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Importing A Vehicle Into the US - Across The Sea

Almost every American Honda head has entertained thoughts of bringing in a sick right-hand drive from its homeland. But the import process is daunting unless you know how to work the system. Bob Hernandez tastes the kind of patience-and paper-you'll need t

Henry Z. DeKuyper
May 1, 2005
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Once or twice a month, usually on the freeway on the way to work in the morning, we'll catch a glimpse of a right-hand-drive Nissan Skyline GT-R. It's always thrilling to see it. Here is a small piece of Japanese auto culture that, save for a handful of safety and emission parts, is just how one would find it in its native habitat, and it's operating on our streets. Make that car a Honda and the whip goes from kinda cool to bad-ass.

For many it's the ultimate badge of coolness a non-Japanese national Honda enthusiast can hope for: a street-legal Japan-spec car. The credibility earned by owning one usually occurs on two different levels; first, a right-hand driver gets plenty of looks on U.S. streets from average folk for being so unconventional (how often does any of us see a RHD?).

More importantly, though, is that the same import will get even harder stares from Honda heads for carrying all the JDM minutiae. If you believe, like many in the import sport compact community, that vehicles that approach the Japanese visual aesthetic are cool, then the paragon of hip is owning an imported Japanese coach.

But the sad truth is acquiring such a car is no walk in the park. The process is very involved and somewhat expensive. Additionally, there are supply issues and regulatory hoops to jump through at each turn. Ultimately bringing in an entire vehicle may be too much of a headache for the average person.

Reality Check
Almost from the get-go there are discouraging omens in the laws regulating the importation of vehicles into America. In fact, before you even begin to look at a dealer, exporter, or auction in Japan for that Integra Type-R you've been dreaming of, you should be aware of a very important list that the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) keeps.

Importers must report to NHTSA, a subset of the U.S. Department of Transportation, whether the vehicle being brought in adheres to DOT requirements outlined in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, herewith the FMVSS. The FMVSS are federal standards written in terms of minimum safety performance requirements for motor vehicles, and you can get a copy at www.nhtsa.gov/cars/rules/import/FMVSS/.

As a general rule, cars less than 25 years old need to comply with all applicable FMVSS in order to be imported permanently into the United States. Vehicles made after September '78 need to also meet a bumper standard, and vehicles made in model years 1987 or later need to meet a theft-prevention standard. Cars made to meet these criteria should have a certification label provided by the original manufacturer near the driver's side door.

The trouble is, most of us aren't interested in 25-year-old cars or U.S.-spec ones either, which is what the certification verifies and is exactly what gets in easily. As U.S. Customs and Border Protection even cites in its "Importing or Exporting a Car" manual, "If vehicles manufactured abroad conform to U.S. safety, bumper, and emission standards, it is because these vehicles are exported for sale in the United States." At which point the laws are very clear-cars entering the United States that don't conform to U.S. standards will either be brought into compliance, exported, or destroyed.

Most people interested in bringing over a Type-R will have to contract with a DOT-registered imported (RI). An RI modifies the vehicle to make sure it conforms to all applicable FMVSS. The importer must also post a DOT bond for one and a half times the vehicle's dutiable value in addition to the normal Customs entry bond, and only an RI can import vehicles for resale. Before an RI can modify the vehicle, though, it must first be determined whether the vehicle is capable of being modified to comply with the FMVSS.

Enter that list we alluded to earlier. The registry is of vehicles that have already been approved for modification to comply with the FMVSS and it's available on NHTSA's Web site. Plainly dubbed the "List of Nonconforming Vehicles Capable of Being Modified by a Registered Importer," the collection carries only four Hondas: the '91-to-'99 Accord, the '89 Civic DX, '89-to-'97 Prelude, and the '88-to-'92 Acura Legend. That's it.

Which means the process evolves to the next level. Since our ITR is a nonconforming vehicle and not on the list, it must go through a petition process to determine whether it's capable of being modified for compliance. If the vehicle is not similar to one sold in the United States, the process of bringing it into compliance becomes very complex and costly, explains Password: JDM's Steven Niang, adding, "The laws exist to protect the U.S. manufacturers." Niang would know a bit about importing into America; he is the owner of Password, the country's largest JDM parts importer, and has brought in a few cars over the years, primarily for marketing purposes for his business.

Right Drive, Wrong Attitude
"The major deal-breaker for the DOT is the right-hand drive," contributes RB Motoring's Sean Morris. Morris is a certified RI and has been importing since '99, with stints at Motorex, the famed Southern California Skyline importer, and G&K Automotive Conversion, the largest and oldest established import conversion company in the United States. "Honda could also enter and say the U.S. version is significantly different than the Japanese version, in which case the RI needs to convince the DOT that the two versions are enough alike to satisfy the rules.

