In January I challenged myself to cut out as many services and intermediaries as possible and import a car entirely by myself. What followed was one of the largest headaches of my life. You can import a car yourself, but don’t expect it to be fun.
I’m now the owner of a 1991 Honda Beat and a 1989 Suzuki Every. Both cars were imported through different methods. I wanted to get the full importation experience by having an importer handle one car and doing the other myself as much as I could. I learned a lot along the way and now I’m passing down what I learned to you, dear reader.
The importation of my Honda Beat was handled by the Import Guys and it couldn’t have been easier. Buying and importing that Beat was far more fun and far easier than buying a new car straight off of the lot and remarkably affordable.
If you don’t want to lose hair over orchestrating an import operation yourself, I definitely recommend working with an importer like the Import Guys. But if you’re stubborn like me, buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The journey of importing a car yourself begins with figuring out how you’re going to buy the thing in the first place. Japan has an entire industry dedicated to funneling cars out of the country. You can purchase cars through auctions, car export sites, Goo-net, or even through a dealership. Buying a car in Japan is actually really easy.
Each method of buying a car comes with some quirks. Cars on Goo-net are often priced higher than similar examples found on export sites and the price you see online may actually be lower than the real asking price. A number of times I contacted sellers and dealerships on Goo-net only for them to demand a price that was higher than the list price, and that was before tacking on the cost of shipping.
There are some potentially great deals on car export websites, especially if you’re looking for something cheap like a kei truck. However, be sure to get an inspection done on a vehicle before buying it, if you can. While these sites have some cheap gems, they’ll also have some real junkers that you should avoid at all costs.
Diving into Japan’s auction services is probably the most fun way to buy a car from the country. The selection is vast and changes every day. You could buy everything from crazy flatbed trucks to your dream van in the auction system.
You can access the auction systems through an importer or exporter. It’s usually free to look, but bidding will usually cost you a deposit and you will probably pay the importer or exporter for using their service.
In my case, I really wanted a Suzuki Every with a Super Multi Roof or a Honda Acty van with a double sunroof. These vans don’t often show up on car export sites or Goo-net, but do show up with some frequency in auctions. So auction it was!
For the van, I worked with Japan Car Direct, an exporter that advertises itself as being built by foreigners, for foreigners. For a fee of about $625 you can bid in Japan’s auctions and when you win, Japan Car Direct will handle everything in Japan. It handles a pretty long list of stuff from getting the car deregistered to the logistics of getting your car from the auction to port and booked onto a ship.
Some readers have asked how it works if they were to purchase a car privately. For that, you can pay a freight forwarder to get the car to port and onto a ship. These companies do all of the heavy lifting of finding a truck to pick up your car and booking ocean shipping.
And check out these awesome ships. My Beat got loaded onto the Wallenius Wilhelmsen Figaro.
Buying a car in Japan and getting it onto a ship isn’t too hard. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars depending on where the car is and about $1,000 in roll-on-roll-off ocean shipping depending on the size of your car.
My Suzuki missed its first boat due in-part to the Ever Given clogging up the Suez Canal and a deluge of car exports coming from China. But eventually I was given a booking for the Höegh Trapper roll-on-roll-off ship in late May.
The real fun begins before your car leaves port. Former Jalopnik contributor, Doug DeMuro, said that these next parts are pretty much impossible without a Customs Broker.
In fact, every single source I spoke to said the same thing: you must hire a customs broker in the United States, because there’s so much paperwork, and it’s so complicated, that you, as a normal human with little understanding of tedious government forms, could never do it on your own. One person, a reader named Brad who imported an E30 Touring and seemed generally nonplussed by the whole importing thing, said that not hiring a customs broker would probably involve getting a hotel in the port town and going back every single day with the forms filled out a slightly different way in hopes that it’ll pass muster this time.
If you really want to do this yourself, you’ll first need to file an Importer Security Filing (ISF) form that needs to be sent in to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at least 24 hours prior to your car being loaded on the ship. This form is incredibly important to get right and submitted on time. If it’s not done right or it’s late, Customs can fine you $5,000. Here is what you’re required to include on the form:
- Importer identified numbers (EIN or SSN, name and address).
- Consignee identified number(s).
- Buyer name and address.
- Mailing name and address.
- Manufacturer stuffing location.
- Seller name and address.
- Container stuffing location.
- Stuffer name and address.
- Country of origin.
- Commodity Harmonized Tariff Schedule number.
- Master bill of lading number.
- House bill of lading number.
If you purchased a car through an exporter or similar, you should be given all of the information to fill this one out. There are lots of websites that can help you digitally fill out an ISF form for a low cost. Alternatively, you can have a Customs Broker fill it out and submit it. The Customs Broker is the best way to guarantee that it gets done right the first time, but the digital filing sites should work fine.
What happens next really depends on the value of the car you’re importing. If you’re importing, say, a kei van that you purchased for $100 in an auction, great! You can proceed with what Customs calls an Informal Entry.
