When business crosses the borderline: Exporting cars from Canada to the US


Jun 16, 2016

By John Weight

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When business crosses the borderline: Exporting cars from Canada to the US

Until recently, the practice of exporting cars purchased in Canada to the United States was unheard of for good reason: historically, cars have always been much cheaper south of the border.

But times have changed and so has the idea of buying a car here if you live in the United States.

What's the appeal of buying a car in Canada?

Two things have made buying cars from Canada a viable option for many Americans:

  • Changes in the market economy.
  • Fluctuations in the currency exchange rate between the American and Canadian dollars – anywhere from 30 to 40 per cent.
So what's the bottom line? For Americans, there are many great deals to be had that take advantage of these differences.

Are Canadians also benefitting?

If you're among the many “snowbirds” who regularly head south for the winter and return in spring, or who frequently travel across the border to shop, then no, you're likely not benefitting vs. someone who purchases a vehicle in Canada – from a dealer, auction or an individual – then drives (or ships) it back to the US one way.

Is exporting a car difficult?

Believe it or not, clearing customs isn't that hard.

  • A competent customs broker can easily handle that part for you.
The complicated bit?
  • The paperwork required for the US Department of Transport (DOT) and the US Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
…and of course there are costs involved at each step.

Are all cars subject to duty?

The short answer? No. There are no customs duties on domestic vehicles, meaning those manufactured in Canada, the US or Mexico.

These vehicles can be identified by the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which is found on the dashboard.

  • If this number begins with a “1,” the car was made in the United States; a “2” means the country of manufacture is Canada; “3” refers to Mexico.
  • Knowing this means you'll have a far easier time with paperwork.

Are all car makes and models eligible for export to the US?

Foreign-built cars from, for example, Japan or Europe, can be an issue.

  • Certain vehicles are not permitted entry into the US.
  • As such, it's best to verify if the vehicle you want to export is on the list of excluded vehicles.
  • If you're unsure, an experienced customs broker can help with the paperwork and check if your vehicle is eligible.

Key points to remember about the export process

After you've decided which car you'd like to purchase, there are a few things you can do to make sure the process goes smoothly.

  • Ensure the bill of sale shows a US address. Otherwise you'll wind up paying the local taxes.
  • Get a letter from the seller or dealer stating that all recalls on the vehicle are up to date and any necessary repairs were completed within 3 days of the purchase of the vehicle. (You can verify this using the VIN.)
  • Take photos of the engine bay and also inside the door panel of your car.
- Both have labels containing information about your vehicle.

NB: The photos must be clear enough to read what's on the labels, because this information will be required by the US DOT and DMV.

  • It could take at least 24 hours for a customs broker to prepare the paperwork needed for you to cross the border with your new car. You'll want to keep this in mind before you decide how to get it from Canada to the US – especially if you plan to drive it yourself or have it shipped by a commercial transport company.
  • There are additional charges for weekends, holidays or after business hours.
  • To avoid any unnecessary fines or delays, wait until your customs broker gives you the “all clear” before proceeding to the border.

After you clear US customs…

The next step is the US Department of Transportation.

  • The DOT will need copies of the customs documents to certify your vehicle.
  • For domestic vehicles this is typically not a lengthy process, as they mostly already meet the DOT standards.
  • Japanese or European vehicles, on the other hand, may take more time to be certified, particularly if the vehicle must be modified.
  • Once you have your customs paperwork and your DOT certification, the final step is to proceed to the DMV so it can issue a US Title for your vehicle.

Costs generally vary

The cost and amount of paperwork required to export a car to the US from Canada will vary from state to state.

  • In general, the whole process can range from roughly $600.00 US for domestic vehicles, to over $1000.00 US for foreign vehicles, not including the duties.
  • High-end luxury cars may be subject to additional fees.
Whatever the make or model, buying a car and then having it shipped cross-border takes a lot of time and effort, but pays off big in the end.
  • To make sure no detail is overlooked, and to avoid any needless delays and fines, an experienced customs broker will advise you about what to expect and help guide you through every step of the process.

About the author

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John Weight

Customs Management Specialist

John is our senior consultant with more than 40 years of experience in the industry. A licensed and certified customs broker and a certified customs specialist, he has an extensive knowledge of all aspects of import and export regulations.

John is our go-to guy when trying to navigate the complex world of trade compliance. When it comes to customs compliance audits, saving money on import duties or any other Customs issues, John is the one you want on your side.