PART 2: THE BORING STUFF
SO YOU LIKE RIGHT-HAND-DRIVE CARS ? HERE'S HOW TO IMPORT ONE INTO THE US !
If you like RHD vehicles, then you like foreign vehicles by default since there are none being produced in the United States. Here’s everything you need to know about how to import a foreign (non-Canadian) car into the country, RHD and otherwise.
HANDY ACRONYMS GLOSSARY:
Before we start, you’re going to see a lot of acronyms peppered throughout the guide and lose track of what they stand for, so here’s a quick reference glossary:
FMVSS: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
DOT: Department of Transportation
NHTSA: National Highway Traffic Safety Association (Subset of DOT)
EPA: Environmental Protection Agency
CBP: Customs and Border Protection
RI: Registered Importer
ICI: Independent Commercial Importer
RHD: Right Hand Drive vehicles
LHD: Left Hand Drive vehicles
USDM: United States Domestic Market
JDM: Japanese Domestic Market
HANDY REFERENCE LINKS
You’re also going to find a lot of useful links throughout this guide, but here are some key ones you’ll need to revisit often. Come back to these once you’re ready to buckle down and start the long bureaucratic journey towards right-hand-drive car ownership:
WE ALSO DEAL IN JDM PARTS!
J-Spec also imports premium quality Japanese engines and parts. We have a vast inventory of Subaru engines and transmissions. We compression test each of the engines to make sure they are still in good running condition. We also carry Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru, and Mitsubishi parts. If you’ve been on the hunt for a JDM auto specialist, you found the right place.
IS YOUR CAR JUST VISITING?
If you’re interested in importing a car for only a limited time, you’ll be following different protocols that are, in some respects, relatively less involved. For temporary importation purposes, you can bring in “nonconforming” vehicles and engines under a U.S. Customs and Border Protection bond if they qualify for an EPA pre-approval under some exemptions.These include cars imported for testing, repairs, alterations, competitions, and racing. The CBP has info on that HERE and the EPA has info HERE.
SHOW OFF OR DRIVE OFF?
“Show Cars” for display purposes only have their own set of rules, including on-road use limits if you plan to break the implicit look-don’t touch restrictions. These will only be allowed to travel 2,500 miles in a 12-month period, provided they have been approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) for highway use. For more info check out this guide from NHTSA CLICK HERE.
READY TO ROLL FOR GOOD?
The rest of this guide will focus on covering the procedures involved in the permanent importation of foreign vehicles, with extra information about Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Right Hand Drive (RHD) vehicles for those that are eager to invest in the long-term commitment to their dream ride.
WHAT KIND OF PAPERWORK IS INVOLVED?
● DOT/NHTSA will ask for form HS-7**
** Without a manufacturer’s Certification label, attach these to HS-7
- DOT Conformance Bond
- Copies of RI contract
● EPA will ask for form 3520-1
● CBP will ask for form 7501 (after getting Customs release forms)
● State of Virginia will ask for form VSA17
- All states will require similar form (for title and license plate)
● Export certificate (an official English translation):
-Showing first registration date (normally after manufacturing date)
-Showing buyer and seller’s info on invoice proving transfer of ownership
● Shipper or carrier’s bill of landing
● Bill of sale showing purchase transaction
● Any foreign registration or other vehicle-specific documents
THE POWERS THAT BE: NHTSA, EPA, CBP
The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) are the minimum safety performance requirements for all motor vehicles established by the Department Of Transportation (DOT). The NHTSA is concerned with overseeing these safety regulations, which are all publicly listed HERE:
Meanwhile, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) focuses on upholding environmental standards concerned with vehicle emissions to prevent air pollution. Because yes, the infamous Ozone Layer is still a thing. The EPA lists all their standards in their online guide . The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) team will enforce the standards of the DOT/NHTSA, EPA, and IRS at the country’s points of entry. They uphold regulations that fall under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act, and the Clean Air Act.
WHAT IS A "CONFORMING" VEHICLE?
Conforming vehicles are clearly labeled by the manufacturer as meeting all FMVSS and EPA emission requirements. Unfortunately, these labels, both the NHTSA and EPA will consider ALL non-US version vehicles to be automatically “noncomforming” by default. Don’t panic! Just because a car is deemed “nonconforming” doesn’t mean it’s banned from importation. Let’s take a look at some exceptions and backup options.
HOW OLD IS YOUR DREAM CAR?
If you’re an antiques enthusiast, you might be expecting to jump through more hoops, but older vehicles are cut a surprising amount of slack. For example, if your car was built before 1968 and is considered a light-duty, gasoline-powered car, it's actually excluded from EPA emissions requirements. If it’s diesel-powered, it can be built before 1975 to qualify for the same exemption.