An Informal Entry is for goods valued less than $2,500. It’s a cheap, quick and easy way to get your new set of wheels cleared through customs. A surprising number of vehicles fall under this threshold from the Suzuki Jimny and Honda Beat to all sorts of kei trucks and vans.
Here are the forms you’ll need to fill out:
Customs says you’ll also want to have:
For CBP clearance you will need the shipper’s or carrier’s original bill of lading, the bill of sale, foreign registration, and any other documents covering the vehicle.
The Home of the Wittymelon blog went through the painstaking task of detailing everything you’ll need to fill out in these forms.
Once you have all of these forms, you’ll need to submit them to customs. Here is where things started getting frustrating.
See, the best way to submit these forms for processing is to do it in-person at the entry branch of the port’s customs house. That sounds all fine and dandy until you realize that processing the forms takes three to five business days, excluding any delays that can add an additional week or more. So if you live a thousand miles from the nearest port like I do, you’re either taking a vacation to your nearest beautiful port or making multiple trips.
Working with customs and the Port of Baltimore turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Every time my fiancée and I called Customs and Border Patrol we were transferred to another line where nobody ever answered and nobody ever returned voicemails. We even tried emailing representatives and never received any communications back.
One Customs representative in a department unrelated to importation recommended that we try to submit the documents through the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) portal. This seemed promising, but unfortunately, every time we attempted to sign up, the portal gave us an error that said that we must have an ACE portal account to sign up for an ACE portal account.
Ah yes, that makes sense. Once again, calls to Customs was a dead end.
Thinking that I was maybe missing something, I let my fiancée throw her hat into the ring to try get this thing handled. Given her decade of experience dealing with America’s legal system and hilariously inefficient bureaucracies, I figured that she would be able to figure it out. However, she said:
It’s easier to win a trial in court than it is to deal with customs.
After about a month of trying to deal with customs I ran low on time. My van had arrived at the Port of Baltimore and I was no closer to submitting the forms. Customs gives you 15 days to process an import before storage fees begin racking up, so I needed an immediate solution.
I was desperate enough that I was considering flying out and delivering the forms in person as the customs site suggests. But a week in a hotel room is an inefficient use of time and money. Ultimately, I tapped out and contacted a broker at All Ways International Shipping to finish the last steps. For a fee of about $375 its customs broker was able to get my van cleared through customs in only a few days.
Once All Ways International Shipping cleared my van, all I had to do was drive to the port and pick up the van. Actually, there was one more hurdle to deal with at the port. You cannot just drive into the port hauling a trailer to pick up your car unless you have a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC).
You can apply for a TWIC or bypass it if you’re active military. If you’re doing things last minute like I did, then you’re most likely going to need to hire an escort to lead you around the port.
Thankfully, escort services are plentiful and cheap. I used A-1 Escort Service in Baltimore to get me around. It was a $75 well-spent, as even if you were able to go into the port all by yourself, navigating such a huge complex is a monumental task for someone who doesn’t know where they’re headed.
If your vehicle is valued at more than $2,500 like an Autozam AZ-1 or Nissan Skyline, you’ll need to do a Formal Entry. Thankfully, a Formal Entry is similar to an Informal Entry, save for some additional legwork and costs. Home of the Wittymelon once again detailed the extra work involved:
- The CBP 7501 form must provide an entry number.
- To obtain an entry number you need a CBP filer code.
- The bill of lading reported in the ISF must match the BOL number used by the shipping carrier.
- An entry bond must be purchased to cover duty, fees and penalties in the amount of 3X the value of the vehicle (3X the value due to DOT bond requirements).
- An ISF bond must be purchased.
- The Merchandise Processing Fee is higher.
You can work directly with customs to do this yourself. However, most people will not be able to obtain a CBP filer code as CBP will be looking for you to import at least 15 items a year with a total value of at least $1,000,000. That’s a lot of imported cars! In this case, you’ll certainly want to contact an Import Broker.
In the end, I don’t regret at least giving self-importation a try. I’ve talked with a number of people who were able to import their own kei cars using the steps detailed above for Informal Entries. Some of them were local to a port so showing up in person wasn’t a problem. Others didn’t have the same issues I did with submitting their forms online. So it’s possible, but your mileage may vary.
As promised, here is my cost breakdown:
- 1989 Suzuki Every: $1,210
- Ocean Shipping on the Höegh Trapper: $900
- Japan Car Direct: $625
- All Ways International Shipping: $375
- USS Auction fees and Export Clearance: $300
- Terminal fees to Höegh Autoliners: $177
- Land transport to port in Japan: $150
- A-1 Escort Service: $75
I spent $4,700 total to have the Import Guys handle the entire importation on my Honda Beat. The Beat was also about $700 more expensive at auction, so taking the more complex route didn’t save much money. It certainly didn’t save enough money to make the headaches of trying to self-import worth it. Even cutting out the Customs Broker, the savings would have been negligible and not worth it.
Thus, I don’t think it’s really worth trying to import a vehicle yourself unless you can cut decent chunks out of the above cost breakdown. You can save a decent chunk of change but you’ll be much better off letting experts handle all of the hard stuff.