Hubby has a serious attachment to our car so when we made the move to the US, the car of course, was coming with us!
We considered railing it but after getting a quote of $3,000 USD, we decided the money would be better spent on a fun Route 66 road trip with hubby’s dad. CJ and I would then fly to Phoenix to meet them and the three or us would continue the drive to our new home.
During our research we found articles that were outdated or written by people who never even went through the process! So we decided to share our experience of how we imported our car from Toronto to San Francisco.
There are 5 mandatory steps…
1. Get a clearance letter
Three weeks before your department date, call your vehicle’s corporate office to request a clearance letter. Which basically states that your car conforms to safety and environmental protection standards. They will ask for your VIN and other manufacture information which can be found on the stickers on the driver’s side.
At Lexus it took less than one week to receive this letter by email and there was no charge. However, we did have a scare when we found out that vehicles made after 2007 were required to have a tire pressure feature. Luckily the premium package for our RX350 had it so we were cleared!
Prepare ample time to get this letter incase modifications are required or you decide to avoid the hassle altogether and just buy a new car when you get to the US.
2. Paperwork at the border
We entered the US at the Detroit border. There was a one page ‘vehicle clearance’ form to fill out and an inspection by the Border Patrol Officer. Remember to have your proof of registration with you. Your name and ownership title must match the purchase agreement or you will need to go back to your dealership to get this corrected. (This could be the case if you purchased your car second-hand from Craigslist or if the car was given to you by your parents, etc.)
Because of an agreement with NAFTA, there is currently no import charge.
Alternatively you can import your car at a port in the State which you plan on moving to. Here are the ports of entry. IMO this is an easy process so it’s better to get it done and over with when you cross the border instead of driving all the way to your new home State. Imagine if somehow your car doesn’t meet standards and you end up having to drive all the way back!
3. Getting your car registered + licence plates
Let this be a forewarning that if you are moving to California, you’ll ultimately have to face the beast known as DMV. In my case, I had to face him 3 times… totalling SEVEN hours of waiting in lineups to get my plates!
Tip: you can avoid all this by making an appointment. The wait can be backed up for a couple of months so plan accordingly! In California, you must register your vehicle within 20 days after you arrive.
Bring these documents with you: passport, driver’s licence, car insurance, ownership title, vehicle clearance import letter, proof of smog test and I-94 form to show date of entry into the US.
We also had to go to the Highway Patrol Office to verify our VIN number because our vehicle was made in Canada. Your car will also undergo inspection.
Depending on your vehicle year and make, the registration fee can vary but budget a few hundred dollars. We paid around $300 USD. You will also need to cover the cost of your plate which is $50, and no you don’t get to pick number/letter combos.
4. Car Insurance
Do not cancel your Canadian insurance upon entering the US even if you have to double up or pay a penalty cancelation fee. There could be delays getting your registration/plates and you don’t want to drive without coverage.
After getting quotes from several companies, we chose Geico (the company with the grinning gecko commercials). They had great customer support and were significantly cheaper given their more rigorous qualification process — we had to show our driving records for the past 5 years. (We ordered them from MoT for $12 CAD each and they arrived in a week.)
5. Driver’s License
How fun… you get to take your written and road test all over again! In the meantime, our Ontario license remains valid so we can continue driving legally. Again pre-book your tests if possible!
Other important things to note…
Do you own or lease? This post is written from the perspective of a car owner. You may run into additional issues if you are still financing or lease your car so please speak with your dealership.
Can you bring alcohol across the border? Yes, we had some unopened booze and we were able to bring that over no problem. Each person is permitted 1 litre.
Is AAA worth getting? Yes, at $56 for an annual membership, don’t cheap out on having peace of mind on the road! Plus the card offers other rewards and discounts for hotels etc.
I recommend visiting your dealership for a maintenance check and tune-up to get the green light before you start your journey. This is also a good time to get your oil changed, new tires, etc. as this will be cheaper to do while in Canada.
Lastly, we discovered that we didn’t need to change our oil with the same frequency here. Our Lexus was good for 10,000 miles in California vs. only 5,000 miles in Toronto. Bonus!
Importing your vehicle to the United States doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process if you stay organized with these tips!
As laws change and vary by State, please visit the US Government Border and Protection website for the most accurate information.
If you have a question, please leave it in the Comments section. Other people may be wondering the same thing so I hope to have an open conversation here.
Good luck and drive safe!