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How to import a vintage car from Canada to the United States

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Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik

There are plenty of reasons to shop for a car in Canada, even if you don’t live there, and importing a car back to the United States is easier than you think. That’s why we’re here to help with some basic tips on importing a car, so the next time you see a Canadian car in the Hemmings Classifieds or Hemmings Auctions, don’t worry – you can still bring it home with minimal hassle.

Keep it simple, keep it vintage

The focus here is on cars older than 25 years, because that makes them exempt from DOT and EPA regulations and thus much easier to import. If you want to bring in a car newer than 25 years old, there are some Canadian-market autos that are recognized as conforming to federal regulations. Navigating that list of approvals is more than we want to dive into for this story.

Even though it’s straightforward, you’ll want to get familiar with the import process. The NHTSA page on Importing a Car is a good place to start, (and has information regarding cars newer than 25 years old). You’ll also want to read similar guides from the EPA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

If you want a classic Canadian-market model like the Pontiac Acadian, it’s best to search at the source.

The easy way: Hire it done

If you don’t live near a border, can’t pick up the car yourself, of just don’t want to deal with the process, there are companies who specialize in cross-border transportation. We called Ray Ewing’s Old Car Station a transportation broker, who referred us to a company he uses: Turbo Auto Transport. Ken, the General Manager, handles customs compliance and explained the basic steps.

Once you’ve purchased the car and arrange for the company to transport the car for you, they’ll send a packet of documents for you to fill out and return. In addition to that, you’ll need to send them a copy of the bill of sale, the Canadian title signed over to the new owner, a photo of the VIN or build date, and a copy of a passport or driver’s license. With all checklist boxes completed, the transport company will have its customs broker file the paperwork electronically and then arrange transport. After clearing customs, a good transport company will also help you get electronic copies of your approved paperwork for your records. Ken says his company charges about $470 for this service, in addition to transportation costs and any import duty that needs to be paid on the car.

Doing it yourself: The basic paperwork

Whether you use a third party or drive the car home yourself, you’ll need the same documentation. First off, the purchase needs to be completed before you present the car to border agents. That means a bill of sale and a transferred title. If you’re paying someone else to transport the car for you, this proof of purchase is still required.

Then you’ll need to fill out three forms to get your car across the border. The first is DOT Form HS-7, the second is EPA Form 3520-1, and the third is CBP Form 7501. The DOT form is easy if your car is 25 years old, but you need to provide the date of manufacture. (Build date, not model year, determines the age if you’re looking at a car exactly 25 years old.) If a car has a build date stamped on it, this should be easy. A 17-digit VIN that indicates model year also helps. If the car lacks a newer VIN, such as older Japanese-market cars with only body number stampings, you want as much proof as possible – in that case it’s a good idea to get a letter from a manufacturer’s representative confirming the car’s build date.

The EPA form allows an exemption for vehicles at least 21 years old (based on the calendar year of manufacture). One hitch here is “Vehicles at least 21 years old with replacement engines are not eligible for this exemption unless they contain equivalent or newer EPA certified engines.” So if an old car has an engine swap, be prepared to prove the engine’s age or EPA conformity as well.

These are the main parts of paperwork you’ll need to fill out to bring a vehicle across the border, whether you do it or pay someone to transport the car for you.

Collecting stamps

Customs and Border Protection will stamp the Customs form for your car, approving entry. They may or may not stamp the other two forms, which can cause a hassle down the line if they don’t. Many states require a stamp on the DOT and EPA forms to register the car. If you’re importing the car yourself, you can ask the agent to stamp those forms when you cross the border. When using a third party, whether or not the forms get stamped is up to the whims of that particular port of entry.

If you end up needing stamped forms and don’t have them, it’s okay. You can take the approved customs form (or a copy that your transport company will provide to you) and the DOT and EPA forms to any CBP office, explain what you need, and request the extra stamps.

Bringing it over the border

Don’t forget you’ll need a passport or enhanced driver’s license to enter Canada and return to the United States. Also bring cash or credit card to pay import duty if the car is foreign-made. If a car is for personal use, the first $800 is exempt, followed by 3 percent of the next $1,000, and the 2.5 percent afterwards. A $10,000 car, for example, works out to $235 ($0 on the first $800, $30 on the next $1,000, $205 on the remaining $8,200). Third-party vendors pay some extra fees to pay duty for you, so the final number is closer to 3 percent of the total purchase price.

It’s a good idea to double-check with your port of entry before bringing a car across the border to confirm the paperwork you’ll need and gather any additional instructions ahead of time. You can find a CBP Port of Entry on this web page, and each office has a dedicated phone number for Vehicle Import and Export matters. The DOT also has a vehicle hotline 202-366-5291, and so does the EPA at 734-214-4100.

Canada allows imports from 15 years old, which means if you’re shopping for a Japanese-market car like this Nissan Skyline GT-R you can find a car with some ownership history.

Don’t forget the laws of your home state

Once you have a car across the border you’re not quite home free, at least not if you plan on driving on public roads. Make sure you look up what’s required to register for a title and license plate in your specific state. As we mentioned, some states require DOT and EPA forms to be stamped by a CBP office. You also might need to prove emissions compliance or add equipment required for a road safety inspection. It’s likely not a problem for older cars, more modern vehicles can be difficult to near impossible to register in states with more restrictive laws. Figure this out ahead of time before you get stuck with a car you can’t register and might be harder to sell.

Enjoy your new car

Chances are, if you bought a car from Canada it’s something you can’t get a home, whether rare, a Canadian-market special, or a foreign market car previously imported under Canada’s 15-year rule. In any case, you probably have something people don’t see every day. Get out and drive, go show it off, and enjoy the feeling of successfully importing a car.