Clearing Vehicles

U.S. Customs has made a concentrated effort to reduce stolen vehicles entering and exiting the United States, so it is imperative to prove that you are the owner of any motor vehicle you import. To provide this proof, you will need your original title of ownership free of lien. If a lien is listed on the original title, an original lieu release or notarized original letter from the lien holder.

Before leaving your origin country, you may want to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles or similar agency to obtain a duplicate title as a backup. Your original title will be given to your authorized UniGroup Worldwide representative. UniGroup will courier the title to U.S. Customs. Customs will return the title to UniGroup Worldwide, who will return it to you at your destination address.

If a lien holder has your car title, request a letter giving permission to take the vehicle out of the country. The letter should be on the financing company's letterhead and signed by someone in the lender's management. It should include a name, phone number, and email address for any questions. The letter should be an original.

Five federal agencies regulate the importation of vehicles to the United States:

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture
  4. U.S. Customs Service
  5. Internal Revenue Service

Converting a nonconforming vehicle to comply with U.S. regulations is usually prohibitively expensive, and it is sometimes impossible or impractical. Further, some vehicles are prohibited from importation into the United States because of the vehicles themselves or the country from which they originated. For these reasons, it is important to determine if your car is in compliance with U.S. regulations before you attempt to import it.


To ensure that an automobile manufactured abroad is in compliance with U.S. safety and emission standards you will be required to produce confirmation statements from vehicle’s manufacturer.

Vehicles 25 years old or less must comply with U.S. motor vehicle safety standards that were in effect when the vehicles were manufactured. Passenger cars manufactured after Sept. 1, 1973, also must meet bumper standards.

Automobiles 21 years or older—from the time of manufacture or purchase to the time of importation—are exempt from emission requirements, as are those owned by importers facing circumstances deemed extraordinary or a hardship. For the latter, vehicles must be essential for basic living.

If your vehicle was manufactured in 1974 or later and driven in a country without unleaded gasoline, you will be required to have the vehicle's oxygen sensor and/or catalytic converter replaced.

If you are importing a vehicle in need of modifications, you must enter into a contract with a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) registered importer, an automotive business that will modify your vehicle upon your arrival in the States. The DOT provides lists of registered importers.

Cars imported in this manner must enter under a DOT bond equal to 150% of the vehicle's dutiable value. (If your vehicle requires any modifications, a bond also might be required by customs that is equal to your vehicle's value.)

Automobiles not conforming to U.S. emission standards must be imported through an independent commercial importer that will bring your vehicle into compliance. ICIs are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provides contact information for them. Vehicles must meet EPA requirements within 120 days of their arrival.

If your vehicle requires modifications related to safety, bumper, and emission standards, you will need to acquire services from both a registered importer and an ICI. You might be able to enter into a contract with either type of business that in turn can contract out for services from the other at the conclusion of its work. Some automotive businesses also do safety, bumper, and emission modifications.

All people importing vehicles must fill out DOT form HS-7, indicating whether their car meets safety and bumper standards, and EPA Form 3520-1, indicating whether their car meets emission requirements. If your car needs modifications, you also must furnish a copy of your contract with a registered importer or ICI, in addition to applicable bonds, to customs at the port of entry. Automobiles are cleared at the first port of entry unless you arrange for a freight forwarder abroad to have your vehicle sent to a customs port more convenient to you.

Contact Information for U.S. Agencies

Since safety and emission requirements are subject to change, it is recommended that you contact one of the following agencies for the most up-to-date regulations.

For information safety and bumper regulations and a list of registered importers, contact:

U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance, NSA-32
400 Seventh St. S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590, U.S.A.
Hotline: (800) 424-9393; fax (202) 366-1024

For information on emission control standards for imported vehicles or a list of ICIs, contact:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Manufacturers Operations Division (6405-J)
Investigation/Imports Section
501 Third St. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001, U.S.A.
Phone: (202) 564- 9240
Hotline: (202) 564-9660 (Request the auto imports facts manual)
Fax: (202) 565-2057
Fax: (202) 564-9596


Once you decide to import your vehicle to the U.S. remember these two tips before delivering it for shipment. Both tips are important for clearing a vehicle through customs.

