UPDATED: How To Import An Old Car Yourself

This post has been updated to reflect additional information required to register and title the car in the U.S. ...see “UPDATE” section below.

I recently imported, under the so-called 25-year rule, a Japanese-market 1993 Mercedes-Benz 300TE. The car was in Canada, having been previously imported under Canada’s analogous 15-year rule. I handled the importation myself, doing all the paperwork and driving it, rather than shipping it, across the border. The purpose of this post is to tell you how to do the same, and to encourage you to do so, because I want to live in a world with as many interesting cars on the road as possible. Below, I address each step of legally importing and registering a car under the 25-year rule, especially from Canada (or Mexico/Central America, presumably), where you can drive it across the border yourself.

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What is the 25-year rule?

The “25-year rule” for import purposes is really a combination of two regulations, or exceptions to regulations, one concerning EPA’s emissions requirements and one concerning NHTSA’s safety requirements. Vehicles on American roads must be certified to meet certain emissions standards. Although many states impose additional requirements (such as by adopting California’s standards), for importation purposes we’re just concerned with the overarching federal requirements. But EPA standards don’t apply to vehicles 21 years old or older at the time of importation. Meanwhile, NHTSA has 14 different categories under which a vehicle can be eligible for importation. The key is the one that says vehicles manufactured more than 25 years ago need not meet federal safety requirements. Thus, any vehicle 25 years old or older can be imported easily under these two exceptions.

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What paperwork do you need for CBP?

I found the car I eventually bought on auction site Bring A Trailer. I actually wasn’t the winning bidder, but the “winner”—a loser, in my book—backed out, and BaT put me—the second-highest bidder—in touch with the seller and we worked out a deal. I flew to Canada to pick up the car with the purchase price in cash in my pocket. One note if you do this: remember that you have to cross two borders on the trip, and deal with two border agencies and two sets of rules. One of those rules says that you have to declare any amount of cash over $10,000 Canadian when you enter Canada.

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I arrived at the U.S. border with no license plates on the car, but a trip permit (a temporary 3-day registration issued by my state, Washington, to transport an otherwise unregistered vehicle) taped to the rear window. The border agent asked me to provide my registration, so I told him about the trip permit and announced that I was importing the car for personal use. He slapped an orange tag on my windshield and directed me to the secondary screening area. Once there, I was directed inside to do the paperwork with a CBP agent. Here are the documents I needed to import the car:

1. my passport (duh) and driver’s license (for my address),

2. bill of sale,

3. EPA form 3520-1, with Code E marked (vehicle over 21 years old), and

4. NHTSA form HS-7, with box 1 checked and date of manufacture filled out (vehicle over 25 years old).

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One note on the HS-7: not all of the world uses VIN plates with the date of manufacture on them, so decode your VIN or contact the manufacturer to get that date before you show up at the border. Model year alone isn’t sufficient. A note on the 3520-1: the engine must be original to the car. I called ahead to verify that this was the correct paperwork to bring, and the (friendly, helpful) agent I spoke to referred to these forms as “those EPA and NHTSA forms nobody cares about but you have to have.” When I told the (pleasant, efficient) agent handling my paperwork the model year of the car, he was relieved and joked “yeah, there’s basically no standards for an old P.O.S. like that.”

The CBP agent works through this paperwork, calculates the import duty owed, and fills out a Customs form 7501, which is the official report of entry/importation. You pay the duty and get the 7501 stamped, the agent signs off on the orange tag, and you’re legal. You hop back in the car, hand over your orange tag to the agent at the gate, and you’re on your way. A note on import duty: they look up the KBB value of the car, rather than using the purchase price. This calculation is likely to favor an enthusiast importing an interesting old car, because a particularly clean or modified example is likely to be worth more than whatever KBB thinks a normal one is worth.

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What paperwork do you need to register the car?

This is going to vary from state to state. In some states, you may have to pass an emissions test or safety inspection, but I doubt this will be a significant impediment in most cases because 25-year-old cars are often either exempted from these standards or subject to very lax ones. California might be an exception to this. At any rate, I live in Washington, and here’s what I needed:

1. my driver’s license,

2. bill of sale,

3. stamped Customs form 7501, and

4. prior registration/title.

5. also: signed/notarized release of interest.

The Department of Licensing agent looked at the prior British Columbia registration I provided and made a copy, but I don’t think he actually needed it because the bill of sale had all the information he needed (update: see below). I would get a copy just in case, though. Also, until the end of this year, certain counties in Washington require emissions testing, including the one I live in. However, vehicles over 25 years are not required to pass an emissions test.

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Unfortunately, Washington charges sales/use tax on the purchase price, not the KBB value of the car, so I had to pay that. On the other hand, the registration fee was based on some opaque value calculation other than the sales tax, and wasn’t so bad. And now I have license plates and can drive my imported car legally wherever I want in the U.S. and Canada.

One further note: I got insurance through Hagerty, which was much more reasonable for an older car that won’t get a ton of miles than adding it to my normal insurance.

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Update: more paperwork!

It turns out that the paperwork above was sufficient to get me license plates, but was insufficient to get me a title. See where it says the DoL agent didn’t think he needed the prior registration and made a copy just in case? Wrong answer, buddy. I got a letter from the state a month later saying that they couldn’t issue a title until I provided the original of the prior BC registration  and the Washington “release of ownership” form (because BC doesn’t offer a title you can sign over, I’m guessing) signed and notarized by the seller. The bill of sale or a similar Canadian form were not sufficient. The prior registration was easy since I tried to give it to them in the first place and still had it, but I had to call the seller and ask him to fill out the release of interest form, find a notary, and mail it to me. Thankfully, he was great about this. When I took those papers back in to the DoL, the agent was able to clear whatever roadblock the system threw up and told me I’d get a title in a few weeks. Of course, they said the same thing the first time, too, but this time I think it will actually work. Anyway, what I learned is that the prior registration is definitely required, and if you’re importing a car from a jurisdiction that doesn’t use the same type of proof of ownership as the one you’re importing it to—i.e., a paper title—you’re going to need the seller to sign your state’s release of interest or transfer paperwork, even if in theory a bill of sale should be sufficient.

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