Vehicle Importation: Understanding the 25 Year Old Rule

Vehicle Importation: Understanding the 25 Year Old Rule

by Sean Morris

I get this question about once a week these days, “Are the Skylines really going to be legal when they are 25 years old?”  It’s a loaded question. The answer is actually yes, and no, as it all depends where you live. In North America, Canada is an exception, but even in the United States the rules have some variance. Since I live in California, the answer is actually yes, but no.  Yes, because the 1989 Nissan Skyline will be federally legal to import once it’s 25 years old in 2014, but no because vehicles 1975 or newer are subject to direct import laws in California.  These direct import laws make it very expensive to bring a car into California compliance. However, for the purposes of this article, I won’t get too far into the downside of the upside of 25 year old vehicle import.

I am 90% sure that when you say ‘Skyline’ you mean ‘Skyline GT-R.’ The only one that really floats my boat is the GT-R, but women do seem to appreciate the non-GT-R cars such as the GT-S shown above. Does that mean that only men like the GT-R? GT-R’s do seem to attract more men and boys, so plan your days accordingly.

First off, since it is now 2017 it is legal to import 1992 vehicles that never met US FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) as regulated by the NHTSA, DOT (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Department of Transportation). This is because the Code of Federal Regulations Title 49 part 591.5(i), also written 49CFR591.5(i), says you can. Title 49 has to do with transportation while 591 is the section called – IMPORTATION OF VEHICLES AND EQUIPMENT SUBJECT TO FEDERAL SAFETY, BUMPER AND THEFT PREVENTION STANDARDS. The .5 designation is a reference to the subsection that details Declarations Required for Importation and the (i) designation is a reference to a section of that subsection. The legal importation of a vehicle is not up to the guy on a random internet forum, the guy at the DMV or even the police officer on the corner. The Code of Federal Regulations is the definitive word on the rules. The contents of its pages trumps casual opinion. The laws used to only be written in these cool things called books, but now you can look up the parts, numbers, and sections online. If you have access to a hard copy of the CFR like I do, it’s like the worst choose your own adventure book ever. It is a difficult book to read. If you ever pick one up you will probably want to put it right back down.

The pertinent text of the Code of Federal Regulations section 591.5 states:

No person shall import a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment into the United States unless, at the time it is offered for importation, its importer files a declaration, in duplicate, which declares one of the following:

(i)(1) The vehicle is 25 or more years old.

The declaration form referenced by the Code of Federal Regulations is the NHTSA form called the HS-7. On the HS-7 form 25 year old cars are Box 1. This is a document that should be extremely familiar to anyone who regularly imports automobiles.

All the Skyline GT-Rs in the above image will soon be eligible for importation into the United States. R32 production began in 1989, so 2014 will mark the year of its 25th anniversary. However, Hakosukas are already available to interested parties in the US.

On top of the NHTSA, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is another regulatory body with a say in vehicle regulations. However, the EPA is even more lenient than the NHTSA, DOT. The EPA says at 21 years old, and in its original configuration, a vehicle is exempt from EPA requirements. This is something that needs some explaining as different people read into it what they want. They only pull the words out of that last statement that suit them. If you want to be a well informed cookie, read it carefully and understand what it really means. The EPA importation form is called the 3520-1.  For vehicles over 21 years old, and in their original configuration, an importer would fill in code E on the 3520-1.

The text of the pertinent EPA regulation states:

A vehicle is exempted if it has been 21 years or more since its original production year and it is in its original unmodified condition. Vehicles in any condition may be excluded if they were manufactured prior to the year in which EPA's regulations for the class of vehicle took effect. Vehicles at least 21 years old with replacement engines are not eligible for this exemption unless they contain equivalent or newer EPA certified engines and emission control systems. Upon entry, the importer must file an EPA Form 3520-1 with Customs and declare code “E” on the form.

An example of an engine bay in original configuration. Yes, that means it is stock.


