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How to Import Cars Over 25 Years Old to the USA

Updated on January 3, 2013

How To Import Vehicles Over 25 Years Old

Most of the world has some kind of vehicle importation laws. Most of these laws are written to protect local markets, local manufacturers. Many countries in the world have an exemption, where cars over 15 years old are allowed to be imported. Canada is one local example of having a "15 year rule'". Here in the US we have a weird stack of rules. It may not make sense, but don't try to figure it out, just understand it.

Vehicles over 25 years old are Department of Transportation(DOT) exempt from meeting federal motor vehicle safety standards(FMVSS). Over 21 years old are Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) exempt. To meet California smog exemption requirements, the car must be older than 1976. This does not make cars newer than 1976 impossible to import to California, but there are extra requirements, and testing.

What car would you want to import to the US?

What kind of car would you like to import to the US. Over 25 years old, vehicles are DOT and EPA exempt, so as of August 2011, you are legally allowed to import cars built before August 1986. There are tons of cars from all over the world that can be imported? All kinds of unique cars and trucks can be found in Japan, Europe, and Australia.

If you could import any car to the US, what car would it be?

See results

How To Import JDM Vehicles From Auctions

A video showing a few examples of 25 year old vehicles that can be legally imported to the US. If you are looking for a 25 year old car, you can find a ton of cars for sale at Japanese auctions.

1967 Nissan Skyline
1967 Nissan Skyline

FAQ of Car Import

There is too much misinformation out on the internet about the importation and legalization process . The process requires the satisfaction of several government agencies . The government agencies concerned are :

NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) or DOT (Department of Transportation)

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)

Customs Service.( Part of Homeland Security )

CARB ( California Air Resources Board) if you are in California.

Local Department of Motor Vehicles.

It is a little difficult to transfer several years of knowledge and experience into a few lines of information. The truest way to learn the information is though doing it and from reading the Code of Federal Regulations , along with the local laws and information.

1)My state doesn't have emissions testing , so is it any cheaper to legalize my vehicle ?

No , its not any cheaper as the vehicle , and every vehicle when first sold new must meet Federal Emissions Standards from the EPA . If your state does not have emissions standards , that does not mean you , or your state does not meet them . It merely means there is no in use testing. Federal emissions standards are FTP testing. It is run on a dyno from a cold start . Though an 11 mile drive cycle. All of the emissions from a vehicle are tested , and the vehicle must meet certain criteria for the year it was produced . Vehicles over 21 years old are EPA exempt.

2) I want to bring in a Toyota Supra from Japan ( or any vehicle not produced for the US market) , I have seen people have them here already , why do you say I can't have the car ?

"All eligibility numbers are for left-hand drive motor vehicles except where right-hand drive (RHD) is identified after the model. While there is no specific restriction on importing a right-hand drive vehicle, an eligibility number based on a substantially similar U.S.- certified motor vehicle may not apply. Our experience has shown that the safety performance of right-hand drive vehicles is not necessarily the same as that of apparently similar left-hand drive vehicles offered for sale in this country. However, we will consider them "substantially similar" if the manufacturer advises us that the right-hand drive vehicle would perform the same as the certified left-hand drive vehicle in crash tests. If the vehicle is not substantially similar to one sold in the U.S., the RI would have to demonstrate that the vehicle, when modified, would comply with the applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards, which could involve crash testing several vehicles. " from the DOT website.

3) What is FTP, or federal emissions testing ?

Federal Test Procedure, or FTP means the test procedure as described in Sec. 86.130-00 (a) through (d) and (f) which is designed to measure urban driving tail pipe exhaust emissions and evaporative emissions over the Urban Dynamometer Driving Schedule as described in appendix I to this part.

R33 GT-R doing FTP Testing

4) What is the DOT ?

Department of Transportation . For importation and legalization, we are concerned with the NHTSA . National Highway Transportation Safety Administration . OVSC . Office of Vehicle Safety and Compliance. They can be reached at (202)366-5291

5) What is FMVSS ?

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Read more about the FMVSS . FMVSS Booklet

6) What is the EPA ?

Environmental Protection Agency. Read more about the EPA

7) What is CARB ?

California Air Resources Board. The ARB is California's environmental protection agency. They are above and beyond the EPA in California. Read more about the ARB.

8) What does the customs service do ?

9)What is an HS-7, DOT import form ?

It is the DOT form required to import a vehicle.

10) What is a 3520 -1, EPA import form ?

Its the EPA form required to import a motor vehicle. 3520-1

11) What is Show or Display exemption ?