"The RHD issue is a sensitive one for the Department of Transportation. In fact, NHTSA regulations specifically state that while there are no specific restrictions against bringing over cars with a flopped steering wheel, they "... may not be imported under eligibility decisions based on the existence of substantially similar U.S.-certified left-hand-drive vehicles."

NHTSA goes on to say that its findings indicate that RHD vehicles are not necessarily as safe as left-hand drivers. The administration will consider these vehicles "substantially similar", though, if the manufacturer says both RHD models and U.S.-spec LHD versions perform the same in crash tests. Barring that, the RI would have to demonstrate to NHTSA, in petition form, that the vehicle will conform to federal standards.

On the regs, Morris reflects, "The DOT is the biggest impediment to these cars coming into the country. You will not get a letter from Honda, or any manufacturer for that matter, saying its RHD vehicles are just as safe as comparable LHD vehicles they produce."

He continues, "You then have to prove to the DOT that the RHD version will crash the same as the LHD U.S. version, will essentially perform the same in a crash test. The only way to perform the test is to physically crash cars. For just the front impact crash test, you're looking at about $60,000, and that doesn't include the cost of the car or getting it here. "

All tolled, Morris estimates between $250,000 and $500,000 in costs just to perform all the necessary testing and modifications on any one given make and model to bring it into compliance for usage in the States. And that doesn't include the emissions testing the EPA expects, which is handled by a different kind of importer. Additionally, the petition process takes at least six months, usually closer to a year, and there's no guarantee the DOT will say yes. "When you've got that much up front cost, you've gotta turn it into a business," Morris concedes.

To that end, Morris points out something interesting about the "List of Nonconforming Vehicles ..." -the vast number of Mercedes, BMW, and Ferrari models that have been approved. Most appear to be exotics and are primarily imported for sale because they demand a premium. Morris explains that a Ferrari that sells for $150,000 in Italy and costs about $25,000 to import can sell for $225,000 here. Which seems to be about the only way to make up the expense required to begin bringing a vehicle in.

"Unfortunately the DOT is not out there for [importers]," points out Morris. "The Environmental Protection Agency is not out there for [importers]."

River Run Dry
As if the DOT headaches weren't enough, folks wanting to import need to also face the fact that supply in Japan is very scarce. Older DA's and EF's are very rare, reports Niang. "In Japan, I hardly see anyone driving around in EG's anymore, and DA's - they're almost all gone."

Sixth-gen. Civic and third-gen. Integra R's are still holding their value in Japan, primarily because so many have been exported or parted out. "People from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, all over the place, have bought them up and driven the prices way up," observes Special Projects Motorsports Jeff Owen. "When I was importing [from Japan] to New Zealand there would be at least half a dozen car dealers on the plane every trip, and I'd make three or four trips a year." Owen, who used to live in New Zealand, currently imports vehicles from Japan to the United States for race purposes.

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The Japanese who are left owning Type-Rs are typically diehard Honda fans that will never let go of the car and always pay the road taxes and duties, explains Niang. "They're kind of like Hachi[-Rokus, the Toyota AE86]. Hachis go for almost as much as a [Skyline] R33 GT-R over there."

It is up to the buyer to track down a vehicle, or establish a system for doing so. This is generally done via importing agency, whereby the buyer hires an agent to work through several dealers and auctions in Japan to hunt down your vehicle. According to Owen, the first mistake most people make is finding an agent and letting him do the work for you without ever going to Japan yourself.

"That's the first mistake everyone makes, and you end up with a pile of junk," he half jokes. "You have to go [to Japan] yourself. You have to establish relationships with one or two different [agents], and you'll still get junk, but not quite as bad. Once you've established a relationship, you tend to get exactly what you want. But it's not something you want to get into lightly. It would require at least one trip to Japan to lay the groundwork."

Wrap It Up, I'll Take It
Once you're ready to buy the car, you need to figure out how to get it home. Sometimes your importer can refer you to a customs broker (a highly trained import professional who can help you choose a carrier) or shipping company, so it's best to ask up front. If not, there are plenty of resources on the good ol' World Wide Web.

The shipper should notify you of the vehicle's arrival date so that you can make arrangements to see it through customs. Customs says shipments are cleared at the first port of entry unless you can arrange for a freight forwarder abroad to have your cargo sent in bond to a customs port more convenient to you.

Owen, who uses a commercial shipper to move his cars, claims that's another relationship that needs fostering. "You need to find someone you can trust who won't rip you off, and they should be able to tell you exactly what you need to do and what your responsibilities are."

