How To Import A Car From Japan
** For the abbreviated list please scroll all the way to the bottom.**
I spent the last quarter of 2020 experiencing the highs and lows of importing a car from Japan with trying to do as much of the ground work as possible to get a better understanding of what is needed to get a car from there to here. Before clicking inquiry on a car that I really, really wanted; I scoured the internet for clear instructions on how to import a car. Most articles were on sites that did the work for you and had very vague descriptions about the process, others failed to mention what was needed at the DMV or the costs involved, but I can send some warnings now from what I have come to learn... It's better to either buy a car that has been imported and titled already or go through a reputable company that does ALL of the brokering.
noun a person who buys and sells goods or assets for others. "the centralized lenders operate through brokers"
Unless you are a broker yourself you will need a broker of some kind for every step of the process, you will need a broker that purchases the car in Japan for you and ships it, a broker to handle importation documents, and a broker to get you to the port to retrieve your car or transport it to your home. I will admit that my path to importing a car may be different and perhaps even more complicated but this is round 1, I intend to get something else if everything lines up by the end of 2021 but let me assure you that while I mention the services and sites I used, I have not been paid in any way to send business in those directions. The prices I paid for my vehicle and services will be posted here to give you a rough estimate as to what it may cost you, the exchange rate between the dollar and yen can change at any point as can the cost of shipping, some people may not want to tell you how much they paid for their imported vehicle but I have no qualms as to letting everyone know how much I paid for a car I do not plan on selling anytime soon. The last thing I wanted to run by you, my fellow Toyota enthusiast; imported vehicles are going up in price as fans of certain models are purchasing the most cleanest examples to export, many people in Japan can see the trends and are pricing accordingly so shop around but move quickly.
To import a car into the United States it must meet EPA and DOT standards but what that means right now to anyone living outside of California is that it just needs to be 25 years old or OLDER. What that means is that your car has to be manufactured 25 years from the month and year you're looking to purchase or you will have to arrange storage overseas, no legitimate website will attempt to ship your car knowing this. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, if you're just going to do private demonstrations like a track day or drift event there are ways to import a newer car but we're not going over that now. Very special cars can also be exempt from the 25 year rule but this would be aimed at very low volume vehicles which very few existed outside of the Japanese economic bubble that happened in the 80's and 90's that have you here reading this article. You can find some good information on what you need on the Customs and Border Protection website here. Other rules which I will cover later in this article pertain to your state and city of residence, being that I live in Florida I have a different set of rules to abide by in order to register car than let's say someone in Minnesota, it wasn't necessarily easy for me and it is worth making a few phone calls to your local DMV to find out what paperwork you need before you show up.
Find a Car:
Through conversations with some of my fellow car people I was told about Goo-Net Exchange, a dealer search engine based out of Japan that brokers the purchase and shipment of vehicles around the world. The way it works is simple, you go on Goo-Net and run a search based on make, model, and year for what you want to import, then you can select your nearest port of arrival, for me that was Jacksonville, Florida; a hub for vehicles being delivered to the Southeast. Pricing is in yen and estimated shipping costs are included if you select a port like previously mentioned, what you would do next if you're interested in a particular vehicle is click inquiry and fill out the contact form, within a day someone will reach out to you giving you a price to purchase and send the car on over. Until just recently (I just logged on today) you can only make a purchase with a wire transfer of funds, I know this sounds so risky but I did my research and didn't have any red flags raised by Goo-Net which is a publicly traded company, my advice is to go with who you can trust. After you send a wire transfer to Goo-Net for the vehicle you want your car will attempted to be secured, that's right; your car is up for grabs until a deal is brokered as they are not held by Goo-Net at all they are on lots across Japan at various independent dealerships. It can be a bit of a waiting game depending on the time of year, day of the week, and time of day; I had my own anxious moment when importing my Starlet GT Turbo.