  1. Just wondering what was the total cost you paid to fully register your car in California, if you don’t mind me asking? I just bought a R34 but I wont be importing it till 2024. I just want to prepare myself financially if the military can’t import my vehicle.

    1. R34 for California is on the task of near impossibility. At least how it looks. OBD II is a requirement. We are doing one car for California now, Show or Display R34. We will be charging $75k for California compliance on an OBD II car. R32 GT-R cost $10k. Other cars cost anywhere from $5k up.

        1. The EPA says that a vehicle must be in original configuration to be exempt for import. For California we have to do full ARB certification, so it would be possible to bring a vehicle with an engine swap into configuration. It does add significantly to the cost.

  2. I’m in Japan and just bought 95 Supra 6 speed. I’ll be here until 2021, the military is paying for the import fees. What fees will I be paying out of pocket once the car arrives in California once my tour is over. Do you suggest getting it registered in Arizona instead of California?

  3. i own a 1990 vw bug with mexican licence plate on my name i live in CA, the back seat of the vw now is a pick up, all the chasis still the same, same engine, but now i want to register in CA, but i dont know with the body modification i’m aloud to import this car. what to do next

  4. Great article and thanks for the info. I am interested in selling my soon to be legal (25 year old) JDM subarus just south of the border in Montana. One thing I have been unable to find clarity on is the definition/strictness of “unmodified condition/configuration”.

    For example, if I have OE replacement parts, would that become an issue? ie NGK spark plug wires, KYB struts, etc…


  5. Sean
    What about a euro car over 25 years old, original engine, and transmission, but is missing original intake and exhaust and is not operable. Can it be purchased, imported and then finished by me or a shop here in the US?

  6. Hi Sean,

    I have a 1968 Fiat 500L that was imported from Italy in 2021 into California and it was OK’d by customs, but now CA DMV is asking me to get Fiat to issue a letter stating: “Please contact the manufacturer, FIAT, of this vehicle and ask if the vehicle complied with all applicable U.S. Emission standards. You must obtain a letter confirming this information”

    I haven’t had any luck with any of the local USA FIAT dealers .

    Can you help?

    1. 68 means it has to be brought into compliance. Has to be 67 or older to be exempt.

      “1968 model year to 1974 model year vehicles – California does not recommend the purchase or importation of these years of NON-USA vehicles, even if currently registered in another state. These vehicles require compliance with USEPA requirements in effect on the specific date of 11/15/1972. This provision when written, was considered by the California legislature as a gradual phase-out of very dirty “non-collectable” types of imports, as this specific requirement was understood to become increasingly difficult to meet. Today, this requirement, while not impossible to meet, would require testing expenses and modifications that far exceed most vehicles value and would make little sense from a collectors standpoint to attempt. The limited exemptions that could have applied to individuals moving to California were closed by VIN 2017-15 (Direct Import Vehicles Update) Contact the DMV for more information.”

  7. Hello Sean.

    I am NOT an US Citizen and I would like to know if a 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ105 (model never sold in the US) could be import and be sell in USA

    Thanks in advance for any info you can provide me

    1. Maybe in 2024, The 25th year. Anyone know when the 25th year commences, January 1 of the 25th year or date specific?

      1. It is by date of manufacture for the NHTSA and 25 years old. So a June car has to come in after June for instance. The EPA for 21 years is specifically calendar year. So Jan 1 for them. Each agency is different. This is the way of the government.

  8. Hi so I have a question, once you import the car and get it titled and registered, no smog correct? But for California it needs carb compliance? and after 2 years will the car need to be smogged or inspected?

  9. Hi I have a question so I’m planning to buy and import an AE86 or 1984-87 Toyota corolla from japan within the next year and am wondering how this would work out in California because most of the potential options are all modified in some fashion is there a way of getting it registered even with the modifications or will I have to try to find an 100% stock version also does registering the vehicle in Nevada easier than California I live with 3 hours of reno so would it be easier to register it as a classic car in reno then trying to register it in Cali?

  10. Hello
    Can I import a car to California and sell it out of state without having to meet direct import requirements?

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