By on February 20, 2013

As a worldly American and car nut, on one of your world travels, there will be a time when you fall in love with a car in a foreign land. The crush on that thing will be so big that you will want to take the irresistible beauty home with you. Just ask Sajeev or Frau Murilee.

My advice: Resist that urge at all cost. Trust me, it is easier to import a new wife from Pago-Pago to America than to bring-in a lightly used Euro-spec Porsche from Zuffenhausen. There is one man who wants to change all that: A man with the initials B.S. petitioned the White House to liberalize the immigration rules for used cars. No, it’s not THAT BS.

Benjamin Sharabani of Venice, CA, wants the Obama administration to “lower non-federalized vehicle importation requirements with NHTSA & EPA to 10-years from the current 25-years.”

This is a worthy cause, because America is for all intents and purposes closed to cars that have not been “federalized” – in itself a time- and money consuming exercise, which only very large or very rich and determined importers can afford. Unless that car is more than 25 years old, a non-federalized car needs to stay out of the country – or else.

The Department of Homeland Security warns:

“The Federal agencies that regulate the importation of non U.S. version or nonconforming vehicles are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These agencies do not encourage the importation of non U.S. version or nonconforming vehicles for on-road use because converting a nonconforming vehicle is usually very expensive, and sometimes impossible or impractical. It is possible that a car will conform to one agency’s requirements but not another’s.”

If you go to the EPA for guidance, you will hear:

“EPA strongly recommends that prospective importers buy only U.S. version (labeled) vehicles, because of the expense and potential difficulties involved with importing a non-U.S. version vehicle. EPA strongly recommends that current owners of non-U.S. version vehicles sell or otherwise dispose of those vehicles overseas rather than ship and import them into the U.S., because of the expense and potential difficulties involved with importing a non-U.S. version vehicle.”

The NHTSA is a bit more circumspect:

Since the cost of modifying a nonconforming vehicle, or the time required to bring it into conformance, may affect the decision to purchase a vehicle abroad, we strongly recommend discussing these matters with a Registered Importer before buying and shipping a vehicle to the U.S.”

Basically, the NHTSA leaves it to the Registered Importer to tell you: “Are you nuts?”

They will explain to you that you must post a bond of three times the value of the car to U.S. customs, and then again a bond of one and a half times the value of the car to the DOT, before the Registered Importer even can start trying to bring the car in compliance “with all applicable DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).” If you have not declared bankruptcy at this point, and/or committed yourself to an asylum, you will have to deal with the EPA.

Trust me: It will be easier to get green cards for a whole harem than to import a foreign car that was built after 1988.

Forget about bypassing these regulations. Even if you stick the car in a container and pile bales of Marijuana on it to throw the Feds off scent, Homeland Security will tell you: “You will need the CBP Form 7501 to register the vehicle with the Department of Motor Vehicle. CBP will not give you this form without approval from the EPA and DOT.”

There is a “List of nonconforming motor vehicles that are eligible for importation.” Importation not by mere mortals, mind you, it must be done through a Registered Importer. Don’t get your hopes up. Most of the cars on that list are there because they are “substantially similar to a U.S.-certified vehicle”. As in Jeep or Chevy. Even if that’s the case, extensive paperwork is required.

Now what about truly foreign cars? According to the list, less than 50 cars have sufficiently established “that the vehicle has safety features that comply with, or are capable of being altered to comply with, all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards.” Oddly, 14 of them are G-Wagens built between 1997 and 2006.

Ben’s car, The 1997 911 C4S, left. Ben vowed to “one day I will destroy” his friend and his Viper, right. Friend’s tag obscured, Ben’s tag in the buff to show the authorities that he is real

In other civilized parts of the world, such as Europe and in allegedly closed Japan, legalizing a non-approved car is as easy as checking that it has lights and brakes. You have it inspected, you sign a few forms, and you are good to go. If you want to import on a somewhat grander scale, no problem: Both the EU and Japan have special dispensations for low volume imports that are let into the country with a minimum of fuss. This, by the way, is how most of the U.S. makers import their cars to Japan and Europe. Only to bitch that the regulations are too onerous.

