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Finding a car that’s in your price range, makes a statement, and is for sale nearby can feel like an impossible task. What if you find a car overseas that’s exactly what you want—how do you get it into the country? It can be done, but there are a lot of details that need to be covered to import a car. And it all starts with research.

Finding the car

Some websites specialize in selling vehicles from Japan and Europe to the U.S. Another option is message boards—chances are someone has some inside knowledge on the kind of vehicle you want to import.

You can also travel to the place you want to buy the car from. If you really want a quirky Japanese K car, go to Japan. You can find some exotic cars in the Middle East, if your budget is in that direction. Then there are the random “barn finds” you might stumble across in other countries.

Shipping (not what you’d expect)

Cars are big, heavy things. Surely, shipping costs are going to be exorbitant. Wrong. Vehicles are shipped by truck, rail, and sea every day, and the cost is low, all things considered, when they can be moved in bulk. The high-end will be around $2,000 for shipping a vehicle.

Once the boat docks, the car will have to be moved by ground unless you live near a port town. Shipping a vehicle by truck is also shockingly cheap—a few hundred dollars. Again, the savings are in the bulk rate; trucking companies plan the most efficient route for drop-off and pick-ups then pass the savings on to you.

Time and pens

Finding a car and finding a shipper are the easy parts and could be done in a day or two. The time and paperwork, however, are where the real costs come in.

  • Purchase papers
  • Shipping and insurance papers
  • Export/import papers
  • Customs
  • The 25-year law or special use paperwork

The 25-year law

This law is well known with car geeks but pretty obscure for everyone else. Every vehicle in the U.S., either domestically built or imported, has to be certified by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. This means it meets all the current standards for markings and safety.

Even if technically the vehicle meets the standards, if the NHTSA hasn’t certified the vehicle, you’re limited to importing vehicles that are at least 25 years old. There are some exceptions:

  • Parts vehicles — You’ll have to prove you plan to use the vehicle for parts. Usually, this requires the car to be without its motor and other critical parts. There are workarounds; however, it’s not likely you’d get approval to drive a car brought in as a parts car.
  • Disassembled vehicle — Similar to a parts car, a disassembled vehicle cannot be imported with the engine or drivetrain intact. They can be imported separately, but you’ll have to jump through a lot of hoops to get the car on the road.
  • Show or display vehicles — If you want to import a brand-new vehicle that is not NHTSA certified you can—but only if that vehicle is of significant historic or technological significance. Also there is a maximum of 500 examples of that model that can have been built and you’re restricted to 2,500 miles a year of driving.
  • Off-road vehicles — If a vehicle is never going to be on a road, the rules really don’t apply. Think of those side-by-side off-road vehicles: they meet no NHTSA standards; they don’t have to. So you can import anything that is clearly for off-road use only.
  • Racing vehicles — Racetracks are not public roads, so they would be treated similarly to off-road vehicles. If you’re importing a vehicle to turn into a track car, but it isn’t currently set up as a track-only vehicle, you can apply for a temporary import license. You’ll have to prove that the car is a race car before the license expires.

Importing a car can very much end up in your favor. There is a good chance it will retain its value. And if you know what you’re looking at, you can get a really good deal. But that is the key: doing your research, knowing what you want, and knowing what it’s going to take. There are plenty of resources out there—car people like sharing and want you to succeed!