12) I want to import a race car how do I do it ?

There are two ways to import a race car .



Altia Super Taikyu R34 GT-R - Race Car Exemption

13) I want to do the work myself , why can't I ?

Registered importers are supposed to perform all modifications as the modifications are covered by safety recall insurance . If the RI did not perform the modifications there is no way for them to ensure the modifications are done correctly.

14) Why do you care if I import a car and sell it ?

If this guy sells it to someone , without the person fully knowing about the car they may have some problems .

The only person that has something actually to lose is the guy that buys this car . If I can use some of my knowledge about this , to possibly help someone out , then I will .

Does anyone remember the call I got from the guy with a Skyline in Canada . Someone had told him that he could import the car to Canada . Then drive it for a year before he had to legalize it . Have to tell him that there is really not much I could do for him . I gave him his options . He didn't think he was doing anything wrong . But hes the guy that gets screwed.

15) What do you know about the petition process for vehicles at the DOT ?!docketDetail;dct=FR+P...

You will see two 87 page documents from me for the LHD Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII and VIII . The first few pages are the actual work . The rest of the pages are substantiating documentation from Mitsubishi press releases , and service manuals.It took me about a month to do the Mitsubishi petition . Get the paperwork and information together . Do the research , etc .

In February , 2003 I flew over to the DOT in Washington , DC and dropped off my petition . At first I bundled the VII and VIII together as they are on the same chassis CT9A . The DOT did not like this , and I had to go and split it into two petitions .

It took about 2 months for them to decide they wanted to see it different . Then took several more months before they published the VIII petition in the Federal Register . Another month to publish the VII petition . Comments from Mitsubishi on the VII delayed the closing of the petition a week. There are comments from Mitsubishi on the VII petition also.The week after Mitsubishis comments I called the DOT to find out if they wanted me to formally comment on Mitsubishis comments , and they told me to stand by. Its been about 3 weeks now , and I am standing by. In all its been 11 months since I started the project .11 months. Sure in that time , everyone in the DOT has changed , some rules have changed .

In the end, Mitsubishi kept making challenges, and we kept responding. Their final challenge that really took the sails out of the project was the claim that the side impact structure of the European car, and the US car were different. We were set to X-Ray the side of the car, but the money ran out, and the project was shelved.

16) I hear 1996 and up cars need OBD -II . What is OBD -II ? Do cars made for other countries have it ? No system was required by other countries until recently .

17) What about converting my car to run on propane, or other cleaner fuel ?

Alternative Fuel Certified Retrofit Systems Under current California regulations, conversion of emission-controlled vehicles with retrofit systems to operate on alternative fuels, such as propane and natural gas, in lieu of the original gasoline or diesel fuel is only allowed if the retrofit systems have been evaluated and certified by the Air Resources Board. The certification must be obtained by the manufacturer of the retrofit system and is issued by the Air Resources Board once the manufacturer demonstrates compliance with the emission, warranty, and durability requirements. View a list of certified retrofit systems for 1994 and newer model-year vehicles. (Word97 - 56K) or (Acrobat - 110K)

18) Kit cars. I want to take a car apart and import it as a kit car. Is this legal ?

Motor vehicles" must comply with the Clean Air Act and may not be disassembled nor purchased in a disassembled form for the purposes of evading the Clean Air Act or the Imports regulations. In these situations the kit car body/chassis combination must be certified by the manufacturer, must be in a configuration which was previously certified by EPA subject to the guidelines discussed at "2" above or, in the case of an importation, an EPA form 3520-1 must be filed at the port of entry and the vehicle imported by an eligible ICI who must ensure that the kit car body/chassis complies with all applicable emission requirements. At the present time, there are no ICIs eligible to import kit cars.

19) I hear the military are allowed to import cars to the US?

This is another untrue rumor spread by the internet. The military will move a members vehicle free of charge on a PCS (permanent change of station) move. HOWEVER, the vehicle has to be on the list of approved vehicles prior to the military allowing the move. Its always a friend, of a buddy, knew a guy, that did it. The military will not help you import your non-complying car.

Vehicle Importing Links

Here are some links to find out more information on automobile importing. How to import cars is a often misunderstood topic.

