How to import a car from Canada to the U.S. with relative ease

1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL

As an enthusiast who also loves a bargain, I’ve noticed some great automotive values coming out of Canada lately. With the current strength of the U.S. dollar in comparison to the Canadian dollar, it’s no wonder that some Canadians are opting to sell their collectible cars on sites like Bring a Trailer, which cater primarily to U.S. buyers.

But how difficult is it to import a car from Canada to the U.S.? The short answer is, it can be pretty easy and painless—especially if the car is at least 25 years old. My recent experience importing my “accidental” purchase went rather smoothly.

TIP #1: You have to buy or sell the car in Canada

If you think it’s going to be easier to cross the border and do paperwork after the fact, think again. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection guidelines make it clear that you need to present all your documentation at the border upon entry. That means the bill of sale and any ownership documents need to be sorted (presumably with payment) before driving or towing the car stateside. For you Canadians looking to sell a car, make sure the buyer knows this. Penalties for non-compliance with import laws can get your car seized, and you do not want that.

Niagara Falls Canada in the background
Christopher Flaugh

TIP #2: The magic number is 25 (years), and it is based on the car’s manufacture date.

My car is a 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL, manufactured in November 1986, so it is well beyond the 25-year criteria. I noticed it early during its seven-day auction cycle, thanks to its unusual green color (I like green cars), but I didn’t look at it seriously until the last day of the auction.

About five minutes prior to the end of the auction, I saw that the car was sitting at only $3600, which seemed really cheap for what appeared to be a very clean car with only 53,000 miles. I assumed the reserve to be much higher than that, so I decided to help things along with a $4000 bid with about two minutes to go. Just before the auction ended, a new bidder appeared and outbid me at $4126, which automatically extended the auction by two minutes. I placed another bid at $4500, still thinking that we surely must be far from the reserve, then I watched the clock wind down without a counter bid, and I was declared the winner.

I was excited to have won this car at what seemed to be a great price. Then reality hit as I realized that: 1) I’d just bought a car—sight unseen—that was in another country, and 2) I needed to have “the conversation” with my spouse, since I had just purchased another car without discussing it first. I decided to look at this as an adventure, and I figured it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

The seller and I talked on the phone shortly after the auction ended on a Thursday afternoon, and we decided that the following Thursday would be the best day for me to pick up the car. Over the next couple of days, I booked a Wednesday one-way flight from Dallas to Toronto and booked a hotel for that night so that I could pick up the car first thing Thursday morning and immediately hit the road for Texas.

TIP #3: Allow additional time for international wire transfers, or be prepared to carry cash.

I went to my bank on Monday morning to wire the purchase price to the seller. I’ve dealt with domestic wire transfers plenty of times in the course of my business, so I didn’t expect any issues here. However, I was informed that since this was considered an international wire transfer, it could take up 3–5 business days for the funds to show up in seller’s account. Even after escalating the issue, no one could assure me that the funds would be in seller’s account by the time I arrived in Toronto on Thursday to pick up the car. Clearly this was not acceptable, so I withdrew the $4500 in cash, caught an Uber to the airport, and flew to Toronto.

crossing the bridge into the United States
Christopher Flaugh

TIP #4: Make sure you have proof of insurance, a valid license plate or temporary permit, and means to secure said plate/permit in a visible manner.

On Thursday morning, the seller, Peter, picked me up at the hotel, and we went to the garage where the car was stored, next to his 1991 BMW M5. The M5 was also for sale (although it was very tempting, I had to remain focused on the task at hand). I took a quick look at the Mercedes, which was even better than I expected. Then we went to Peter’s bank to deposit the cash and sign paperwork, before heading back to the garage to get my new 30-year-old car.

I’d printed a temporary transit permit before I left Texas. There were several types of permits available on www.txdmv.gov ; I selected the least-expensive option, the Texas One-Trip Permit, which was valid for 15 days and cost $9.75. I placed the permit in the rear window, but I forgot to bring some tape to secure it in a visible position. Peter said that his house was just a few blocks away, on my way out of town, so he suggested we stop there to get some tape.