THE NHTSA'S 25-YEAR RULE
Once a federal motor vehicle safety standard (FMVSS) is passed, all cars –both new and used– that were manufactured after the date when the latest FMVSS took effect are expected to comply. Yet cars over 25 years old are conveniently exempt from these DOT regulations. Not that everyone would call a 1988 Suzuki Mighty Boy to be a collectible antique, but this info makes it worth considering an older model.
Some exceptions to the 25-year rule include cars made after September 1973, which still need to meet a bumper standard, and vehicles made in 1987 or later that need to meet a theft-prevention standard.
THE EPA'S 21-YEAR RULE:
The EPA has a similar rule, that quite simply only differs by the number of years: 21 instead of 25. They interpret “age” to mean that the 21+ vehicle’s engine must be identical to the one originally installed; of the same model and configuration. This is still not as flexible as Canada’s 15-year rule, but beggars can’t be choosers.
DOES YOUR CAR HAVE A (US SAFETY) CERTIFICATION LABEL?
Compliance with FMVSS is proven with a Certification label provided by the original manufacturer, placed near the driver’s side door. Make sure you ask the seller to confirm in the sales contract that the label is guaranteed to be attached and present at the time of importation, otherwise it cannot enter the country as a conforming vehicle.
MISSING CERTIFICATION LABEL.NOW WHAT?
If your car has no Certification label and doesn’t qualify for exemptions or exclusions, then you’ll need to hire a DOT-Registered Importer (RI) to modify your vehicle and post a DOT Conformance Bond equivalent to 1.5x the car’s dutiable value. This is in addition to the regular Customs entry bond. Hey, no one said foreign vehicle importations are a bargain.
DOT-RESGISTERED IMPORTER (RI) – DO YOU HAVE TO HIRE ONE?
If your car is younger than 25 years old and has no Certification label from the manufacturer, then yes, you have no choice in the matter. RI’s are also a mandatory middleman if you plan to re-sell your car after importation. Some consider it a cash grab, but it’s the NHTSA’s rules,(don’t shoot the messenger). Paperwork reminder: Copies of the DOT Conformance Bond and the contract with your RI will need to be attached to your HS-7 form.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES AN RI DO AND WHERE CAN YOU FIND ONE?
RI’s take care of making sure your vehicle’s modifications will allow it to conform to all FMVSS. Here is NHTSA’s list of RI’s, which was updated as recently as August of THIS year (rare for a government site), CLICK HERE.
The official list of cars that your RI is allowed to import on your behalf can be found on NHTSA’s web site HERE under the category “List of Nonconforming Vehicles Eligible for Importation”
If your car is not on the list, your RI will first need to petition NHTSA for an import eligibility determination, and then take charge of modifying the vehicle to meet all safety regulations. The full list of responsibilities of an RI are specified in Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 592, “Registered Importers of Vehicles Not Originally Manufactured to Conform to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”
SOME POSSIBLE HEARTBREAK
The import eligibility petition process can take at least 6 months – usually closer to a year, and there’s no guarantee it will be approved. Without permission from the NHTSA, any nonconforming car entering the country will be exported or destroyed. If the JDM version of the car is not similar enough to a USDM version, testing and modifying it becomes very complex and costly. It’s best to discuss all this with the RI before buying the car.
BRINGING CARS INTO COMPLIANCE WITH USDM PARTS
Some examples of common FMVSS modifications include:
· Switching the speedometer from kilometers to miles per hour.
· Installing DOT-certified seatbelts.
· Making sure the side mirror opposite the driver is of the magnifying variety.
· Mirrors must also be labeled with the infamous “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear” warning.
· In some cases outfitting the car doors with side impact beams is required.
· Headlight angles must meet U.S. standards or else be replaced.
· The front sides of the car will need orange reflectors and the back will require red ones.
· Strength of the bumpers must be US standard.
· The little chime that beeps for seatbelt buckling must be installed.
· A device that limits fuel spillage in an accident is also required.
All in all, converting a vehicle to meet just a handful of FMVSS specifications can easily add up to more than $10,000.
WHAT ABOUT AN EPA CERTIFICATION LABEL
The EPA’s Certification Label is a different label entirely. It’s found under the hood of the car and proves compliance with all US Emissions Standards. Without a valid EPA Certification Label (in English!), the CBP inspector will require proof of eligibility to import under the EPA exemptions or exclusions, specified on form 3520-1.
INDEPENDANT COMMERCIAL IMPORTER (ICI)- DO YOU HAVE TO HIRE ONE?