I've been aware of the front wheel drive boosted Toyota Starlets that were only sold overseas since I was a kid and usually ended up with a Glanza as my first vehicle in GranTurismo. Like the Initial D fanboys that were attracted to the AE86, I gravitated to the EP series of Starlets through media as well; but the 1995 model I intended to purchase was stuck in my head for the past two years after seeing a white example, lowered, on white rally style wheels at a local car meet... I needed to have one. While I like the look of the EP91, the EP82 with the facelifted quad headlights looks so cool with the hood scoop and it's very 90's interior, and I found one listed for sale on Goo-Net just as I had wanted for 825,000 yen with shipping pushing the price up to a reasonable 955,000 yen. That 955,000 yen in today's money is about $9,250, it might seem expensive to some but this is a car that is at a dealership and not an auction, being that it was also a verified vehicle meant that the car ran, it would easily put on another 100,000 KMs if needed...yes almost everything you see for sale in Japan has relatively low mileage. My own anxiety began after submitting my payment, the car had to be secured and with my wheels turning I used my limited knowledge of Japanese and the copy-paste function on my computer to do a search and found the car on Kuruma news (Japanese dealer search in Japanese only) as well as on Facebook but it had been for sale since early 2019... it was October when I inquired about this EP82. Luckily Bell Trading was busier selling Altezzas and not the little hatchback I was putting together a parts list for and with that I received digital copies of my Japanese title (Export Certificate), translation, and invoices with the hard copies having shipped through expedited mail to my home address.
A week after learning my EP82 was making it's way from Saitama to the port in Kawasaki I was given instructions from Shinya, the exporter in charge of procuring my vehicle and getting it lined up for the next available ship to America. The vehicle would leave Kawasaki, Japan just before Halloween on the Hoegh Trove, a vehicle carrier that would need about 6 weeks to land in Jacksonville, just before Christmas. On top of the original pictures from the dealer I also received some high quality pictures of my particular car at the dock as a final inspection. I couldn't imagine a tiny black 3-door car making it from Japan, through the Panama Canal and past the Caribbean to a location just 4 hours north of where I live nor did I have to thanks to a pretty cool website I found. So I'm a bit of stalker, ok not really but for my car I wanted to see if it would land on time and I found Marine Traffic which is a website that's free to use on a laptop/desktop and an app ready for purchase that tracks any ship registered in the world with GPS. I could see every step of the way the location of the Hoegh Trove and an approximate time that it would arrive at the next destination, it was extremely interesting to see how many ships are out on the ocean and imagining the long line of ships passing through Panama and awaiting entry to ports at every stop.
Luckily I was told about having to fill out some forms for entry and having them submitted, but I realized that the best way to do this was through a customs broker and after some searching I found one located in Jacksonville that was rated highly and had experience handling vehicles. I got in contact with Michelle from Unit International who gave me upfront pricing for her services as well as a full packet of information and forms that had to be filled out. An error on any of the government forms could cost you thousands in fees or fines and delay your shipment, I didn't want to risk getting tangled in a mess for a car that weighs less than a ton. In the packet there were two very important forms that had to be completed one was EPA Standard Form 3520-1 and the other was DOT Port of Entry HS-7. Another important document you receive is the Bill of Lading, this invoice basically has all the information for your shipment on the ship that it is on, this is what the customs broker does most of their work with along with the export certificate and other information from the seller which in my case was Goo-Net. A customs broker will also let you know where you are in the process as they communicate with the shipping company, just before the arrival of the Starlet I had to shell out another $158 for a handling fee that Hoegh charged to move my container and process it through to it's final parking spot at the dock. The cost can add up depending on your particular situation but on the broker side the costs involved were brought to my attention before I signed my name anywhere.
The cost breakdown was as following:
Basic Entry fee - $200.00
ISF (Importer Security Filing 10+2) entry fee - $45.00
ISF Bond - $75.00
Single Entry bond - $75.00 min. (based on value)
DOT & EPA - $30.00
Overnight service (Fed-ex, etc) - $30.00 / each (only if needed)
Courier - $25.00
Payment processing fee - 4% (If Credit Card is used)
And finally a federally mandated fee of 2.5% to 25% of the vehicles value which brought my total to $876.00 for all of the paperwork to ensure my vehicle would be mine at the end of the day. Of course these fees and the work involved could probably be done for cheaper but my thought process was to have a local broker handle my business and honestly with the amount of questions I had it was well worth the money.