We were less than a block away when I saw flashing red lights in my rearview mirror. I turned the corner and parked in front of Peter’s house, followed by a Toronto police officer. The officer informed me that he pulled me over because there was no visible license plate on the car. I explained that I had just bought the car that morning and pointed to the temporary transit permit laying down inside the rear window. He said that it was not visible, so that was a violation. Peter approached and further explained that we were on our way to his house right across the street, specifically for the purpose of getting some tape to secure the permit in a more visible position.

The officer asked for my license and proof of insurance. I handed him my Texas driver’s license and explained that although the car was insured as of that morning, I did not have the insurance card in hand (I didn’t know at the time that Hagerty had emailed the proof of insurance card to me; I hadn’t checked my email yet). The officer frowned on that, but Peter mentioned that his insurance was still in effect and offered to go inside his house across the street and get proof. This satisfied the officer, and he went on his way. Peter gave me a few bottles of Canadian water for my trip, then I headed towards the U.S.-Canada border.

TIP #5: Call the local U.S. customs and border protection office before you go.

U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection truck
Christopher Flaugh

Before I left Texas, I called the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Buffalo office. There is a dedicated phone line for those who are importing a motor vehicle—716-843-8348—and a recorded message contained helpful info including which bridges to use, hours of operation, required paperwork, etc.

TIP #6: Have all your forms completed to the best of your knowledge, and print them on letter-size paper.

I drove up to the first available gate, provided my passport, and informed the officer that I am a U.S. citizen who just purchased this car in Canada and am importing it to the U.S. for personal use. He asked if the car was registered; I pointed to the temporary transit permit in the rear window. He told me to drive forward and turn to the left, and another officer would direct me to a parking space and then inside the building. Once inside the building, I provided the officer at the front desk with my paperwork (Canadian registration for the car, bill of sale, DOT form HS-7, EPA form 3520).

Be sure to get the DOT and EPA forms stamped before you leave the customs office. One member of the Hagerty editorial team, upon importing a car, was told the forms don’t need to be stamped because the car is exempt, which is incorrect. This came back when he tried to register the car, as most states require the forms to issue a title, even though the import was approved by Customs and Border Protection. This resulted in an extra trip to the nearest CBP office and much unneeded stress.

Although it’s not necessary to have the DOT and EPA forms filled out before you arrive, it can speed up the process. I had the DOT and EPA forms mostly completed except for the customs info at the top. I had printed the DOT form on legal paper, as it appeared to be sized for that; the officer said that although the form was much more legible on legal paper, he had never seen it printed that way, so he had me fill out the form again on letter-size paper.

I was then instructed to take a seat while they reviewed my documents. About 15 minutes later, the officer called me to the desk and instructed me to follow him upstairs and pay the duty owed. The duty was calculated as 3 percent of the first $1,000 of purchase price, then 2.5 percent of the remainder: ($1000 x 3%) + ($3500 x 2.5%) = $117.50.

importation documents
importation info

I read on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website that “as a returning U.S. resident, you may apply your $800 CBP exemption and those of accompanying family members toward the value of the vehicle if it: accompanies your return, is imported for personal use, and was acquired during the journey from which you are returning. For CBP purposes, a returning U.S. resident is one who is returning from travel, work, or study abroad. After the exemption has been applied, a flat duty rate of 3 percent is applied toward the next $1,000 of the vehicle’s value. The remaining amount is dutiable at the regular duty rate.”

The regular duty rate for automobiles is listed on the same page of the website as 2.5 percent but a whopping 25 percent for imported trucks.  Based on this formula, I should have been charged $97.50: (1000 x 3%) + (2700 x 2.5%) = $97.50. I asked the officer about the $800 exemption, and he told me that applies only toward personal items, not vehicles. Even though I believe he was clearly wrong, I decided not to push it since it was only a $20 difference. And he had a gun.

After payment of the $117.50 duty (they accept cash and credit cards), he returned my paperwork, having stamped the DOT and EPA forms and added form CBP 7501 and said I was free to go. Total time: 40 minutes.

I tried to get a photo of the car with Niagara Falls in the background, but I couldn’t get close enough, so I continued on. After a stop in Akron, Ohio, to visit a private car collection and have dinner at Luigi’s, I continued on to my mom’s house in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I spent Friday with Mom, found her lost dog (Randy apparently likes to ride in the back seat of the Benz), got a new set of Michelins (the previous set of tires had good tread, but they were 13 years old), and went to visit my brother in Lake Pleasant. On Saturday morning I drove to Noblesville, Indiana, to visit my sister and family before arriving at a friend’s house in Memphis late Saturday night.

