Vehicle Importation: Understanding the 25 Year Old Rule


The NHTSA says 25, but the EPA says 21. Does it make sense? No. Again, these are the people that somehow got the power to write the rules. The left and right hand do not want to talk, and that's just the way it is.

Now back to the downside and the difficulty of California. Along with the NHTSA and EPA, California is regulated by the California Air Resources Board known fondly to many as CARB. Direct Import (or Gray Market) vehicles are vehicles that were manufactured outside the United States for which the original manufacturer did not obtain California or Federal certification. The EPA normally covers direct import vehicles under the ICI (Independent Commercial Importer) program, but if a vehicle is going to be registered in California it needs to meet the California Direct Import requirements.

Despite the EPA waiver of vehicles 21 years or older, any vehicle from 1968 or newer needs to meet the California standards to be able to be registered. Any vehicle from 1975 or newer needs to meet the California Direct Import standards. 1968 to 1974 needs to meet USEPA requirements in effect on the specific date of 11/15/1972. 1967 and older, no smog and no modifications or testing are required to register the vehicle in California. A vehicle model year 1975 or older does not need a smog (in use test) in California. So there is actually a 1 year gap between the two rules. 1975 would need to meet direct import requirements (FTP testing with a certified lab), but then would not need to be smogged after the initial direct import requirements are met. Frustratingly confused with dates yet?

Meeting California Direct Import requirements means more than just passing smog. FTP testing must be done at a certified lab, an expensive proposition.

1976 or newer, needs to be smogged in California every 2 years.
1975 or newer, must meet Direct Import requirements (FTP testing).
1968 to 1974, exempt from smog but still needs to meet USEPA requirements in effect on the specific date of 11/15/1972.
1967 and older, no smog and no modifications or testing are required to register the vehicle in California.

1) Vehicle over 25 years old: NHTSA- FMVSS exempt
2) Vehicle over 21 years old: EPA exempt in original configuration
3) Vehicle 1968 or newer, registration in California: you are screwed.

Diesel vehicles: 1979 model year and older vehicles with original-equipment diesel engines are exempt from Direct Import lab testing requirements. Please note that any vehicle converted to operate on diesel fuel is subject to lab testing requirements if it is a 1968 model year vehicle or newer.

Diesel Smog Test Exemption: The DMV does not require a California emission inspection (smog check) for the following types of vehicles:
Any diesel car or diesel pickup truck which is 1997 model year or older.
Any diesel truck which weights over 14,500 GVW.

Motorcycles and Heavy Duty Engines:Motorcycles and heavy-duty engines (used in trucks and buses) are required to comply with CA or USEPA from the date of manufacturer, no after-the-fact modification is permitted for products first sold outside the US market

To further clarify what is legal and what is skirting federal regulations, it must be stressed that importation and registration are TWO different things. They do not hold hands. They are not friends. Just because you were successful in getting registration through the DMV does not mean the car was legally imported. Just because you legally imported a car also does not mean that you are able to register a car where you live. This isn’t my fault. The EPA and the DOT are not friends. They can’t even agree on how old your vehicle needs to be to be exempt. Without them both, it's a pretty moot point.

The US DOT (Department of Transportation) is in Washington, DC. The NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) is in Washington, D.C. The OVSC (Office of Vehicle Safety and Compliance) is in Washington D.C. The guys at your local office that handle vehicle registration, give you license plates, driver's licenses, they are not the Federal DOT. They are your local departments of transportation. They do not handle federal vehicle import. They do not ‘clear’ your car. They give you a title. They give you plates when you give them money. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have seen people say, or tell me that their car is federal DOT legal because the Arizona, New Mexico, etc. state DOT cleared it.

It's not long before the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R will legal to import into the United States, but getting registration in the state of California is another matter.

If the car is coming from Japan or any foreign country to the US, and its over 25 years old, then you do not need a Registered Importer (RI). An RI is for a car that doesn't meet US standards, or is not exempt. Importing a vehicle newer than 25 years of age is a much more complicated endeavor. Like the California Direct Import requirements, this is a topic best left for another day and possibly another article.

The federal rules and regulations aren’t the only concern when deciding to purchase and import your sufficiently vintage foreign dream car. When importing a vehicle to the United States these are some additional costs you might expect prior to getting the car off the port.

Those fees are as follows:
Express Mail and Money order THD
ISF Filing
Bond and Surety Fee
2.5 % Tarriff
0.3464 Processing Fee
Customs Entry Fee
US Transport

I also suggest a customs broker familiar with vehicles to clear the cars for you. It will save you some time and aggravation. Anything coming by sea into the US now needs an International Security Filing (ISF). The ISF information needs to be submitted 24 hours prior to the vessel leaving the foreign port. This was recently a new one for me. Customs wanted a bond for 3x the value of the cars from me, but it depends on the agent, value of the vehicle and if it’s a personal or business import. If you don't submit the ISF filing in time you can be liable for fines. Once your shipment is on the way you need to have a de-reg certificate (I recommend also getting it translated to English if necessary), an invoice showing a value for the vehicle, the bill of lading/release, HS-7 and 3520-1. Give all original documents to your customs broker. About a week before the vessel arrives the broker will get an arrival notice. Once they have the arrival notice they can turn in your paperwork to US Customs, pay the 2.5% tariff, the 0.3464% processing fee, customs entry fee and any bond fee if required. Plus, you will probably owe the port/shipping company a local port fee. This was $155 each car for the last vehicles I shipped.

Once the vehicles are released by customs, then they need to get picked up from the port. If you let them sit more than (generally) 7 days you start gathering demurrage (storage fees). This can get very nasty. Have all your paperwork in order well before the car arrives. Make sure there are no questions. Some ports and carriers can charge $100-$200 a day for demurrage. If you don't pay you lose your car. So again, something to be taken very seriously. Do not leave anything to the last minute.

To pick up at the port (roll on, roll off) each has a procedure. Most Long Beach or Los Angeles ports need to have an appointment made 24 hours in advance to pick up any car. You cannot go on the port unless you have a TWIC card or you are escorted. In order to get escorted you have to wait until they have time to escort you. Expect waits in the 2-3 hour range from your appointment time. Once the vehicle is out of the port you can start the process of getting it registered, titled and insured at your final destination.

Make sure all your paperwork is in order before your vehicle gets to port. Make sure you are knowledgable of the processes practiced by the port of entry, or find someone who is in the know.

The entire process takes significant time, anywhere from 2 to 4 months, but eventually you can get a title and own your imported car legally. For California registration, there is still the part about direct import vehicles 1968 or newer, but getting a title is one step closer to getting it all done.  If you need any help with the process, including California compliance you can contact my company

Once a title is in hand the hard work is done.


  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…


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