If your car is younger than 21 years old with non U.S-specs and does not qualify for an exemption or exclusion from EPA emissions standards, then yes, this is your second mandatory middleman. For cars meeting this description, the Powers That Be will demand you hire an ICI who holds a valid EPA Certificate of Conformity for your vehicle.
WAIT, WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AN ICI AND AN RI?
While the RI assists with getting your vehicle up to DOT standards, an ICI will help in getting it to meet EPA emissions regulations. ICIs are private businesses, and your RI can recommend one (or vice versa) if you’re not sure who to choose. Disclaimer: Neither the NHTSA nor the EPA will endorse or recommend any of the their respective certified RIs and ICIs. They remind the public that both RIs and ICIs are independent businesses, which these agencies will not represent nor guarantee your satisfaction with any work or service they perform.
WHAT EXACTLY DOES AN ICI DO AND WHERE CAN YOU FIND ONE?
An ICI who holds a valid EPA certificate of conformity for your car will help you get the green light for its importation. They will test, modify, and release the car once it meets all the necessary EPA standards. Among their responsibilities, they have to guarantee that the vehicle will have an emissions label and vacuum hose diagram, and provide you with prepaid emission warranties and maintenance instructions. They also have to perform fuel economy tests and give you all the required gas-guzzler tax forms. One of their biggest advantages is that they will take care of bringing your car through Customs themselves.
SOME PROBLEMS WITH ICIs
ICIs have limitations on how many cars they can import per year. They are not required to accept vehicles for which they have qualifying certificates of conformity. Sadly, some vehicles simply cannot be successfully imported or modified by an ICI. Their fees are also very high, and you may incur extra charges during the testing and modification process. For more information on ICIs, you can visit the EPA’s website HERE.
COMMERCIAL CUSTOMS BROKER- DO YOU HAVE TO HIRE ONE?
Let’s say your car meets EPA’s standards (so no ICI required) but not NHTSA’s (still need an RI). Since an ICI would have taken care of personally bringing your car through Customs but an RI is only concerned with bringing it to compliance for use in the States, you’re going to need to figure out how to get the car home. You can hire a Commercial Customs Broker to stand in your place at CBP and oversee the car’s entry into the country. They can also help you choose a carrier or shipping company. But the short answer is: No. While it can be a lifesaving headache diffuser to have a trained import professional on your side, it is not mandatory to hire one if you prefer to tackle the customs process on your own.
OTHER DUTIES/TAXES/FEES WORTH MENTIONNING
Expect a lot of fees at the border, including a duty for foreign made vehicles into the United States that is 2.5% of the price you paid for the car. You should make final arrangements with your ICI for modifications and testing, or have EPA approval in writing for importation BEFORE you ship out your nonconforming vehicle, since storage fees at the ports are very costly and add up quickly. Find more details concerning importation duties or other Customs matters by contacting the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency at 877-CBP-5511 or visit their website at
DO I NEED A SPECIFIC PERMIT TO IMPORT A JDM RHD VEHICLE?
There is no specific restriction on importing right-hand drive vehicles, and no special permits required to import a car from Japan.
Both individuals and companies are allowed to import, but if you plan to sell the cars each state will have some restrictions. In Virginia, you will need to be a registered VA dealership in order to sell more than 5 cars each year.
J-Spec falls under that category as a certified and registered VA dealership.
SO WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL WITH IMPORTING RIGHT-HAND-DRIVE CARS?
Even though they are not explicitly banned, the RHD issue is still a sensitive one for the DOT.
Their NHTSA subset specifically discourages it based on its data of road safety test outcomes, stating
"Our experience has shown that the safety performance of righthand drive vehicles is not necessarily the same as that of apparently similar left-hand drive vehicles offered for sale in this country."
WHAT IF I WANT A RHD CAR THAT WAS ORIGINALLY LHD ?
If you’re just looking to have a RHD for the sake of it, you can convert a LHD car or buy a converted model that’s already in the States. But beware of authenticity and legal issues. There are a lot of people who do not import cars correctly and bring them in illegally.
If someone tries to drive of those cars into California, for example, it will be considered a non-US vehicle even if it was registered in another state successfully.
WHAT IF THERE'S A USDM VERSION OF YOUR JDM CAR?
The existence of a substantially similar US-certified LHD vehicle is not enough for the NHTSA to base their decision on the import eligibility of your RHD car. The RI would have to demonstrate that, once modified, your RHD car will be able to meet all FMVSS, including those for which dynamic crash testing is required. There are only two ways to achieve this:
1) A formal guarantee from the manufacturer declaring that the RHD car will perform the same as the LHD in dynamic crash tests. This must be printed on the manufacturer’s letterhead, and not that of an authorized dealership.
