 more forms upon importation: The CF-7501, DOT-HS-7, and EPA-3250-1. JJ downloaded these online and we had them filled out prior to arriving at the border. In talking with the CBP Officers, we discovered that they have these three forms available there along with sample-forms where they have highlighted all the proper blocks to fill out on each form which is rather smart and helpful of them.
Now that I laid out the basics of what we were getting ourselves into, I will now describe how our little adventure actually went:
I arrived at JJ’s house around 9:45am. We hopped into his Mazda 3 and were on our way. We listened to a podcast of Everyday Driver and went into full-blown car-nerdom talking about concepts to start our own podcast together. After a quick stop at Tim Horton’s for a morning coffee, we arrived at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, NY. We crossed over the bridge and met with the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) Officer. We informed him that we were here to
take over Canada and annex it for the USA purchase a truck. Besides asking about how much currency we were travelling with, it was a quick normal inspection and we were on our way. Unfortunately the CBSA Officer did not offer us any of the finer things Canada has to offer like poutine or Molson Canadian beer.
By 10:45, we arrived at our first destination, Euromotive Auto Service in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. We met with the owner, Steve, and JJ got started the paperwork. Steve took the Canadian-Monopoly-Money happily and he completed a hand-written bill-of-sale. He also signed over the Ontario equivalent of a title, which is a small document that looks like a vehicle registration more than a title.
We then talked cars for a bit and he showed us around his shop along with a bone-stock and pristine ’86 Porsche 944-S that he just bought the day before. I was a bit jealous as it was one of the cleanest examples that I have seen in a long time.
Before we could leave with the truck, we had to go get the temporary registration from a Service-Ontario office. Fortunately the closest one was only 10-minutes away. When we arrived, there was a short line that moved along at a brisk pace. The stereotype of American DMV’s being more loathed than getting a root-canal is well earned IMO. And considering that this place is similar to a US-DMV, I was astonished as to how many smiles and pleasant people I saw. I almost fell over when I heard a worker say ‘Have a good day Eh!’
When we got called up to the counter, JJ explained to the worker that he purchased a truck and is looking to acquire a temporary registration to drive the truck back to the USA. The worker was a bit confused by the request and had to bring another woman from another counter that said ‘Auto Dealers’. The other worker knew what was going on and got our worker set up with everything we needed.
Once the worker found out we were from the USA, she and another worker had to start talking about our Presidential election and what a ‘buffoon’ and a ‘joke’ that they thought Donald Trump was.I can’t say I’m surprised, but it seems like Canada is not a fan of ‘The Donald’. I admitted that no matter who won our election, Prime Minister Trudeau would still be winning in the looks-department. They agreed with rather lustful look in their eyes. We left shortly after $24 Canadian dollars lighter and the temporary registration.
The next stop was to head back to pick up the truck. We exchanged some final pleasantries with Steve and got ready for our return trip. He also gave JJ some parts that were included with the truck. The highlight among it was a rather interesting American Flag headliner. I guess he took it out of the truck because he didn’t want to be deported to the USA.
A little after 12pm, we were back on the road heading home. I now got to drive JJ’s Mazda-3 which was quite enjoyable. It’s comfy, nimble, with nice steering, and a great shifter for an econo-car. The whole time on the expressway, the cumulative MPG, which was at 39.5 went up over 40MPG by the end of the trip. My RX-8 and STI don’t get half that! It’s light on power, but other than that, it’s something I would recommend to people looking in the high-teens, low 20k price range who want something sporty but economical.
We arrived at the USA border around 1pm. The CBP Officer in the booth had us park and go inside to fill out the import paperwork. The Officers inside were pleasant and helpful with filling out the paperwork. He informed us that we didn’t have to pay duty on the truck because it was made in the USA (Foreign cars get hit with 2.5% of the purchase price minus a $200 or $800 exemption depending on how long you were out of the USA). The Officer then went out and inspected the truck real quick, came back in, stamped off on our paperwork, gave JJ back the forms he needed, and we were on our way cavity-search free!
We made it back to JJ’s place by 1:30. All in all, the process took us about 3.5 hours. On top of the price of the truck, it cost JJ $3 for the toll, $24CAN for the registration, a few bucks for fuel, and $15 for coffee and lunch for me. He will still have to pay sales tax and associated registration/title fees when he arrives at the NY DMV to get it titled and plated in NY. I would consider that quite a bargain for the truck that he got. It’s a smooth, strong runner and JJ is very happy with his purchase.
So overall, the process went pretty smooth and easy. I felt we prepared well and that certainly helped our cause. I hope that describing this experience and the links and information I provided will allow for people to be a little more educated about the importation process and be a little more willing to expand the search for cool cars to the north of the border.
In addition to the links that I have added through the article, here are a few additional and potentially helpful links that I found both researching for our trip and writing this article:
On a final note, I would also like to give a shoutout to my friend JJ for allowing me to write about and photograph our trip. He did a lot of legwork for me in getting this article together and helped me grab a few photos that I forgot to take along the way in regards to some of the documentation. I had a great time being along for the ride and writing this. JJ also has his own automotive blog, www.doublejslist.com
The author, who goes by ‘Joe’ in real life, is an automotive enthusiast and likes to pretend that he’s a decent writer. He owns a 2016 STI and a 2004 RX-8 and hauls his wife and two kids around in both of them because he’s too stubborn to own something sensible. He has also owned a 500hp Fiero and likes Mighty Taco. You can reach him at AkursedX@gmail.com and find more of his stories HERE.