La Migra
The United States Customs and Border Protection team regulates imports at our country's points of entry and enforces the standards of the DOT/NHTSA, EPA, and IRS. The regulations they uphold fall under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act, the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act, and the Clean Air Act. Customs is essentially the first human wall preventing your Japanese dream vehicle from entering America.

The law forbids customs officers from operating as agents or making entries for an importer. However, the commercial customs broker you hired earlier to handle shipping is qualified to take on entering the shipment.

For customs clearance the broker will need (and you should try to have a copy of) the shipper or carrier's original bill of lading, the bill of sale, any foreign registration, and any other documents covering the vehicle. He will also be required to complete forms HS-7 for the DOT and 3520-1 for the EPA. For vehicles that don't have U.S.-version certification, the customs inspector at the port of entry may require proof of eligibility to import under the EPA exemptions or exclusions specified on form 3520-1.

Dot's Demands
Should we be fortunate enough to receive an NHTSA blessing to import our imaginary Type-R, Niang tells us your importer then has to deal with bringing the vehicle into compliance per Administration guidelines. Those changes typically include switching the speedometer from kilometers to miles per hour, installing DOT-certified seatbelts, making sure the side mirror opposite the driver is of the magnifying variety and reads "OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR", and in some cases outfitting the vehicle doors with side impact beams.

There is another issue to consider, too, regarding bringing cars into compliance using USDM parts. According to Morris, Honda isn't too bad because they have models in Japan and the United States that are very similar to each other. Even the crash worthiness may be just the same as the U.S. model. If there is something unique to a JDM version, however, like the one-piece headlights on the DC2 ITR, those will have to be replaced with U.S.-spec headlights. "The easiest way to do that is to swap the front end with the U.S. version, which for many importing a JDM Honda sort of defeats the purpose of bringing in a car from abroad."

Emissions Cops
When the customs officer handling your importation puts on his EPA hat as he determines whether or not your car gets in, he's asking himself three primary questions. The first is if the vehicle is excluded by the Clean Air Act from meeting Federal emission requirements. Most are not; we checked. Exclusions include, again, grandfathered (21 years old or older) vehicles, racing vehicles, vehicles powered by unregulated fuel, and the like. The last time we checked, CTR/ITR's are none of these things.

The next question is whether your car is a temporary or permanent importation. We're guessing only a halfwit would ever send back a JDM car, so that takes us to question three: is the vehicle a U.S. version vehicle, a Canadian vehicle, or a non-U.S./Canadian version vehicle?

We already determined previously that any Honda from Japan worth having probably won't be certified to Federal standards, including emissions standards, and therefore won't be a U.S.-version vehicle. The only Canadian vehicles the EPA permits to be imported into the country are ones that are said to be identical to U.S. versions. That doesn't help us. Our R again finds itself again somewhat ostracized in what the EPA calls the non-U.S. version category. The EPA will okay the importation of a nonconforming vehicle only if it qualifies for an exemption or exclusion, or is imported by an independent commercial importer (ICI) who is a current holder of a valid EPA certificate of conformity.

The Backdoor
One EPA exclusion on the list is a major loophole for many importers. When we refer to importers in this context, we speak very generally about people who import. Most of these importers you won't find registered with very many government Web sites.

"Those who have done it are not telling anyone how to do it, for obvious reasons," relates Owen. "I've been given several indications on how to go about doing it, and it's not really a big deal. It is a little time consuming."

In general, the way many importers are bringing in cars is they're dismantling the whole car abroad and declaring the portions of the car as used car parts. The vehicle is then reassembled when it's stateside, brought into compliance, and registered as a kit car. The registration process involves providing a visual record (video or photographic) of the vehicle arriving in parts, or disassembled, and of it being reassembled.

"It's such a mess, and the profit margin is really not there," complained one importer, who chose to remain anonymous. "Look at the DC2 - I'm looking at spending about $7,000 to $8,000 for an Integra in Japan. After I do all the work to bring the car into compliance, I'll be lucky if I get 10 grand for it here.

ICI, baby
The other way our non-U.S. version Type R can get past the EPA and into the United States is by Independent Commercial Importer (ICI). An ICI is a private business in the United States that holds a valid EPA certificate of conformity for the vehicle you want to import. The ICI will modify and test the vehicle, as applicable, to meet the EPA emission requirements. A list of currently certified ICI is available from the EPA.

