Despite the unfavourable exchange rate for Canadians, buying cars out of the U.S. still makes sense in a few scenarios. I’ve done it a few times, and I’ve learned all the hoops you have to jump through. It’s not impossible but it does take work. Here’s how to import a car into Canada:
Step 1: Check if your car is admissible into Canada
The first step is to make sure that the Registrar of Imported Vehicles (RIV) and Transport Canada has deemed “your” car importable. For the most part, our Canadian regulations line up with those of our southern neighbour. Many cars can be brought in “as is,” while some will need metric odometers installed and daytime running lights added. This is a comprehensive list of what you can and can not bring over the border.
Please note that there is no mention on that list of any cars older than 15 years (2002 as publishing date). That’s because all cars 15 years old or older are completely exempt from these rules. So if you have a classic car to import, don’t worry about the list.
Step 2: Check the title
The title is the single most important document when importing a car. A title proves ownership of the car. Without a title, in the eyes of the law, you don’t own the car you’re importing. You absolutely can not import a car with a salvage or rebuilt title. The car must have a clear title to import. Check with local U.S. Department of Motor Vehicle offices to learn how to spot a bad title and ensure that you are getting a clean and clear title.
Step 3: The infamous 72-hour export rule
The 72-hour rule is a wonderful bit of red tape designed to make life just a little bit harder for those exporting a car from the U.S. That’s right, before you can import into Canada you have to export it from the U.S. Failure to do this will result in massive trouble if you ever set foot in the U.S. again. You must contact (usually by phone because they never respond to emails) the exact U.S. border crossing you will be using at least 72 hours before you show up with a car to be exported (see Step 5). You will need to send them two things:
Step 4: Getting an ITN
Five years ago, any Joe Blow could import a car simply by proving he owned it, how much he paid for it, paying some tax and showing his passport. Someone somewhere thought that was too darn easy and came up with the Internal Transit Number (ITN). As far as I can tell, an ITN is just another rubber stamp process that lines professional importer’s pockets with money. Nevertheless, you must have an ITN to export a car and there are two ways to get one: Be a professional, licensed importer, or pay one. Sigh.
I’ve always used Auto Import USA; they will set you up with an ITN for $150. They are not the only company that offers this service but they’re the only one I’ve used. No, I don’t get paid to endorse them but I have been pleased with their service so far. To get an ITN, you need to send the importer all of the following:
The importer will send all that and the ITN to the U.S. border. The U.S. border, ever friendly, will never respond if they received your paperwork or if it was faulty. Their official policy is complete radio silence until you show up in person at the border. There is no way to check that your ITN has been received, or declined. Yes, it’s silly.
Step 5: The export
If you’ve already called 72 hours ahead, you have a clean title in hand and the ITN paperwork, then you are ready to export. But first you have to find out where! Not every U.S. border crossing has an export office; you’ll have to call the crossings yourself to find out if they do or do not (most major crossings have them). Then you need to find out where that office is located. The export office is usually a non-descript building at the edge of the compound surrounded by 18-wheel semi-trucks. You will have to call the U.S. border and get them to explain to you where to find this office. Once you actually find the place, it’s a very straightforward procedure and then you’ll be on your way to Canada!
Step 6: Import and tax
Now that you’ve exported, the actual import is a cinch in comparison. Upon driving through the Canadian customs gate, inform them that you are importing a car and they’ll direct you to an easy-to-find spot where you can park and then head inside to pay taxes. How much tax? You will pay GST (and HST, depending on your province of entry) for the full amount of the vehicle as listed in the bill of sale. Customs will always fuss over the amount. Bring a print-out of the winning eBay ad or a photo of the bank draft in that amount, or anything else you can use to prove that you paid what you paid. You will also pay a $100 fee if the car has air conditioning and a flat $200 fee if the car is newer than 15 years old.
Once the car is legally into the country, you have 45 days to actually go to a registry where you can register and plate the car.