Importing a vehicle into USA

by Richard Atwell
(c) Copyright 2007-2011


Importing a vehicle from another country? Here's some advice from people like me who have gone through the process. While the 68-79 Baywindow Bus is of primary interest as usual, I've included other details if you are considering a Vanagon or newer vehicle.

Each country has its own unique headaches. Importing a vehicle into the USA less than 25 years old can also be difficult. Many Canadian buses can come in with a few tweaks (see below) but for the majority it's too expensive to make the original vehicle purchase worth the extra costs and hassles.

DISCLAIMER: Please keep in mind that rules and procedures change so only use this information as a helpful guide. It's up to you to research the specific details that pertain to importing your vehicle.

From Canada to USA (HS-7):

Although the literature says do it at the border, Canadians including myself have brought in Canadian vehicles (pre 9/11) without any paperwork even though we said we were moving to the US and had other paperwork (visas, etc). Saying you are a visitor will not be a problem obviously but I have no idea what they'll do if you are a US citizen with Canadian plates (I suspect they will become suspicious in the least).

If you choose not to import at the border and make it through customs "unscathed", you can still go to any local customs office that performs this function (usually near an airport or seaport). However, I recommend that you do it at the border: in the event there are any problems it's better to be able to resolve the issues in Canada than be in illegal status here in the US because you won't be able to legally title, register or sell the vehicle in the US.

Familiarize yourself with the NHTSA guidelines. Make sure your vehicle is NOT on the exclusion list.

To officially import your vehicle, the customs officer will complete the HS-7 Declaration Form you provide and you will either:

  1. Declare that the vehicle is 25 years or older (model year, not year of manufacture) and mark BOX 1. All baywindows are now 25 years or older as of January 2004. If this is the case, you are done with the importing process.

  2. If your VW is not 25 years old, you must mark BOX 2B and you will need provide customs with a letter from VW that says your bus model is the equivalent of a US version for that model year.

For the letter, you must contact VWoA Customer Service (USA not Canada) and having given them a model description and VIN they will generate a certificate of conformity.

Volkswagen of America, Inc.
Customer Relations Department
3800 Hamlin Road
Auburn Hills, MI 48326

I have read that VW does not issue this letter anymore to US citizens buying a vehicle from Canada (they will not mail it to a US address). They will only issue a letter of conformity if you are a Canadian citizen, own the vehicle and are permanently moving to the US (Canadian address).

If you are lucky, the letter will simply state that you are in compliance and you can head straight to US customs. If not, the letter will describe what differences exist between a US model.

In the case of a Baywindow bus it may say:

Note: I've never seen a US model with anything other than a brake light simply marked with a "B" so it must be a mistake on VW's part. However, there's an easy workaround you can do (see below) than arguing with them to obtain the correct letter.

Complying with the Letter:

Modifications are not difficult but locating the correct parts can be time consuming. All Canadian models satisfy US seat belt, bumper and lighting requirements which simplifies the importing process. Customs will want to see an invoice from a VW dealer that says the vehicle is in compliance with the exceptions notice in the conformity letter.

  1. To accommodate the safety requirements in the conformity letter, you just need the conformity letter to state as much but you might find the dealer who inspects your vehicle will want to see the EPA/safety labels affixed to your bus. If your bus has been painted you may have difficulty because of this.

  2. To accommodate the speedometer and odometer requirements, I went to the junkyard, bought a broken speedometer in Miles and swapped the faces. I labeled "km" above the odometer in white letters and put it back together (be very careful) which is legal if so marked.

  3. The brake warning light requirement didn't make sense but I had to do it, so I bought some white Letraset letters and spelled brake on the bezel for the brake warning light. I've never seen a US model with brake spelled on that small warning light for 1978 so I remain confused to this day.

You can make these changes yourself and get an authorized VW dealer to state your vehicle conforms. I called the local VW dealer (I had to call several) and the manager agreed to inspect my vehicle (personally if you believe it). He said that all of his technicians weren't even born when my bus was made so he'd have to do it. He looked over the modifications and gave me a repair invoice and charged me nothing. I have no idea what customs accepts as a factory authorized repair if you don't go to a VW dealer.

Keep visiting dealers until you find one with a kind manager sympathetic to your needs. I very much doubt any VW dealer these days is going to work on a vehicle this old even if you provide the parts to do it but there are a few out there. Just show them the conformity letter and they will provide an inspection invoice that you can take to the customs office.

