Today, we're going to discuss the art of registering an imported car with your local department of motor vehicles. I call it an "art" because, like any good art, there's a fair amount of agony, and pain, and suffering, and at some point you get really close to clawing out your own eyes.
For those of you who aren't exactly sure why I'm writing this, allow me to explain: I'm currently importing a 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R from Japan, and I decided I would document every step of the process along the way – from finding a car to the rules of importing, and now to the actual process of registering the car.
And if you followed me on Twitter, you'd know that this is the very last column: the last piece of the puzzle before the GT-R finally arrives and I begin driving it around the city, where Civic drivers with cut springs will ask me if it's real. And so, without further ado, here's how you register an imported car with the DMV.
First things first: I haven't actually registered my Skyline. In fact, my Skyline is still on a boat, somewhere in the Atlantic, where it doesn't need a license plate, because there aren't any police. Only fish. Instead, I gathered this information from several sources – including my friends at Japanese Classics, who are importing my Skyline, and a few different Jalopnik readers who have imported and registered cars of their own.
But to paraphrase exactly what they told me, it seems the process is something like this: you go through days, weeks, months of searching for the right car in Europe, or Japan, or wherever. You find a middleman to bring it to the port, and a shipping company willing to put it on a boat and send it thousands of miles across the open ocean. You get insurance. You wait for several agonizing weeks and track the boat on the water. You hire a customs broker. You file all the necessary forms with the EPA, and the NHTSA, and the port people. You get your car out of the port.
And then you walk into your local DMV, where your entire plan hinges on a state government employee with Betty Boop decals on her computer screen.
Here's the problem: when you show up at the DMV with a car you've just imported, you are a special case. And you're not just a special case. You're the special case. You're the one who they talk about during their contractually mandated one-hour lunch break. Not the guy who lost the title for his trailer. Not the guy with an Impala who wants the vanity plate PIMPALA. You.
And just why is it such a problem?
Well first, let's talk about the fact that your car isn't in the DMV system – and the VIN is in a format that nobody at the DMV has ever seen before. This surprised me, because I thought all VINs subscribed to roughly the same format, but it just isn't the case: European VINs do one thing, Japanese VINs do another, and none of it works in your local DMV's computer system. In some cases, there will be a VIN inspection. In the case of Brad, the Texan Jalopnik reader who imported an E30 Touring, they actually made a VIN plate to be glued to the car's doorjamb.
But they didn't just make a VIN plate. Instead, Brad's car went through three separate VIN inspections: one from the typical oil change inspection place, one from the DMV, and one from two detectives who spent two hours inspecting all the VIN plates and running it through an INTERPOL database to ensure it wasn't stolen.
I know what you're thinking: why do you have to verify it's not stolen if you have a title? Well, about that title: it's in a foreign language. Whether it's in Japanese or German or Dutch, your imported car's title will be in a language they can't read over at the DMV. This is one of the many things you might not typically think about when you're going to register an imported vehicle, but it's a crucial one for obvious reasons. So you'll have to get your title translated into English, either through a certified translator (Texas) or – this is how it's done in Virginia – through a translation that you provide yourself. I have no idea how this is legal, but Japanese Classics tells me they do it every time.
OK, so you've convinced them to accept the VIN, and you've got your title translation. You also have your state title application document (usually a standard form you can print online) and a foreign bill of sale (you have that, right?), along with your NHTSA form, your EPA form, and your customs form from the import process. And you brought your checkbook to pay all applicable sales taxes. You should be good to go, right?
In theory, the answer to this is yes. But everyone I spoke to said there's always a snag.
Something isn't filled out right. A form doesn't have the proper number on it. The DMV asks for the original customs release, rather than a copy. The clerk doesn't believe the mileage on the car, or gets into a fight with you about why an odometer reading "58,246" is actually just over 36,000 miles. There's always something, and there will be even more somethings on your first try. In fact, Brad told me he went back to the DMV three times before he got the VIN confirmed – and that doesn't count the trip to get the VIN inspection from the detectives, and the final visit to the separate tag office to get plates and a title.
Japanese Classics confirmed the constant problems: they say that even with all the proper paperwork, they used to spend an hour at the DMV per car – and that doesn't include the time wasted waiting in line. DMV workers had no idea how to deal with an imported vehicle, and that meant constant questions and issues and let me get a supervisor and fighting over whether the proper documents were present.
Despite all the snags, however, everyone I spoke to said the same thing: eventually, you get a title. It's hard and it's challenging and it's not something you want to do frequently, but if your paperwork is in order, and your translation is official, and all your documents are correct, there are really only so many things they can ask for before they eventually issue you plates and a title proving your ownership.
And if it doesn't work?
Just go back the next week and try to get a different clerk.
If you're sensing a running theme of "difficulty" here, you're correct: none of this process, from the beginning to the very end, is set up for someone who wants to import a car for private ownership. Buying a car in a foreign country is hard, transporting the car can be a challenge; releasing it from the port is a long task, and registering it with the DMV is no picnic. All told, from start to finish, expect the timing to work out roughly like this:
- Finding a car: Weeks, months, years, depending on your standards.
- Transporting the car to the port: days or weeks, depending on its location on the continent.
- Port arrival: figure about two weeks before shipment.
- On-vessel transit time: four weeks from Europe; six to eight weeks from Japan (to the east coast; reverse those figures for the west coast).
- Getting it out of the port: two days to two weeks, depending on whether you know what you're doing.
- Registering it: two days to two weeks, depending on your paperwork prowess.
All told, you're probably looking at roughly nine weeks between the moment you drop off the car at the foreign port until the moment you walk out of the DMV, title and registration in hand, and do an imported car victory dance. Financially, expect to pay around $2,500 all in for a "normal car" – and more if it's an expensive car with higher import fees and sales tax rates.
In other words: it isn't easy, it isn't cheap, and it isn't quick. So you'd better really love that foreign car you're importing.
@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.