Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Shipping A Car To The U.S.

From cost, logistics, and paperwork to all the other little things

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As many of you know, I’m currently importing a Nissan Skyline GT-R the United States. This is a long and intricate process that involves a wide range of port workers, sailors, government agencies, customs employees, and enough forms to bury them all in a large pile of official documents.

But the process is almost complete. You’d know this if you followed me on Twitter, because my Skyline is less than three weeks away from landing in America — and that means I have a lot of ground to cover on the import process before I start doing highly informative videos about the difficulty of bringing a right-hand drive vehicle to the drive-thru.


So today I’m going to address a topic that many of you have been wondering about: precisely how do you go about shipping a car to the United States? I know you’ve been wondering about this because I’ve received dozens of e-mails from a slew of different readers asking a multitude of shipping-related questions, ranging from “Does it cost thousands of dollars?” to “Do you have to put it in a box?”

Even friends of mine who couldn’t care less about cars – friends who think it was tasteless for Porsche to name a car “911" in the wake of the September 11 attacks – have been asking me about it. “How do you ship… a CAR?” they say, with a genuine sense of awe in their voices, because they remember how expensive it was to ship home their college coffeemaker during summer vacations. “Can you use FedEx?”


So now I’ll be answering all of your automotive shipping questions, from start to finish, in one little Jalopnik column. As usual, much thanks to those who helped me compile all this information: automotive importer extraordinaire Japanese Classics, who is currently bringing over my Skyline, and the three readers who helped me by answering questions about vehicles they’ve imported.

Let’s Start With Cost

I’m going to start with cost, because this is the single most common misconception about the entire shipping process. Here’s the problem: if I, in Philadelphia, ship a rather large package to you, in Washington, D.C. — a distance of roughly 222 miles — this will be something like fifty bucks. If I ship a motorcycle to you, it’ll be a few hundred bucks. So people assume that if you bump up the distance to 7,000 miles, and you increase the size of the shipment to an entire automobile, the total cost will be roughly equivalent to a U2 world tour.


But here’s the thing. Whenever you drive down the road, you’re seeing automobiles that have been shipped across international lines. BMWs. Hondas. Toyotas. Kias. Even the four first-generation Audi Allroads that are still moving under their own power. Many of these cars have been shipped across world borders, on large boats, in order to reach our shores. And trust me: if it cost thousands of dollars to do it, these companies wouldn’t be offering their products at the prices they do.

Every single person I spoke to for this story said the very same thing: Shipping. Is. Cheap. From Japan, the absolute maximum you should expect to pay is around $2,000, and for that money, your car had better be surrounded by velvet pillows from Ethan Allen to prevent damage. From Europe, figure $1,000 to $1,400. In fact: although a wide variety of variables can change this statement, it’s generally cheaper to ship a car from Germany to Washington, D.C. than it is to ship a car from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.


How Do You Do It?

Believe it or not, scheduling an automotive shipment for worldwide transit across international oceans on a huge vessel is the easy part. You can find a dozen such companies with a quick Google search.


The hard part actually comes with the legwork on either end: getting the car to the port, and getting the car from the port.

When it comes to bringing the car to the port in the foreign country, every single person I spoke to for this story said the same thing: you need to have someone in the foreign country who you trust. Otherwise, you’re sending off your money — all cash, since you’re unlikely to find a bank willing to finance a 25-year-old car located overseas — and hoping that the seller turns over the car to the car hauler, hoping the car hauler drops it off correctly at the port, and hoping the shipping company properly loads it onto the vessel. That’s a lot of crossing your fingers.


And then there’s another problem: the language barrier. While my sources for this story told me that there are enough English speakers in Europe for this to be a non-issue, Japanese Classics painted a different picture of the situation in Japan: shipping a car can’t be done, they said, without someone who speaks and reads the language. There are too many government agencies involved, and too many hoops to jump through – and English simply isn’t as prevalent in Japan as it is in Europe.

Once the car is delivered to the port (at least a week before its journey, but probably more like two weeks), it will likely be shipped “ro-ro” — a surprisingly cutesy shipping industry term for “roll on, roll off.” In other words: there’s no container, there’s no big box, and there are no packing peanuts. The shipping company drives the car on the boat, it’s tied down with ratchet straps, and it sits there, in the vessel cargo hold, for the next few weeks.


As an interesting aside: since Japanese Classics ships multiple cars at once, they often use containers. In this case, the container includes four vehicles: two on the ground, and two hanging from the ceiling. I swear this is true.

After the car is loaded on to the ship, the waiting begins. Although exact schedules can vary based on time of year, location, and stops along the way, shipping to the East Coast usually takes about six weeks from Japan or four weeks from Europe. And yes, my Skyline GT-R will go through the Panama Canal.