For other types of VWs, you'll have to see what difference exist by waiting for the letter. I advise you acquire the documentation before you decide to import just in case. I know this can be difficult to do when the seller is anxious to receive payment.

I took my conformity letter and the VW document and the HS-7 form to customs and they processed me. I came away with a declaration form that I took to the vehicle registration office (which was the county tax accessor in my case).


Fighting City Hall:

Trying to convince VWoA that your vehicle is more compliant than they think it should be is frustrating. I originally received a non-conformity letter from them as they said my vehicle didn't wasn't US EPA approved despite a non-catalyst sticker in the doorjam stating the opposite. I also had US EPA markings on the other stickers and when I called VW to let them know this, they told me it was from the Canadian EPA (good grief!). Needless to say it was a painful battle convincing them to state my vehicle was original and in compliance. After a lot of complaining, I finally received a letter from them that was correct (correct enough to proceed anyway). It was this reason that sidelined my bus for several years if you've read or heard the story before.

If you receive a letter that states "Letter of non Conformity" DO NOT take this letter to customs as they will simply document who you are which will make importing at a later date that more difficult.

If you can't obtain a conformity letter from VW, don't think the Registered Importers (RI) that NTSA/DOT mention are can easily help you out. Not only are they often far away in another city but they are in business to federalize rare Porsches and Ferrari euro models. This means $$$ bucks.

I know of one person from Quebec whom I worked with that tried to get a RI to convert his '92 Jetta. The cost estimate for emissions was $5k so he never bothered, never registered it and continued to use Quebec insurance and plates illegally. I warned him about the process ahead of time but he brought his vehicle down anyway and fell into vehicle legal limbo and was technically uninsured.

HS-7 Form:

You can bring in a vehicle temporarily under BOX 5 of HS-7 but if you overstay your 1 year limit and you have no proof that you exported your vehicle from the USA, who knows what they will do to the vehicle if they manage to find it and impound it.

Box 10 is only for very very rare vehicles from major manufacturers. Companies that customize cars do not qualify so for example, a weird Porsche with a funky body kit cannot be imported unless it's 25 years or older.

Importing to California:

You should be able to easily drive any vehicle through the CA border unless you are crossing in from Mexico or passing through an immigration stop on the highway.

Once you get to CA you will need to take a smog test in order to register your vehicle (even if it states CARB on your conformity letter you obtained for import from another country). The exception is if you have a vehicle that has already been registered with the smog system.

All vehicles 1975 and older are exempted from testing under the present law. AB2683 is the law that unfortunately changed the previous 30-yr rolling exemption rules set out in SB42.

Just like a vehicle coming from another US state, an imported VW must be the equivalent of a Federal model. This means it must have the factory engine configuration for USA models: Type 4 engine with L-Jet fuel injection.

If a Type 1 engine has been swapped in or the fuel injection has been replaced with a single or dual carb you will not pass the visual inspection and fail your smog test. This also means that most imported 72-79 Baywindows from Europe, South America etc that came factory equipped with dual carbs will not pass either.

Because the vehicle is coming from out of state you will have to book an appointment with the smog referee because there is no CARB bar code to allow just any smog station to test you.

The smog referee is very precise so you will not be able to rely on the confusion normally exhibited by smog technicians who were born long after your VW was built.

Potential Smog Hassles:

Local Hassles in USA:

These vary depending where you live. If you are lucky you won't have to deal with any of them but I'll mention them just in case you do:

Border Hassles:

A vehicle that crosses the border many times during its lifetime could cause problems for the new owner. For example:

Case 1 - a Canadian vehicle, imported into USA, then exported back to Canada without US clearance, then returned to USA. You can probably re-use your original import document when time comes to register the vehicle in your state. However, getting through the border with that document may cause problems because the vehicle will have Canadian plates. Since there will be no record of export they may get pissed so I think it would be simpler to bury the original document and simply re-import as there is no fee and no trouble for vehicles 25-years or older.

Case 2 - a US vehicle, imported into Canada then returned to USA. There is no record of the vehicle leaving USA and CBP cannot determine if the vehicle unless they examine any existing stickers. If they find USA stickers on a vehicle with Canadian plates with no record of export what will they do? I don't know.

Certainly you cannot be held liable for the actions of a previous owner. All US CBP wants to do is determine if the vehicle has been stolen so unless they can prove it, I can't foresee them seizing the vehicle otherwise.


Canada to USA:



12/11/07 - Split off from Canada article
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