1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL inspection
Christopher Flaugh's 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

TIP #7: Call your local authorities ahead of time and ask if they require any additional forms or procedures.

The next morning I headed to Graceland for a photo op, then I was back on the road. After a couple of gas stops, I was home in Dallas at 6:15 p.m. The car ran great the entire trip, with no issues whatsoever. It’s definitely a different driving experience compared to my Porsche and BMW, as this car seems to float down the road, but it was a very comfortable journey with cold A/C throughout. I had driven a total of 3,100 kilometers—1,926 miles—but I wasn’t done yet. I still had to deal with the State of Texas.

On Monday afternoon, I took these forms to the Dallas County Tax Assessor’s office to title and register the car: Ontario registration, bill of sale, stamped DOT form HS-7, stamped EPA form 3520, stamped CBP form 7501, Application for Texas Title form 130-U, Application for Antique License Plate form VTR-54, and proof of insurance. After waiting in line for 15 minutes, I presented my forms to the clerk. He looked through the paperwork, then walked away to talk to another employee. After a lengthy discussion amongst the employees they determined I needed form VTR-68-A, Law Enforcement Identification Number Inspection. For imported vehicles or those with a non-standard VIN, many other states require a similar form where a police officer confirms the serial number and does a basic safety inspection.

Another five minutes in line and another clerk told me they no longer have that form and suggested I call the Dallas Police Department Auto Theft Unit and schedule an appointment for a VIN certification, then an officer would complete the form. Time spent: 45 minutes. (Yes, that’s five minutes longer than at the U.S.-Canada border. And I still wasn’t finished.)

I went out to the car to call the DPD Auto Theft Unit, and I was told that VTR-68-A appointments are scheduled only on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 8–10 a.m. Fortunately there was an 8:30 appointment available the next day, so I took it. I was told that if I was late, even a minute, they would no longer honor my appointment time. And my driver’s license must be valid and indicate my current address. Time spent: 10 minutes.

Christopher Flaugh imported 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL
Christopher Flaugh

First thing Tuesday morning, I headed across town for my 8:30 a.m. I left early to ensure that I wouldn’t be late. Traffic is typically horrible at that time of morning, but I made it with 10 minutes to spare. An officer came out to the parking lot, looked at the car, asked for the keys and my driver’s license, and drove the car inside to do whatever it is they do to “certify the VIN.” After a long wait, I received a completed form. Time spent: 1 hour.

Later that morning, I headed back to the Dallas County Tax Assessor’s office and waited in line again to re-present my documents, along with the newly-acquired VTR-68-A. The process went more smoothly this time, and I was presented with a bill for $339, which includes a $13 title application fee, $20 Texas Mobility Fund fee, $281.25 state sales tax, $10 antique plate fee, $10 county road bridge add-on fee, and $4.75 processing and handling fee. Time spent: 30 minutes.

All in all, the process to import a 25-year-old (or older) car from Canada to the U.S. was surprisingly easy, even though the State of Texas was a royal pain to deal with, as always. All I needed to get the car into the country was:

  1. Canadian title/registration
  2. Bill of sale
  3. Temporary U.S. transit permit or license plate
  4. DOT form HS-7
  5. EPA form 3520
  6. Cash or credit card to pay import duty

Time and dollars spent with U.S. Customs: 40 minutes, $117.50.

Christopher Flaugh's 1987 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEL
Christopher Flaugh

And this is what I needed to get the car titled/registered/plated in Texas:

  1. Canadian title/registration
  2. Bill of sale
  3. Stamped DOT form HS-7
  4. Stamped EPA form 3520
  5. Stamped CBP form 7501
  6. Application for Texas Title form 130-U
  7. Application for Antique License Plate form VTR-54
  8. Law Enforcement Identification Inspection Form VTR-68A
  9. Proof of insurance
  10. Valid Texas driver’s license with current address
  11. Cash or check to pay fees (they will accept credit cards, but charge an additional fee to do so)
  12. Lots of patience

Time and dollars spent with state/local governmental agencies: 2 hours, 25 minutes, $348.75.

All things considered…I’d do it again.