Wash your car. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that all imported vehicles be free from foreign soil. Consequently, you must have your car or truck steam-sprayed or cleaned thoroughly before shipping it.

For more information, contact:

Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
4700 River Road
Riverdale, MD 20737 U.S.A.
Phone: (301) 734-8645
Phone: (301) 734-4327

Empty your car. 

Do not ship personal belongings in your vehicle. Cars must be completely empty, except for factory installed equipment, according to customs regulations.

Mark your car.

Consult your local automobile club or an international automobile organization about obtaining an International Registration Marker. This permit must be displayed on all imported cars in the United States.

The duty for a new or used foreign-made vehicle imported into the United States is based on the price paid or the invoice price. Contact a local customs office for the current duty rate. Most Canadian-made vehicles are duty-free.

A returning U.S. resident (one returning from travel, work, or study) may apply his or her $400 customs exemption—as well as the exemptions of accompanying family members—toward the vehicle's value if it meets the following requirements:

  • The vehicle accompanies you on your return to the States
  • It is imported for personal use
  • It was purchased during your stay outside the United States

After this exemption has been applied, the next $1,000 of the vehicle's value is dutiable at a flat rate of 10%, with the remainder dutiable at the regular rate.

You are entitled to import a foreign-made car free of duty if you are:

  • A U.S. citizen employed abroad or a government employee returning from temporary duty or on voluntary leave. These citizens may import a foreign-made car free of duty provided they claim nonresident status, enter the United States for a short visit only, and export the vehicle when they leave the States.
  • A civilian or military employee of the U.S. government returning to the United States at the end of an assignment of 140 days or more. These citizens may include a conforming vehicle among their duty-free personal and household goods, provided the vehicle was purchased abroad and was in the owner's possession prior to his or her departure for the States. Navy personnel serving aboard a U.S. vessel may be entitled to the free-entry exemption after an intended overseas deployment of at least 120 days.
  • A nonresident with a vehicle designated for personal use and imported in conjunction with the owner's arrival. Such automobiles conforming to U.S. standards may remain in the States indefinitely, but are dutiable if sold within one year of importation. This duty must be paid before the sale is completed. Nonconforming vehicles may not be sold in the United States. They are crushed, confiscated, or exported to another country
  • A nonresident importing a vehicle for a temporary stay in the United States for purposes other than personal, such as racing, repairs, or as a sample for taking orders. These cars are subject to specific customs regulations. Check with a customs office for these regulations, as well as guidelines pertaining to unusual situations.

For additional information, contact:

U.S. Customs Service
1300 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20229 U.S.A.
Phone: (202) 354-1000
Phone: (202) 927-6724
Phone: (202) 927-1000

Some imported automobiles are subject to the "Gas Guzzler Tax" stipulated in Section 4064 of the Internal Revenue Code. Liability for the tax is the responsibility of the individual importing the vehicle, and the tax rate is determined by the EPA's fuel economy rating for your type of vehicle. (This rating might differ from the one cited by the manufacturer.) Before registering and titling your vehicle, many states require proof you have paid the "Gas Guzzler Tax" if it applies to you.

For more information on the "Gas Guzzler Tax," contact:

Internal Revenue Service
Room 5314
1111 Constitution Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20224, U.S.A.

IRS Publication 510
Excise Taxes
Phone: (202) 622-3130
Fax: (202) 622-4537

The following Internal Revenue Service (IRS) publications provide information on the "Gas Guzzler Tax" and fuel economy ratings: Section 4064 of the Internal Revenue Code; Publication 510, "Excise Taxes"; Revenue Procedure 86-9 and 1986-1 Cumulative Bulletin 530; Revenue Procedure 87-10; and Revenue Ruling 86-20 and 1986-1 Cumulative Bulletin 319.

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