Anyway: when the car arrives in America, getting the car from the port is another issue. A normal human like you or me cannot enter unsecured portions of a U.S. port without a Transportation Workers Identification Credential, also called a TWIC card, which costs $128 and takes about six weeks to secure. So if you want to pick up your car from the port, you’ll need to get a TWIC card — or you’ll need to pay for an escort with a TWIC card to bring you to your vehicle. You can also hire a truck driver with a TWIC card, who can pick up the car for you — but he’s going to charge a little extra for the journey, since not every trucker is TWIC-equipped.

But when it comes to picking up the car, that’s the easy part. The hard part is…


Paperwork, Paperwork, Paperwork

Although I’ll cover paperwork in more detail next week, shipping a vehicle to the United States isn’t quite as simple as dropping the title in the mail, rolling the car on the boat, and showing somebody in America that the VIN plate says it’s 25 years old.


In fact, every single source I spoke to said the same thing: you must hire a customs broker in the United States, because there’s so much paperwork, and it’s so complicated, that you, as a normal human with little understanding of tedious government forms, could never do it on your own. One person, a reader named Brad who imported an E30 Touring and seemed generally nonplussed by the whole importing thing, said that not hiring a customs broker would probably involve getting a hotel in the port town and going back every single day with the forms filled out a slightly different way in hopes that it’ll pass muster this time.


Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for the customs broker.

And then there’s the paperwork from the foreign country. The general overview is this: from Europe, you can export a car by simply filling out some paperwork over there (export documents that state what you’re shipping) and mailing the title separately to the car’s future owner in the U.S. In Japan, you need to go to the Ministry of Transportation and actually de-register the car, which is where that Japanese speaker comes in handy. Then the Japanese government gives you an export certificate (which is mailed to the car’s new owner in America), you bring the car to the port, you fill out your paperwork, and you’re good to go. Sort of.


I say “sort of” because there are a few crucial snags here that can delay or dramatically slow down this process. For one: your paperwork must be very specific about exactly what you’re bringing over. Japanese Classics told me that they once tried to ship a car with discarded cigarettes in the ashtray – and it was flagged for potential illegal import of cigarettes to the United States. Only after they cleaned out the cigarettes was the car permitted to leave the country.

And then there’s the issue of the export certificate itself. If you lose it, Japanese Classics told me, you’re screwed: this document functions as the car’s title, and Japan won’t issue another one. Japanese Classics said a shipping company once lost an export certificate for one of its vehicles – and they still haven’t successfully obtained a U.S. title. Instead, they simply use it as the shop truck.


Once your car reaches the States, the paperwork is even more complicated. There are forms when the boat leaves and forms when the boat arrives – all to be covered in more detail next week – before your car can finally be released for pickup.

Oh, and another thing: it doesn’t matter whether you’re importing one car or one million: before you can bring the car into the States, you’ll need a government-issued import bond. Although the bond is only a couple hundred dollars for a relatively inexpensive car, it can increase in value dramatically as the car’s value increases.


The Little Things

And then there’s all the stuff you probably didn’t think about before deciding to ship a car halfway across the world. For example: what if the boat sinks, or a tow strap breaks and the car gets smashed while it’s on the water? You’ll have to buy insurance, which is usually offered through a company that works closely with the shipper. Expect to pay $200 to 300 for a policy.


And what if it gets smashed at the port? Tough luck. Your insurance policy only covers you on the water — and while your typical auto insurance policy might cover you at the U.S. port (emphasis on might), they don’t handle claims involving crazy Japanese port workers playing slalom with the light poles. Your recourse is limited, and litigation might be required. Litigation, mind you, in a foreign country.

And then there are taxes. After all, you didn’t think they’d just let you bring a foreign good into the country without paying for it, did you? Like anyone who imports anything, you must pay a duty on your car — though the figure is usually pretty small, since the cars are so old. Expect to pay $300 to $400 for a car like my Skyline GT-R.


And then there’s the biggest little thing of all: inspection.

There is some chance that your car may be flagged by U.S. customs for inspection – both to make sure it’s what you say it is (i.e. 25 years old), and to make sure it doesn’t include any illegal materials like guns, drugs, food products, etc. Japanese Classics told me they get a surprise inspection about 10 percent of the time.


While an inspection might not sound so bad, here’s the kicker: you have to pay for it. And while some inspections are done on-site, some are transferred to a third-party company located in a bonded warehouse off the port premises. If that’s the case, you’ll pay for transport to the warehouse and the inspection itself. Japanese Classics told me they once had an entire auto parts container inspected this way, and the process cost nearly $2,000 when all was said and done.

The Ins and Outs of Shipping

Simply put, the import process wasn’t set up for private people importing one vehicle at a time. But that’s not to say it isn’t possible. Expect to pay around $1,200 for shipping and a few hundred more for import duty. Expect to shell out a couple hundred bucks for a bond, a couple hundred more for the customs broker, and a couple hundred more for an insurance policy. And save a little cash on the side in case there’s a surprise inspection.


But once all the money is paid, and all the paperwork is filed, and the car has cleared customs, you’re done: your 25-year-old, one-of-a-kind, highly unique imported vehicle is ready to drive on American roads.


More on that next week.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.


More on auto shipping from G/O Media’s partner:
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