Photo Gallery

Click thumbnail to view full-size
1981 Toyota Landcruiser Diesel1984 Nissan President1970 Nissan Skyline
1981 Toyota Landcruiser Diesel
1981 Toyota Landcruiser Diesel
1984 Nissan President
1984 Nissan President
1970 Nissan Skyline
1970 Nissan Skyline

Show or Display Exemption -

Show or Display Nismo R32 Skyline GT-R
Show or Display Nismo R32 Skyline GT-R

A rule permitting entry of nonconforming motor vehicles for purposes of show or display became effective on August 13, 1999. If you wish to import a vehicle for show or display, you must apply to NHTSA for permission to do so and establish that the vehicle is of such historical or technological significance that it is in the public interest to show or display the vehicle in the United States even though it would be difficult or impossible to bring the vehicle into compliance with the Federal motor vehicle safety standards. This provision is intended to facilitate the importation of historically or technologically significant vehicles that were never certified by their manufacturer for sale in the United States.


In determining whether a vehicle is eligible for importation for show or display, NHTSA will consider the following factors, among others:

1. Whether a vehicle of the same make, model, and model year was manufactured and certified for sale in the United States.

2. Whether a vehicle of the same make, model, and model year has been determined eligible for importation pursuant to 49 CFR Part 593.

3. Whether the vehicle is currently in production.

4. Whether more than 500 of the vehicles were produced.

5. Whether the vehicle is a kit car, replica, or special construction vehicle.

If the answer to any of the above is affirmative, you should not expect NHTSA to grant permission for importation. If the answer to item 4 is affirmative, the applicant must establish that the vehicle is of exceptional technological and/or historical significance.


A vehicle eligible for Show or Display may receive NHTSA approval to be driven on the highway. The odometer must not register more than 2,500 miles in a 12-month period. NHTSA approval of limited on-road use is to allow the vehicle to be driven to and from nearby displays of similar automobiles. Another reason permission is granted is to maintain the vehicle’s engine, braking, lighting, and other dynamic systems in good working order. The vehicle is still required to meet EPA requirements. If the original engine in the vehicle will be replaced with a non-original engine to meet EPA requirements, it must be identified in your application since it may impact on the technological or historical significance of the vehicle.


Your signed application must include, at a minimum:

1. Your name, address, phone number, and FAX number.

2. Vehicle identification – make, model, model year, VIN or chassis number, engine number, date of manufacture and mileage.

3. Location where you will store the vehicle in the United States.

4. Statement describing use on the public roads, if intended. If on-road use is requested, identify the Independent Commercial Importer (ICI) that will modify the vehicle to bring it into conformity with the requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency.

5. Basis for the application.

6. Attachments:

1. Photographs – ¾ frontal, ¾ rear, interior, odometer reading and special features (if appropriate).

2. Document from manufacturer or recognized historical source, identifying total production (production verification).

3. Proof of insurance conditioned on limited on-road use (not more than 2,500 miles accumulated in any 12-month period).

4. Identification of vehicle’s:

1. Technological significance – You must identify (be specific) the technology, engineering, and construction features of the vehicle that are advanced and of an unusual nature not commonly found in motor vehicles manufactured in the same time period; or

2. Historical significance – You must identify the historical significance of the vehicle. If a person of historical significance owned the vehicle, you must submit proof that this person owned the vehicle. If the vehicle was the first or last vehicle of a particular model, you must establish this through the manufacturer’s documentation or, if this is not available, through a recognized historical source. If the vehicle was "one of a kind," you must establish this also.

Items of significance must be numerically listed followed by the reason why the item is of significance.

You may then mail the application to:

Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance (NVS-223)

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE

Room W45-205

Washington, DC 20590

Guestbook Comments

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    • whiteskyline lm profile image

      whiteskyline lm 

      6 years ago

      @tyndago: OK, it took me 5 months, I actually came here from your blog :)

      Now to find out if what you mean 'they run actual year' means is one manufactured anytime in 1989 will be importable anytime in 2014, as in January 1 2014, or if it is August 2014 for BNR32-000054 etc.

    • tyndago profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @whiteskyline lm:

      First production on the R32 was August 1989. They run actual year, to actual year in Japan, not with a leading model year like the US.

      August 1989 BNR32-000054

      September 1989 BNR32-001089

      October 1989 BNR32-002089

      November 1989 BNR32-003027

      December 1989 BNR32-004027

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      That was great! thanks for the wonderful information you share.

      They have a reputation for reliability that has been built over the years.

    • whiteskyline lm profile image

      whiteskyline lm 

      6 years ago

      @whiteskyline lm: I'm starting to wonder what the actual dates of manufacture are, and what that means, whether they will be qualified in 2013 some time..

    • whiteskyline lm profile image

      whiteskyline lm 

      6 years ago

      I will be coming back here with my notepad, probably a year from now :) Thanks for the great info


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