Buying a car in Canada — importing to the US

TransferWise
11.04.19
6 minute read

If you’re considering buying a new car, you might be thinking of choosing a vehicle in Canada and driving it home to the United States. Before you buy a vehicle — new or used, it’s smart to check out the process for importing it to the US. The main issue you may run into is that cars made for the Canadian market don’t necessarily meet US emission standards or safety standards.

If you’re a US resident, looking to buy a vehicle in Canada for personal use, check out this handy guide on how to get it home to the US legally.

Buying a used car from Canada — the basics

Any US citizen is legally allowed to import a vehicle for personal use. However, how you can to do this will depend a bit on the vehicle you choose.

One important factor for cars which are under 25 years old, is whether or not the vehicle meets US safety and emissions requirements.

If the used car you choose doesn’t meet the requirements laid out you might have to import it using an independent commercial importer (ICI)

To check whether your vehicle meets US standards, you can either look for a manufacturer label in the car, or have the manufacturer send you a letter which confirms it complies with the current US requirements. If your car has a manufacturer label in or around the driver seat door, which states that it has been produced for the US market, then you can be sure it complies with all relevant standards. Your other option is the contact the maker and ask for a letter which identifies your vehicle by its vehicle identification number (VIN)

Under some circumstances, you can have minor compliance issues fixed by a dealer before importing your vehicle — but it’s wise to check out your options thoroughly before you invest any money in making changes.

Importing to the United States — documents

When you buy your vehicle in Canada, you will need to get the following paperwork from your car dealership or private seller:

  • A bill of sale showing you or your spouse as the vehicle owner. The car must be identified using its unique VIN number in this document
  • Manufacturer’s certificate of origin and the vehicle title
  • Temporary license plate / insurance from wherever in Canada you buy the vehicle, to cover your trip back to the border
  • Proof of payment of GST - as you’re a non-resident exporting the vehicle, PST should be waived

In order to get your vehicle through US customs, you’ll need to provide all the above and also complete the following forms:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) form 3520-1 to show environmental compliance
  • Department of Transportation (DOT) form HS-7

These forms can be found online on the websites of the relevant agencies.

Standards for importing a vehicle

To import a car into the US you will usually have to prove that it conforms to all local standards for safety and environmental protection. The easiest way to do this is if the car was manufactured in Canada for the US market. In this case, there will be a manufacturer label which clearly states this, in English, usually on the drivers door.

If this isn’t available you’ll need to ask the manufacturer to confirm the vehicle meets US standards. In many ways, the standards applied in the US and Canada are similar, but there are some differences you need to know about.

Primarily, your vehicle must meet US standards for emissions and passenger safety, including bumper strength, and having adequate safety restraints. You’ll also have to comply with US requirements around the seat belt warning alarms which sound when passengers aren’t belted up, and features to ensure gas won’t leak in the case of an accident.

Smaller areas which commonly need to be checked or changed include having a odometer which reads in miles, rather than kilometres, placement of reflectors and the third brake light, and the brightness and angling of the headlights.

Although some of the changes required are minor, and some may even be waived depending on the vehicle you buy, achieving US compliance can end up being quite expensive.

Buying the car in Canada

One important piece of advice when buying your car in Canada, is to check all the compliance issues before you hand over any cash. Buying a vehicle, and then discovering you’ll need to pay to have major issues brought into compliance with US standards could be expensive.

Before you confirm your purchase, you should also check online that the vehicle has nothing alarming in its history. There are sites which allow you to check that it’s not been involved in a bad accident, and isn’t stolen — more on that later.

And of course, if you do decide to go ahead with buying the car — make sure you get all of the paperwork set out above, to prove to US customs that you’re the rightful owner.

Bringing back the car to the US — customs

If you’re driving your new purchase across the US border, you’ll need to provide the paperwork listed above to prove the legality of the car sale — and that the vehicle is fit for import to the US.

If you discover when purchasing it, that your vehicle has minor issues which need to be addressed to bring it into line with US standards, you might be able to have them fixed in Canada and simply show the customs officer an invoice detailing the work carried out. However, if this is your plan, it’s smart to call the authorities in advance and check that this will work for your particular vehicle.

Another point is that your car must be free from dirt for environmental reasons. Have it properly cleaned before you head south, to make sure the undercarriage is mud-free.

Assuming your car is clean, your paperwork is in order, and there are no hitches, you shouldn’t be held up long at the border. Officers will check the vehicle and the documents, but could have you on the road again in half an hour or so.

Buying a new car from Canada, is it any different from a used one?

The process is the same for a new and used car — the only variant is for vintage or classic cars over 25 years old. The safety and emissions standards applied for these vehicles are different, making the regulations a little easier to comply with.

Back in the United States

Once you have got your vehicle back home, there are just a few more steps to get registered and running.

  • Get insurance for your new vehicle
  • Register the vehicle at the DOT in your state
  • Pay any state taxes owed, and order your new license plates
  • Depending on your state your vehicle might need further checks or an emission test to ensure it complies with state standards as well as federal ones
  • Once you have your new plates, you’re good to go

Tips and tricks

Some final words, from people who have previously imported their vehicles from Canada to the US:

  • For any used car, always use a checking service like VinAudit to see the history of the vehicle, including thefts or damage
  • Check where the vehicle was originally made — this will make a difference to the amount of duty you owe on it. Most Canadian made vehicles are duty free — but just because you’re buying in Canada, doesn’t mean that’s where the vehicle started out
  • If you do owe import duty, you and any accompanying family members may be able to use your duty exemptions against the amount payable
  • You’ll also have to pay 5% GST when you buy your car, but may be able to off-set this against state use tax. See if this is possible in your home state

Importing a vehicle from Canada to the US is not quite as simple as driving it over the border — but with a bit of forward planning, and a good grasp of the paperwork involved, it is certainly possible. If you’ve found a new or used car you love, and want to buy in Canada, use our guide as a starting point on how to get it home with you, and you’ll be cruising round your neighborhood in no time.


Sources used:

  • https://www.ezbordercrossing.com/the-inspection-experience/import-a-vehicle/importing-vehicle-from-canada/
  • https://help.cbp.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/1704/kw/buying%20car%20in%20canada/session/L3RpbWUvMTU0NzU3NDgyNC9zaWQvVkEyYnZWNG8%3D
  • https://www.cbp.gov/trade/basic-import-export/importing-car
  • https://icsw.nhtsa.gov/cars/rules/import/
  • https://jalopnik.com/here-are-the-four-legal-ways-to-import-a-car-to-the-uni-1682067632

All sources last checked 14 March 2019


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

Find out more

Tips, news and updates for your location