How to Import the Fantasy Foreign Car of Your Dreams

Ever dream about importing a Nissan Skyline, a right-hand-drive Supra or a never-sold-here Lotus?


 Most automotive enthusiasts are familiar with the 25-year rule. It’s the waiver that allows foreign cars older than 25 years to pass through customs in the United States without fretting about any EPA or DOT restrictions — though individual states may have their own barriers to registration. It means you can import valuable collectibles, rare special editions or even quirky favorites without excessive hassles.

The rule is becoming more and more attractive as cars from the Nineties enter the eligibility zone, bringing increased performance, efficiency and quality. For instance, you can now import mid-’90s BMW M3s, assorted Nissan Skylines, right-hand-drive Lotuses, tiny Japanese-market Kei cars and all manner of cars from brands that aren’t for sale in the U.S. In fact, the world is sort of your oyster here — assuming, of course, you’re willing to put in the homework, pay anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 for the costs of importing it, and cross your fingers that your seller isn’t a scam artist.

If you’re mulling this option, you have basically one job: Don’t screw it up. Don’t miss a form. Don’t forget to check federal and state requirements. Don’t forget to have the vehicle inspected before you seal the deal. Don’t forget to have insurance ready for its arrival. And don’t forget to have all the paperwork you need for registration and title work, lest your new prize spend its entire life being towed to race tracks instead of enjoyed on the open road.

There are plenty of places to get information on the intricate details of the process, including directly from the source through our friends in the guv’mnt. There are also guides from companies that specialize in the process. Even the importer at the port near where you live can provide services and help manage both ends of the transaction — from ensuring the car makes it to its departure port with all the necessary paperwork to helping arrange the transfer from the boat to your driveway.

Rather than bore you with the nuts and bolts of shipping overseas, we asked collector and frequent automotive importer Jamie Kitman to clue us in to the major pitfalls of the process. His first warning: “Think about it long and hard.”

Kitman says that while the process of importing a car isn’t particularly onerous, it is time-consuming, and it will add a few grand to the purchase price. So he suggests that buyers be extremely sure that they’re making the right decision — that they’ve found the right car, and that the effort will be worth it.


Start With Knowledge

The key to making your vehicle selection isn’t so much the challenge of locking onto an available target; the Internet obviously makes car-shopping a snap, and exchange rates can guide you to markets where you can find the best value. Rather, the biggest challenge is in making sure the car is in good condition — and, in fact, a real car to begin with.

“There are a lot of unscrupulous sellers out there,” says Kitman, who has imported a half-dozen cars for his collection. “That’s why you want to have a quality inspection done to ensure the vehicle is exactly as it is described, and that the seller is a real person.”

Risks to be aware of: the potential for “incorrect” model years if the seller decides, say, that he or she wants to instantly turn a 1988 Land Rover Defender into an essentially-identical 1998 Land Rover Defender; rust, if the cars comes from a humid region; or a replaced engine, which could impact your ability to title the car. Make sure you and the seller have communicated all these details, using a native-speaking translator if necessary to ensure no nuances in the language impact your understanding of the details.


Protect Yourself


You also want to be sure you’re protected — to whatever extent you can be. Work with an importer or broker who will keep the payment in escrow until the vehicle is in your hands. This helps ensure you won’t be stiffed by a shady seller, and that the vehicle delivered is precisely the one you purchased. It won’t necessarily hedge against damage that may be incurred during shipping — Kitman notes a gamut of risks, from drained batteries to broken wing mirrors to fried clutches from shipping personnel moving the car around — but it will at least guarantee that money and car are properly exchanged. 

In terms of the shipping process itself, you have two options: a dedicated container for the vehicle, or a ro-ro—short for roll-on, roll-off. (They’re the giant, odd-looking ships you may have scratched your head at after spotting them in major harbors.) The former is more expensive, but will protect your car better and allow the seller to include spare parts, extra wheels, etc. The latter, in which the car is driven on board, tied down, then driven off, is less expensive, but opens the car up to possible damage or random pilfering of parts, though Kitman says that’s never happened to any of his cars, to the best of his knowledge. There are also restrictions prohibiting extra items from being included in the car while aboard ship. If you can afford a container and the car is particularly special, consider it.

When the car arrives in the port, your importer will have the documentation that you provide proving the car is exempt from EPA and DOT regulations, and that the customs duty has been paid. You’ll also need the title document, signed by the seller. (All of this documentation will also be needed when it comes time for you to title the car.) The importer will have the car trucked to your location, or you can pick it up at the port yourself if you’re close by. At that point, you’ll finally be able to rest easy, with your new, rare — or at least, rare here—and totally legal imported ride.

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