Importing and registering a foreign vehicle can be a massive pain. So when I took the plunge to get a second Japanese Domestic Model car registered in New York, I decided to take you along for the ride.

By day, I’m a Senior Video Producer at Jalopnik’s sister site, Splinter. But my other pastimes are avoiding potholes and scanning Japanese auctions for vintage Nismo trinkets.

Before this I had owned a less-than-legal R33 Skyline that my insurance company totaled out after a wreck, but after a few years of living in New York I got bit hard by the JDM bug once again, city living be damned. That’s when this 27-year-old K’s Club S13 Silvia living up in Canada caught my eye.

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It took a bit under six months to get this car from Calgary, Canada to Brooklyn, New York. Throughout the whole process, seller Sean Baertsch, the owner and registered importer of Zen Autoworks, offered support, but there were no shortage obstacles to get it to the promised land.

The 25 Year Rule

Here’s the meat of the issue, as you more than likely already know if you’re reading this site: in the United States, vehicles can not be imported unless they meet stringent federal safety and emissions criteria from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency.

However, when the car becomes 25 years old, it can be claimed as exempt from those regulations on the federal customs forms and during the registration process for most states. (California residents, sorry, your vehicle will likely require additional, expensive modifications to meet state-specific emissions qualifications.)

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When requesting exempt status for the above, you must simply provide the original manufacturer’s paperwork that declares the date and location of your vehicle along with identifying it by chassis code.

Because of this alternate pathway to legalization, JDM vehicles in great condition roll into high demand shortly after they pass the age threshold of their destination country.

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In Canada, a driver can freely import a foreign car after just 15 years, meaning some near-mint, U.S.-ready vehicles have been in the hands of Canadian owners for the last decade. That was the case with the S13 that I found on eBay. Other benefits of purchasing from our northern neighbor meant it was possible for me to examine and drive the car before the purchase without having to travel too far.


Getting Started

Yo dawg, so you see a vehicle in your price range and want to go for it? Great!

The first thing you should know is that getting car insurance for a JDM vehicle can be a dealbreaker. And you need car insurance before you can register the car or get a state inspection in most states.

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JDM vehicles don’t have U.S. standard 16-digit Vehicle Identification Numbers, or VINs. Instead, they are stamped with a chassis code consisting of 9 to 12 alphanumeric characters. When you are looking for car insurance quotes, you will likely have to explain to an insurance agent that your vehicle doesn’t have a standard 17-digit VIN.

This was a grueling search. After getting turned down by multiple insurers, including a company that previously insured my Skyline, I selected a company that specializes in classic car insurance. The downside was they required the car to be stored in a private, enclosed garage.

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At the early stages of the purchase, it’s also a great idea to ask the seller about the car’s full ownership history and to determine all documents included in the sale. Customs authorities will require the title from the previous owner and proof of manufacturer date and location. If the car does not have this documentation, it may be subject to an international record search to ensure it has not been stolen or similar.

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Sean Baertsch of Zen was not only the seller in this case, but also the registered Canadian importer. He connected me with a Seattle-based customs broker, who prepared the final import application after I assembled all the required documents. They also declared the port of entry and timeframe of crossing.

From there, we joined an email chain with myself, the customs broker, the shipping company, and the importer. I temporarily signed over power of attorney for the vehicle to the broker as all parties worked in coordination to get the Silvia to New York in the specified window.

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Altogether, the application and import fees along with shipping totaled a bit over $3500. The final step was to go to the DMV with my customs paperwork, the title, and proof of chassis code and insurance. Surprisingly, it only took one (very stressful) trip to the DMV to pull it all off.


Is It Worth It?

If you haven’t owned a JDM vehicle you may be on the fence about making the purchase. To briefly answer some common questions: It takes about a week to get used to driving right-hand-drive, cops won’t really be out to get you (but many will chat you up about their time in the whatever military branch sent them to Japan), and it’s not too different from owning any other import.

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And while it may not be the wisest financial choice of my life—when can you ever say that about a rad car?—it sure feels great to drive to Ikea while blasting Non Phixion as onlookers either flip me off or beam with a thumbs-up. I put together a whole video detailing the process up at the top of the post that gets into this in even greater detail. Check it out and let me know what other questions you may have.

American law on these cars may be arbitrary and annoying, but it’s not impossible to do things the right way. Get your JDM dream car and don’t get it crushed.

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About the author

Alex Clark

Alex Clark is a video journalist and filmmaker covering social inequality, the internet and American politics. He's a Senior Producer at GMG and instructs video at Columbia Journalism School.

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