Even China is more lenient than the U.S.: Officially, the importation of used cars is bu hao, or verboten, as we say in America. But if you know someone – mei wen ti – no problem.

In America, they have you by the gonads if you bring in a foreign car. Say you paid all the bond money, but somehow you failed to bring the car in compliance. Trust me, the system is built to make you fail. Then, all that is left to you is to junk the car and kiss your bond money good-bye, you think? No, you can’t even do that. Says your friendly DHS: “It is also illegal to dispose of the vehicles in a junkyard. Non-compliant vehicles must be exported, destroyed, or brought into compliance.”

Catch 22, meet Kafka. Kafka, meet Catch 22.

But then, this might all change if Benjamin Sharabani’s petition is heard, right? Wrong again.

Benjamin needs 100,000 signatures by March 21, 2013. Yes, that’s a moth from now. He has 19 signatures now. Only 99,983 to go. Oh, and your 100,000 friends need to give their names and email addresses to the government. The Internet-savvy White House will even keep the petition from being searchable via Google if it has less than 150 signatures. But once 100,000 sign, it will get action, right? You can’t be wronger. Says the White House:

“If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.”

Gee, thanks!

The petition system, by the way, is a Chinese import. There, it has been around for centuries. Except that when you go to Beijing and petition, you might get roughed up in a dark alley when you go home.

Maybe that’s what those email addresses are for.

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40 Comments on “Only A Nutcase Would Import A Car To America. B.S. Wants To Change That, And He Needs Your Signature...”

  • avatar

    Unless I missed it… how can we go about signing this thing? I know for sure that once it goes public, this will be easy pickings.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, this article seems shockingly similar to one posted on Jalopnik in Nov. 2011 but that person somehow only needed 23,000 signatures.

      Article from Jalopnik here:

      If by some stroke of horrible luck, it would seem that only getting 23,000 signatures was too much for them and it expired.

      So how’s this guy different? Will a petition really matter in the grand scheme of things?

      • 0 avatar

        Get enough, and they have to respond, as we’ve seen with the recent abuses of that system. I guess that’s something.

      • 0 avatar

        I believe that the threshold for a response was 25K signatues until it became clear that on the internets it’s pretty easy to find 25K people who will suport anything, including building a Death Star. They then bumped the threshold up to 100K signatures.

      • 0 avatar

        Some wit created a petition to ask the government to produce a real Death Star by 2016. It very quickly got well over 25,000 signatures.

        So the administration produced a very nice, witty response to the Death Star petition, which you can read below, and promptly increased the required number of signatures for a response to 100,000.

        It’s too bad it impacts an relatively obscure cause like this so badly.

        For those wanting a laugh, here’s the Death Star response:

        For the record, I think they handled this well and fairly, and I say that as someone who hates this administration and thinks they can do essentially nothing right.


    • 0 avatar

      A Death Star we can believe in.

  • avatar

    Have I got the gist?…..

    Because American laws frustrate a few hundred car hobbyists per year, America is the moral equivalent of China?

    • 0 avatar

      Not even close, there you slip a few Bens to the right person and you get the stamp of approval.

      • 0 avatar

        uh… I meant the implication that American insensitivity to the desires of some car nuts is being compared with Chinese physical brutality to its citizens since both governments will simply shitcan any “petition”.

      • 0 avatar

        Ah, agreed perhaps a stretch on that comparison but I wouldn’t put it past our gov’t to resort to the same measures in the next few years. Hopefully that will never happen.

  • avatar

    Ahh form 7501. Importing cars that are “on the list” to the US, is actually quite easy in practice. CBP can make it as hard or as easy as they want however.

    Generally, if the car is “on the list” it flies through the border, sometimes without them even looking at it. Fill out the form, hand it in, go to your secretary of state if you want to register it.

    Grey market cars however, forget about it. Just ask those poor R32-34 Skyline owners who, in spite of their efforts to “comply”, had their cars seized and crushed. Non tariff barriers indeed.

    • 0 avatar

      Could there be a hit list of models they just won’t let you keep, an “anti-list” as it were?