But wait? Don't we have a registered importer that was helping us through DOT red tape? There's the rub - an RI gets you up to DOT standards, while an ICI preps the vehicle to meet EPA emissions regulations. (We never said this was cheap.) Some importers, like G&K Conversion and Motorex, can handle both; unfortunately, neither imports Hondas. Ask your RI to recommend an ICI (or maybe vice versa)

It's important to note that the EPA will deny entry to certain makes, models, and model years if an ICI is not certified or is unwilling to accept responsibility for the vehicle. Like you should be doing anyway, the EPA highly recommends that anyone importing a vehicle via an ICI should get a written contractual agreement that addresses typical buyer concerns.

Cars imported by ICI are entered through customs by the ICI, not the vehicle owner. The ICI retains custody until after the vehicle has met all EPA requirements. Those requirements include a 15 workday holding period after the ICI informs the EPA that all the work and testing have been completed. The ICI bears responsibility for the vehicle's compliance with emission standards over the vehicle's useful life.

The ICI has to ensure that the vehicle contains an emissions label and vacuum hose diagram, as well as provide the owner with prepaid emission warranties and maintenance instructions for the vehicle. In addition the ICI must perform fuel economy tests and provide the owner with gas-guzzler tax forms. Be forewarned, though: some vehicles simply cannot be successfully imported or modified by an ICI.

The "Automotive Imports Facts Manual," found on the EPA's Web site, does a good job at guiding people through the necessary steps for importing vehicles into the United States.

A final word on emissions: individual state requirements will likely be different from those of the federal government. Proper registration of a vehicle in a state may depend on satisfaction of its requirements, so you should contact the appropriate state authorities prior to importation.

Be aware, though, that the EPA will not accept compliance with a state's emission requirements as satisfying EPA requirements.

La Migra, Part 2
There are still a few more hoops to jump through before your baby is finished with customs and the federal hurdle to becoming U.S. road worthy. First, to protect against importation of dangerous pests, the Department of Agriculture requires that the undercarriage of imported cars be free of foreign soil. Make sure to have your car steam-sprayed or cleaned thoroughly before it gets shipped.

Somewhat comically, the customs service warns that your car is not a container for personal belongings, and should not be used as such. Finally, the CBP will collect a duty for foreign-made vehicles imported into the United States, which is 2.5 percent of the price paid for the car.

Local Flavor
After clearing federal import entanglements, vehicle owners typically have to face some form of regional registration, and when it comes down to it, owners in New York and California have it the worst. Both have similarly tough standards, with the New York DMV even basing its emissions standards directly off of California's.

In contrast, many other states, like Georgia, Missouri and Washington, and counties, like several in Hawaii and Texas, have little to no vehicle importation oversight. The Web site for Florida's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles even sends inquiries about vehicle importation directly to the NHTSA site. Bottom line: if you're in one of those two coastal regions, you're hating life.

Most municipalities expect owners to provide some form of title and/or registration from the vehicle's place of origin, as well as a bill of sale and a transfer form. The car will probably also need to be inspected, both for emissions and safety. It is during these inspections that many additional cars are filtered out for being noncompliant. Finally, the state or county will likely ask for taxes or fees and proof of insurance.

Final Thoughts
Now that all the facts are before you, and you can weigh them and scrutinize them even further, here's one additional thing to chew on: there are alternatives. We mentioned the option of parting a vehicle, which may be a little risky for some, but if all you're looking for is a RHD, then maybe a conversion is more realistic.

"Buy a front clip, alter the firewall, and drop in a motor," says Niang. "This way bypasses legalities concerning emissions, seatbelts, mirrors, and the vehicle is already registered because it's U.S. spec. That's the quickest way to get a RHD car on the street."

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Barring a conversion, you can always attempt to hunt one down in the United States, or elsewhere, but be prepared to search long and hard. And should you encounter a JDM Type R for sale stateside, there are few obvious ways to authenticate that the car is an import and not just a conversion. Niang explains, "It depends on how good the conversion is. Look for overspray, whether the caulking was done correctly, look at welds-there will always be telltale signs."

Additionally, since most cars that have been legally imported are registered, you can check with the DOT to see if the VIN is a legal one at: 202/366-5291. "There are a lot of people who have cars here illegally, or who did not import them correctly," admits Morris. "If someone tries to bring one of those cars into California, even if it's registered in another state, the CHP will pop it as a non-U.S. car, and California is the only state I know of that actually checks."

Yet another reason not to ever go to the Golden State.

Sources

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
www.epa.gov
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
www.nhtsa.dot.gov
RB Motoring
(626) 961-9213
www.rbmotoring.com
Special Projects Motorsports
Orange, CA 92865
714-998-1258
http://www.specialprojectsms.com
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
877/CUSTOMS
www.cbp.gov
By Henry Z. DeKuyper
312 Articles

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