When that day comes you hope to have everything you need to get your car...and this is why you get a customs broker and you ask questions, without that you might show up to a loading dock without a TWIC pass. A TWIC is a credential used to access ports of entry across the United States, it's about $125 plus some other fees and a wait time in order to apply and receive the card yourself, but it's not a guarantee that you will pass a background test or get your pass in time so sometimes your best bet is hiring an escort. The escort I used was Port Storage Delivery they took me from their office to the docks, processed me through the gate, got me to my car and back out of the port for $115 which is the standard rate for their hour and a half service. Let me rewind a tiny bit however, everyone will do these steps a bit differently but once you get arrival information you need to figure out whether or not you will insure your car and get a temporary tag or just have a professional transporter (or your own truck and dolly) to move your vehicle from any given port to your home address. The port will give you CBP Form 3461 which is a release form from the port you need to ultimately register your vehicle but to get a temporary tag you should just need a patient DMV representative, your paper export certificate and translation and insurance. I will go into insuring your imported vehicle in a bit but for me I wanted to experience driving my Starlet GT Turbo home and was prepared with my buddy Matt and his son Vinny to do any roadside repairs necessary to get my 25 year old Toyota home.
Ok so your car made it from Japan, it's in your driveway or garage and you need to put a plate on it so you can enjoy it. The first step I mentioned at the very beginning was to get a list of items needed from your local DMV in order to register it, for Florida you need your export certificate, a notarized translated copy of the export certificate, an invoice or bill of sale with the price clearly listed, CBP Form 3461 completed and stamped, a VIN verification usually performed by an agent at a regional office who specializes in imported vehicles, and insurance. For insurance I used Hagerty, you can use another company but they make it easy to fill in information for a variety of foreign and collector cars while allowing you to limit mileage on your own, name a price for coverage, and pay either in full or as you go. I'm personally paying about $70 a month for what amounts to full coverage on my EP82 including a subscription to Hagerty magazine, the Motor Trend video app, and services like part finding and flatbed service discounts. And that is about the easiest part of it all, because of COVID I had to use my temporary tag ($10 in Florida for a 30-day) to drive on some very old tires to the local regional office to get my VIN verified, the next stop was a pair of painful visits to my local DMV that lasted about an hour each.
You love Japanese cars right? You read articles and Wikis on everything, your book shelf has specialized books dedicated to your favorite models and you love watching old Best Motoring, Hot Version, and Option videos on Youtube with that hero car in your heart burning around a track...but the person at the DMV most likely doesn't know or care about any of that, they want proof. The biggest issue I had after submitting a well organized packet of information pertaining to my vehicle and it's purchase was that my export certificate translation was not stamped with a notary stamp in Japan which meant I know had to go through a third party company to get this done online...and quick. I used Google and found ASAP Translate, a service that would get the job done as I needed desperately as the year was coming to an end as was my temporary tag. They received a scanned copy of the original title and someone sent me a newly translated copy the next day and I only paid $65 to have it shipped for 2 day air mail, I know I say only but after getting hit with so many fees and extra costs it felt cheap for what it allowed me to do. So, I submitted all the paperwork the second time around, luckily the people at my local Tax Collector are very pleasant as opposed to what I dealt with in New York City, after answering questions and picking out a plate style I was handed a bill of $788, this included a 6% sales tax to the state of Florida on top of the 2.5% tax I paid federally at the port, but now I could say the car was legally all mine.
The final step is to do what you meant to do with the car! Drive it like you stole it, or not, maybe just cruise around. JDM car ownership so far has been fun, you answer questions from curious people and get the thumbs up and a bunch of comments; you have to figure out how to organize your brain to focus on shifting with your left and using your right hand to pull down your turn signal stalk. Finding parts may or may not be hard, you might have to go through forums or specialty websites but Facebook can be a great resource. Overall my car cost me about $11,334 with one month of insurance, this can probably be done for cheaper but my main takeaway is that if you know of a reputable broker or a website currently selling JDM vehicles and offers to find a car you want for $2,000 or less on top of the price of the vehicle then that is a good deal.
Find a car (try Goo-Net or another JDM car import website that's reputable).
Pay for your vehicle and shipping (Most companies will only work with a wire transfer as loans/credit isn't an acceptable form of payment).
Find a Customs Broker and fill out forms EPA Standard Form 3520-1 and DOT Port of Entry HS-7.
Wait for your vehicles arrival and be sure to pay any associated fees days beforehand.
Pick up your car and receive CBP Form 3461(arrange transport or a TWIC escort).
Insure your car (Collectors car insurance companies usually have options for imported cars).
Register your car (Check your local DMV for specific forms, bring all paperwork neatly in a folder and organized by it's purpose).