      • 0 avatar
        bumpy ii

        Nope. The only way to get anything non-USDM is one of the following:

        1. buy and import something 25 years or older.
        2. be a manufacturer testing some foreign model for one reason or another.
        3. have several million dollars burning a hole in your pocket, plus pick something that you can buy 10-15 of.
        4. be a diplomat or military type on assignment to the US. When the assignment is up, the car goes back with you.
        5. the “show and display” exemption. This almost never happens, and you can’t drive the car at all.

      • 0 avatar

        You could always register it in Mexico, too. I’ve seen a few newer Peugeots and Focus RS from over the border, along with a 206CC that had Consul plates.

        Or, as with a number of Mitsubish Evos of six and earlier vintage, they can use ripped-off VINs or be wholesale conversions applied to US-Mirage shells.

        Or join the military and have your car shipped back for free without customs. I don’t know if that still works, though.

  • avatar

    R33 skylines for everyone! toyota HiAce and Honda Beat for me!

  • avatar

    This isn’t about protecting passengers, or the environment. It’s mostly about protecting manufacturers pricing schemes. Many of us recall the 80’s, where the Germans had so priced their cars that you could get one ‘over there’ and still come out cheaper even with retail certifications.

    There is no rational reason we couldn’t give reciprocal approval to European common market certified cars. TUV approvals are tougher than ours, and include rear collision and rollover standards we don’t have.

    Pollution may be tougher to crack, as the US and ECM approach this from different angles.

    Bottom line, incumbents get the legislation they want-

    Even Bill Gates could not get that 959 legal, right ?

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      He got it eventually, but had to lobby for a law to allow computer modeling simulations in lieu of actual crash testing (since there weren’t enough extra 959s to smash up).

    • 0 avatar

      A complicated system tends not to work well. Maybe standards should be relaxed/exempted based on the amount of models imported over a period. So for example Ferraris, sample how many grey market Ferraris get imported over a period. If this number is under say 2,000, then just exempt them all, demand a “fee” per vehicle, and be done with it.

      • 0 avatar

        A complicated system of regulations serves to defend incumbent companies.

        Regulations create barriers to entry into the market, and the companies who benefit from reduced competition understand how their bread is buttered.

        The idea that businesses oppose regulation is an article of faith with conservatives, but reality is much more interesting and nuanced. Just ask a local car dealer why I shouldn’t be allowed to order the car I want directly from the manufacturer over the Internet, if you’d like to hear a business make an impassioned anti-free-market argument firsthand!

        So, yes, the 25 year rule is clearly about protecting domestic automakers from the world market. It couldn’t be about anything else, really, since the EU has strong 1st world standards that are just as good as ours in real life. I’d be perfectly happy with a mutual agreement with the EU stating that a car certified as safe & environmentally OK by either government could be sold in both the US and Europe. It would increase competition, reduce the cost of regulatory compliance, and make being a car guy a lot more fun and interesting. But the power embodied in a gajillion dollar industry ensures that it will never happen.

  • avatar

    I find it curious the Toyota Hilux isn’t on the list, isn’t this one of the best all around pickups available today?

    • 0 avatar

      Because the list isn’t about how good the vehicle is.

      Its about how many billionaires want a car they can’t get enough to fund the regulatory compliance efforts.

      A practical vehicle like the Hilux wouldn’t be on the radar. YOU are supposed to buy American and get an F-150 instead. I own one, and it’s a great truck. Why aren’t you patriotic enough to pay extra for an F-150 instead of buying a Hilux on a global used car free market? ;-)

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    Could you import a non approved car through Canada, and drive it across the border? Omce home, it could be registered as a used car.
    Could be a good business oportunity for an enterprising Canuck.

    • 0 avatar

      How would you go about registering that vehicle? Insurance? The VIN would not be recognized.

      POSSIBLY you could go the “kit-car” route.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      That could be done, if you don’t mind the risk of seizure and destruction of the vehicle, and possible jail time.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes you can, if you live in Maine and don’t get otherwise caught out. Maine recognizes Canadian titles, and only requires titles for cars 1995 and newer anyway. If the car is not in the “book” at registration time, the nice ladies at your local city hall will make something up, as all they care about is the tax money. Insurance companies don’t really seem to care either, they will make it work, as again, all they REALLY care about is the money. All sorts of interesting things roaming around this state that drove over the border. I personally have helped with the aquisition of a couple of oddball Saabs – RHD C900? 1984 Saab 99? Both now live in Indiana, but I owned them both for a few hours.

