Whether you are buying a car already imported to the US or are importing a car from Japan, you need to know the rules. Make sure you understand what cars are legal, and when they are legal to import from Japan.


CBP Agent on duty to inspect imported goods prior to clearance through customs

I know I’m not the only one who first discovered the Nissan Skyline GTR when playing Gran Turismo II on PlayStation in middle school… This was back before the internet, forums, blogs, and oh yes YouTube. This video game was for most of us 30 or old or older our first glimpse of this forbidden fruit that we could never get here. But why not? Why can’t you just buy a car you want, and ship it over? Well now that the first years of the R32 generation Nissan Skyline are 25 years old, you can.

Like many irritating things in our lives the answer is that It’s the law. And just like the plot in any good Michael Bay film, the villain was a large greedy corporation. In the mid 80’s the auto industry, led by Mercedes-Benz lobbied Congress to the end individuals’ ability to import vehicles into the United States for personal use. Why? Well personal vehicle importation was cutting into new luxury car business because you could buy the same car for cheaper in Deutschland, and bring it over without much restriction. The Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988 was the result. This response by congress required original manufacturer certification of all U.S.-bound vehicles with a few small exceptions.

The regulating bodies for the current laws on imports are the NHTSA, DOT (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Transportation). Luckily for us enthusiasts, the way the laws are written are really only there to protect the Corporations that lobbied for the laws in the first place. Vehicles 25 years or older are exempt from NHTSA regulations. The NHSTA figures that if you’re dumb enough to bring in a 25 year old car, they don’t care anymore. In fact, NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said that 25 year old cars are “worn out and can be used minimally.” The 25-year exemption is for enthusiasts who want to import “a vintage novelty car.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Is the organization that actually inspect all imports coming in through our ports into the United States.  The have a publication called Importing classic or antique vehicles / cars for personal use That covers all of the specifics. The exact text of the 25 year exemption states that:

A motor vehicle that is at least 25 years old can be lawfully imported into the U.S. without regard to whether it complies with all applicable DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). Such a vehicle would be entered under Box 1 on the HS-7 Declaration form to be given to Customs at the time of importation.

So you just download the HS7 Form check box 1 and that’s it? It Sounds pretty simple because it is. However, there is a mountain of paperwork you’ll need along with this form to get your car cleared through customs. This mountain is accompanied by lots of hands out waiting to be paid taxes and fees before you car gets cleared through customs. In another article we will cover all the costs after your car arrives at the port.

There are a lot of misconceptions regarding when the vehicle is actually 25 years old. Obviously this is important because it is the whole reason your car is eligible to be imported in the first place. CBP makes this very clear in the following text in the Importing classic or antique vehicles / cars for personal use document.

You should note that the 25 year period runs from the date of the vehicle’s manufacture. If the date of manufacture is not identified on a label permanently affixed to the vehicle by its original manufacturer, to establish the age of the vehicle, you should have documentation available such as an invoice showing the date the vehicle was first sold or a registration document showing that the vehicle was registered at least 25 years ago. 

What this means is that the car needs to be 25 years old to the month. Basically the car was manufactured in January of 1991, then you can’t import the car through customs until January 2016. There have been articles where people have got a Skyline GTR through customs on January or 2015 when the car was produced June 1990. That may have worked for them because CBP was unfamiliar with the rule at the time, but this is not a good gamble to make. Port storage fees can be up to 50 dollars a day if your car gets caught not old enough to clear. I certainly don’t want to be out over 3,000 dollars because my car was 2 months early. It’s a good idea to make sure your vehicle is 25 years old by the time it gets on the RORO carrier to leave Japan just to be sure. Your exporter should always send you the original auction sheet and export certificate that will show the original registration date.

So now you’re probably thinking “Awesome! I just need to find a 25 year old Skyline and I can have the car I’ve been wanting all this time!” Well, mostly. There is one other even more often overlooked requirement by the EPA. Although they are more lenient about the age at 21 years, they have one pretty nasty requirement that you need to know before you pick out your drem Skyline, Supra, or RX7. Read more about the EPA 21 year exemption so you understand this important rule.

The EPA 21 Year Exemption For Vehicles in Original Configuration

EPA21In addition to the NHTSA, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is another big government agency that has way more power (and more paperwork) than you would imagine. Basically, the EPA is the casino, and this is their house. If you want to bring in a car not certified for US emissions, you play by their rules or your car gets thrown out.

However, the EPA is a lot more lenient than the NHTSA, DOT. The EPA says at 21 years old, and in its original configuration, a vehicle is exempt from EPA requirements. The EPA importation form is called the 3520-1. For vehicles that meet these two requirements, an importer would fill in code E on the 3520-1.

The 3520-1 is the second of the two main government forms you will need to have filled out in addition to an array of other documents that you need when the car is picked up from customs.  So right now you’re thinking: “Well that’s simple, why even mention it? Obviously if the car is 25 years old, then it has already been 21 years old.” So why worry about the EPA?

The EPA most definitely has the ability to squash your importation hopes and dreams. You weren’t planning on racing on hopes and dreams were you? After all, a couple SR20 motors would pull a premium a week before Race Wars…. Never mind…. On the subject of SR20DET engines, say you were planning to import a Silvia Q’s that originally did not come with a turbocharged engine. If someone in Japan swapped in an SR20DET, you better think again. This car’s engine no longer has the original configuration. The text of the pertinent EPA regulation states:

A vehicle is exempted if it has been 21 years or more since its original production year and it is in its original unmodified condition. Vehicles in any condition may be excluded if they were manufactured prior to the year in which EPA’s regulations for the class of vehicle took effect. Vehicles at least 21 years old with replacement engines are not eligible for this exemption unless they contain equivalent or newer EPA certified engines and emission control systems. Upon entry, the importer must file an EPA Form 3520-1 with Customs and declare code “E” on the form.

That means any engine swapped car is not eligible to be imported from Japan to the United States unless it was swapped with a US spec engine and emissions control system (unlikely). Is customs and border control going to notice that your 1990 Skyline GTS-T has an RB25 from an R33 instead of the original RB20? That’s for you to decide, as you will be the one taking the risk as the individual importing the vehicle. Do you think it will be like the scene in Fast & Furious (4) when Brian asks the agent whether a Gallo12 or a Gallo24 would be a better motor for his Skyline?

If you decided to roll the dice, hopefully CBP doesn’t notice or can’t recognize the engine swap. If they do notice a replacement engine, at a minimum you will be out the cost of the car at auction, the exporter fee, and all the transportation and customs fees you have already paid at a minimum. In the casino, when you get caught setting the dice, you get beat up and thrown out. When you get caught deceiving the government, you may lose a lot more than you gambled and get thrown in jail.  In reality they probably will not know or be able to tell the difference. I’ve see a lot of cars imported with everything from engine swaps, to massive aftermarket turbochargers and sewer pipe sized downpipes that remove the catalytic converters. Assuming that CBP will not notice that your vehicle does not actually qualify for a code “E” exemption on the 3520-1 is a pretty large gamble though. Personally I’m going to bet with the house on this one and just play the pass line. If you want to bet on CBP to “crap out” and miss your engine swapped car, that’s up to you. What do you think, is it worth it?