Shipping a Car from the US to Europe
Whether you're an American looking to take your car abroad with you to Europe, or you're a European expat looking to return home from the US, you're going to want a reliable shipping company to move your car for you. In 2003, I decided to take my year-old car with me from the US to Europe, and I spent loads of time searching for a good company with a good reputation. To learn more about some of the rules involved in this process, and how I went about doing it, please continue reading below.
Are you American or European?
This is important. If you're a European citizen and have been abroad for the stipulated time frame, you can bring a US-bought car back to the EU with you as part of your personal effects with little hassle. If you're American and looking to move to the EU, it will be more complicated for you -- so much so that I will start this off with a fair warning -- you'd be better of selling your car now and getting another one when you get here. But if you're like me, and really want to keep the one you have, then keep reading.
Ro/Ro vs Container
I went with Ro/Ro shipping, which means they drive your car onto the boat and they drive it off when it gets to port. Container shipping means your car goes into a big shipping container, and I'd read too many horror stories about that process to choose it, but I do know people who've done it without problem. Both cost about the same price, and if you're shipping other household items, you could use the container for everything and save some money that way. I wasn't bringing anything over in that sense, so it didn't appeal to me. I picked my car up from the port in Antwerp (you will need to prove that you have a valid DL, international DL permit, valid EU car insurance, plates, etc) and then drove it to my destination myself. If you're wondering which company I used, it's called Sefco Export Management Company, and I highly recommend them. You can use them regardless of where you live in the US, as they have an overlanding service.
This should go without saying, but you need to own your car outright, or US Customs officials will never allow it to be put on the boat. If you're shipping Ro/Ro (roll on/roll off) then you can actually deliver it yourself to the port and clear customs yourself. I did this in Baltimore and it took about 10 minutes. Remove your car plates before you hand the car over to the shipping company to avoid them being nicked for someones private collection. You WILL need them in Europe, as you can't drive without some kind of plates on your car, and the process of getting new plates can take a very, very long time. I used my US plates for a year. Also, don't stash anything valuable in your car for the shipping, to avoid sticky fingers picking anything up.
You will need to have European driving insurance in order to use the car once it arrives in the EU, and I used Geico Overseas and arranged a plan before I left the US. In some countries it may be possible to get regular insurance that the locals buy while still on US plates, but generally it's quite hard to pull off and if you manage it, it will be very expensive. You can, however, often find car insurance for tourists in many places and while I wouldn't be so sure I'd trust the payout, it should be cheaper than the rest and at least make your car legal.
Many Americans get very irate when they bring their BMW, Mercedes or Volvo over here and find out it doesn't meet EU standards. Even if you bought it in California. If your car doesn't meet the EU standards, it will need modifications to be street legal and get insurance, be imported (whether temporarily or permanently). This can cost more than 10,000 USD depending on whether or not you've got the right tail lights, fog lights, etc and is one of the reasons I gave you a warning earlier on.
Most of the western EU countries will go by the book, but many of the former Soviet bloc countries (and there are many of them in the EU) will have shady people in high places who will exploit both your ignorance and wallet during this process. The local director of a well-known car manufacturer demanded a huge bribe from me when I asked him to sign a paper that he was required to sign for free, and only as a formality. I wound up calling his boss in Sweden and cleared things up quickly enough, but this is something you should know about before arriving -- corruption is everywhere, but in some countries it's appallingly blatant.
In many countries there are rules about snow tires and many have laws that require you to have two sets and use them during certain seasons. This is another expense you might not be prepared for, so keep it in mind.
I won't bother mentioning how expensive gas is over here, as you'll find out soon enough. But I will mention that they do not have the same octane levels here, and you might end up having to put a higher octane, or lower octane, than your car needs in the tank. This screwed my engine up after a few years and lots of things needed to be replaced. Not to mention the "check engine" light was permanently on from year 2.
Mechanics can be shady anywhere, but in some EU countries they have a real talent for it. Unless you personally know the mechanic you're going to, stick with an authorized dealership mechanic so you at least have a way to complain above their heads at the EU HQ is something goes wrong. Also keep in mind that some cars will be out of their area of expertise. Mine was one of a few hundred ever built and the local mechanics had to routinely order parts from HQ which delayed the entire process. That, and they had no experience in repairing that model until mine came along, which may not be the best situation for you and your car.
Please realize, that in order to get EU plates, you need to have some sort of legitimate basis of stay in the EU. This means you need to have a visa in hand, or be a citizen already. You can't just come here and get plates. Of course, once you're finally through all the hoops and have registered your car, it's quite an accomplishment and you will likely be glad you brought your car along. But eventually I think you will reflect on the whole thing as I do -- an unnecessary nightmare that could have been avoided by selling my car and getting a new one!