      • 0 avatar

        Note that just because your state will register it doesn’t mean that it’s import-legal. But it does mean you might get away with it for a while, as long as you aren’t bragging about it on the internets. :)

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder if that’s a common practice on the southern border, especially for eco-beaters.

  • avatar

    We waste an obscene amount of time and money in this country trying to protect ourselves from ourselves. Foreigners probably come here and laugh.

    Now if you excuse me, I’m going to hop on this high-powered motorbike that is somehow allowed on the street.

  • avatar

    Quite a few nice Euro cars on the list, Audi RS4, Audi RS6 etc

    It is not true that Importing cars to Europe is a piece of cake,
    try to import a US car to France, you’ll see, they require much more than a look at the lights.
    You need a Certificate Of Compliance from the manufacturer, saying what has to be changed to make the vehicle compliant to Euro norms, and the list can be quite long: exhaust system, lights, belt, tires, speedometer, windows among others.
    Tons of paperwork, huge waiting times for the inspection, during which you cannot drive the car, etc.
    You can read a few horror stories on the web about guys trying to import Porsches from the US to Europe..

    As far as South America is concerned, import of used cars is simply forbidden in most countries, in an effort to limit the import of junk cars from abroad.

    The US Dpt of Commerce has published a compilation of car import regulations around the world:

    • 0 avatar

      I am quite familiar with German regs, which allegedly are the toughest.

      Basically, the car has to be legal to drive on German roads. For that, the TUV will give you an “Einzelgutachten.” (Expert opinion for a single car.) No crash test, it is similar to what they would test anyway once the car is legal. A CoC (certificate of compliance) helps, but is not necessary. The TUV can test the car instead. Costs more. Sure, it can’t be an environmental oinker, and they need to know how much CO2 it makes, because the car is taxed on how much it makes. Cost some money, takes some paperwork, but is much, much, much easier than the impossible the US would want from you.

      Instructions, in German at

      It does not need to be the TUV, I can give better addresses on request.

      • 0 avatar

        Actually, importing into Germany is easier/cheaper than in a few other EU countries. Importing (mainly US-sourced vehicles) into Germany first, then bringing the vehicle over to your EU country (Holland for example) and converting the registration (a formality thanks to EU regulations) is quite popular.

  • avatar

    Clear & cohesive importation regulation can reduce cost for federal regulation agencies & improve tax collection for them. It can benefit the domestic and “foreign” auto industry by allowing them to put some fully imported models on their showroom floors thereby offering a wider variety of products with out the overhead of manufacturing or modification costs. The biggest winner is the consumer who can now have that diesel, manual, AWD hatchback in brown and if that’s not your thing the RWD V8 sedan is still alive and selling.
    It’s a win-win-win for all.

  • avatar

    So my chances of finding a car coyote to smuggle a one to two year old 1.8T MkIV Jetta across the Rio Grande are slim to none??? Damn. Gotta move to Mexico.

  • avatar

    As the importer of both wives and several dozen cars,in retrospect, it seems they were merely protecting me from myself.

  • avatar

    I’ve always felt that as long as the car met local emission standards why should the government or anyone else care what I import. If I want to drive around with zero airbags or a steel spike in the middle of the steering wheel, that’s my business. BUT, I’d make it so you could never sell it and inflict your lack of safety equip on an unsuspecting buyer.

    • 0 avatar

      Make a salvage title mandatory for imported cars. Done, unless its wildly popular.

      There are lots of sensible ways to solve the problems that the regulations claim to solve.

      But the regulations are really about protecting our big carmakers from competition like foreign automakers like Fiat, and upstarts like Tesla…

  • avatar

    Perhaps we should expand the reach of this petition. Put this link next to Hello-Kitty wrapped kei-cars and woo the female car owners ;)

  • avatar

    Glad to know the Department of Homeland Security has a policy on the importation of grey market automobiles. Stay on it, boys.

  • avatar

    What I find sad and pathetic is how much attention is put on finding grey market Nissan Skylines and destroying them and jailing owners while illegal aliens continue to wreck this country. Priorities huh?

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