Importing a Used Car to the US

The Mitsubishi FTO was one of my dream cars as a teenager.  When the realistic driving simulator, Gran Turismo first came out I discovered this amazing car:

Mitsubishi FTO

Don’t recognize it?  I’m not surprised.  Like many other cool cars including the Citroen C4, Land Rover Defender, and pretty much every Alfa Romeo, it’s not available in the USA.

No problem right, we’ll just import it?  Not so fast.  It’s going to be very expensive, if not impossible to import a car not made in the US.  Still want to try?  Here’s what you need to know:

The biggest obstacle you will face importing a car, is that it has to meet USA safety and emissions standards.  Surprised that the USA has tougher emission standards then Europe?   This is why many cars are never brought over to the USA.  The manufacturer has to figure out whether it’s worth it to do the modifications to make it sellable in the USA (and specifically California, which has tougher emissions then the rest of the USA).

When you try to ship a car over the border, two things will happen.  Customs will demand a duty of 2.5% of the price paid on cars and 25% of the price paid on trucks.  Also, they will need to see certification that the vehicle meets US emissions standards.

The emissions standards are a little easier to meet in many cases then the safety standards (more on that in a minute).  First, if the car is 21 years old or more (so made in 1992), you are exempt and can import it without emissions approval. If it’s less, you’ll need to modify it to meet US standards, which typically includes the catalyst, oxygen sensors and replacing the fuel system with unleaded gasoline. Sometimes these modifications alone will change the car enough that you won’t want to import it anyway.

Next you’ll need the car to meet US DOT safety standards. If you didn’t think the emissions modifications were expensive and ruined the car, this might convince you. If the car is older then 25 years, you are pretty much good to go. If not, the car will need to be modified and certified to meet our safety standards. Often this includes things as dramatic as bumper height, etc…

Expect to pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to import a car. This is why you don’t see many newer imports in the USA. It’s difficult and in many cases impossible to import. Before you even begin the process, read the current CBP rules. These rules change often, and given the expense you’ll probably want to work with someone who has the experience doing so.