2) Having the RI arrange the US standard safety tests, which involves physically crashing the car. That means you can’t simply purchase the car you want to import once: you have to buy several of them.
MANUFACTURERS DON'T WANT TO GET INVOLVED
You may have some luck getting the letter from Canadian-based manufacturers, but European and other foreign auto makers don’t want the liability of certifying the safety equipment of their foreign-spec vehicle, since they would likely be sued in case of an accident. Sean Morris, a certified RI since 1999, warns that “You will not get a letter from Honda, or any manufacturer for that matter, saying its RHD vehicles are just as safe as comparable LHD vehicles they produce,” so the least expensive of these two options is already moot for those interested in Japanese RHD cars.
HERE'S WHERE YOUR PIGGY BANK REALLY TAKES A BLOW
For the front impact crash test alone, you’re looking at approximately $60,000. Morris estimates between $250,000 and $500,000 in costs just to perform all the necessary testing and modification. And that doesn’t include the cost of the car itself, its shipment, customs
duties, or the additional emissions testing that may be required by the EPA.
ARE THERE ANY LOOPHOLES?
In order to cut some of the costs involved, many importers (not any you’ll find listed on government websites) opt to bring in nonconforming cars in pieces. They do this by dismantling the whole vehicle abroad and declaring the portions of the car as used car parts. The car is then reassembled once it has reached its destination, brought into compliance, and registered as a “kit car”. The registration process involves providing a visual record (video or photos) of the vehicle arriving in parts, and then being reassembled. However, this tactic can present legally questionable scenarios, depending on how the parts
are imported. Venturing into this legal grey zone could set you up for heartbreak, with your high-end JDM import seized and crushed. Read more about this “grey market” HERE.
TIMING YOUR CAR'S OVERSEAS JOURNEY
If you’re handling the importation without an ICI or CBP broker, you’ll want to ask the shipper you hired to notify you of the vehicle's arrival date so that you can make arrangements to see it through customs. CBP warns that shipments are cleared at the first port of entry unless you can arrange for a foreign freight forwarder to have your cargo sent in bond to a customs port that’s more conveniently located near you.
IMPORTANT SHIPPING DO'S AND DON'TS
DO: Have your car steam-sprayed or cleaned thoroughly before it gets shipped. The Department of Agriculture requires that the undercarriage of imported cars be free of foreign soil.
DON’T: Use your car as a container for personal belongings. Failure to declare any items stored in your car can result in a fine or seizure of both the car and its contents.
DON'T FORGET YOUR LOCAL DMV!
After tackling all those federal authority goliaths, you might be feeling relieved, but don’t forget to tie off all your legal loose ends with local agencies too. Most municipalities expect foreign car owners to provide a title and/or registration from the car’s place of origin, plus a bill of sale and a transfer form. The state or county will likely ask for taxes or additional fees and proof of insurance. Contact your nearest Department of Motor Vehicles for any additional information regarding titling, registration, or operation of a properly imported vehicle into your specific state.
...AND YOUR LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL/ROAD SAFETY AGENCIES!
Individual states have different emissions requirements than those of the federal government. Proper registration of your vehicle may depend on satisfying those
requirements, so make sure your car is compliant on the local level too. Car owners in New York and California have similar emissions standards, both very tough and frequently enforced. In fact, California’s state emissions laws are stricter than the federal government’s. When you’re at the point of regional registration, it’s highly possible that the car will undergo some final inspections for both emissions and safety. It is often during these last, seemingly small-potato hurdles that many cars are filtered out for being noncompliant!
SERIOUSLY, RESPECT YOUR LOCAL AUTHORITIES, FOLKS
Even if you specifically sought out a vehicle that was over 25 years old so you could bypass all DOT and EPA regulations, your own state laws might have something to say about a car without safety items like seatbelts and headlights. You may be exempt from federal laws, but you still have to comply with your own state rules and regulations. Some states have no inspection, so this isn’t a problem – but at least in Virginia you better have seat belts, or you won’t get plates.
BONUS: HOW CAN J-SPEC HELP?
At J-Spec, we specialize in importing premium quality Japanese cars past the 25 years old benchmark that make them exempt from DOT and EPA regulations. Our team in Japan inspects each vehicle to make sure they’re in excellent condition before shipping them to us, and once they reach our inventory they all go through a VA state inspection to make sure they’re safe to drive.
As would be the case with buying any older vehicle, a thorough inspection is always recommended, including checking the timing components, fluid levels, brakes, and suspension. Even though we have our cars inspected by a third party to make sure they’re safe to take On the road, it’s always a good idea to have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic shop.