To legally drive a Japanese car (Made and Sold in Japan) in America, you need to ensure that it complies with all the US vehicle standards. Conforming to the US DOT (Department of Transportation) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations is the only chance to drive a foreign vehicle in the United States lawfully. 

Legally you can drive a Japanese car in American, but you have to wait until the vehicle is more than 25 years old (the date the vehicle was manufactured) by the time it arrives at the port. This allows you to ignore US vehicle standards (FMVSS) and lawfully import and drive the vehicle.

That is NHTSA’s (I know, another acronym, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) only condition to import a foreign car without conforming to the stated FMVSS laws in America. If you are an American wanting to import a vehicle from Japan or are living in Japan and want to keep your car to drive in America, the following guidelines will help you through the legal process of importing a vehicle, so it’s ready to drive in the United States.

The 25 Years Old Rule

Once a vehicle hits the 25-year mark, it can be lawfully imported and driven in the US regardless of whether it observes all the FMVSS standards. On the HS-7 Declaration form, such a vehicle is categorized under Box 1. (Here is a government site with more details.)

The 25 years are counted starting from the initial purchase date. The description of the car’s date is indicated in permanent labels affixed on the vehicles by the manufacturers.

Where labels are missing, the age of the vehicle can be established through documentation such as invoices. The absence of both manufacturers’ labels and invoices warrants a statement from a recognized car historical society to provide the vehicle’s age.

From the precedent, importing a 25-year old Japanese vehicle into the US is a simple formality that requires the provision of the following documents:

  • Invoice
  • Export Certificate with car title (in English)
  • Bill of lading as received from the shipping company
  • ISF filing forum

To have your car cleared and ready to drive in the United States, you need to provide this set of documents to your customs officer.

Compliance with US Rules and Regulations

By far, the most obvious way to legally import a vehicle into the United States is to bring it into compliance with US rules and regulations. Unfortunately, “simple” is hardly the word to describe this process. Expensive would be more appropriate. Check out the NHTSA page under Importing a Vehicle to see all the forms and FAQs you need.

DOT Regulations

At the time a vehicle is imported into the US, a buyer must fill form HS-7 to declare whether the vehicle complies with DOT requirements. To import a vehicle permanently in the United States, it is a general rule that cars less than 25 years old comply with all the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. If the cars do not have the manufacturer’s labels, they should be imported as nonconforming.

The conditions under which nonconforming vehicles can be imported include:

  • By exemption: The EPA can allow nonconforming vehicles to be imported into the United States under the Customs Bond temporarily.
  • By certification: If nonconforming vehicles and engines are tested and modified, they can be certified by an Independent Commercial Importer.

EPA Regulations

Environmental Protection Agency is another wrinkle that you need to be overcome before your nonconforming car is cleared for use in the United States. This agency is interested in identifying how much your car pollutes the environment. Getting a pre-1995 car to pass EPA rules and regulations isn’t a hard task to achieve.

However, any vehicle made in 1995 or later will require an on-board diagnosis system to be installed. The process may prove expensive since most foreign vehicles in the 1990s were not manufactured using similar systems.

Exemptions for Japanese Cars in the US

Of course, there are exemptions to the above regulations for specific cases:

Cars Imported for Specific Reasons

Nonresidents may import vehicles or engines free of duty for temporary stays. These cars are mostly used in races or other specific reasons. If the CBD officer is satisfied that the contests are for non-monetary benefits and is sure that the importer is of good faith, the vehicle may be admitted for 90 days without a bond or formal entry.

However, the car is subjected to forfeiture in the scenario where the bond is not settled within 90 days of importation. In such a situation, prior approval must be given by DOT.

The Show and Display Rule

This law exempts unique vehicles from the government’s stringent rules and regulations as long as the car is brought in solely for “show and display” purposes. The law, which was passed in 1999, exempts certain vehicles from crash tests and all requirements provided by DOT. Still, these vehicles have to conform to all EPA regulations, although this is the easy part and is better than nothing.

In essence, the general requirements for a vehicle to pass the Show and Display exemption test are:

  1. It must be out of production.
  2. The vehicle must not have ever been offered for sale in the United States.
  3. The production of the vehicle must not exceed 500 editions.
  4. The vehicle should not be a replica.

In truth, there are a few other exemptions to this rule; these are just a few of the most major ones.

Certification for Japanese Cars in the US

To drive a Japanese car in the US, the vehicle must also fulfill the US’ standards to be road-safe:

  • To bring nonconforming Japanese cars into compliance with US rules and regulations, vehicles need to undergo a crash test to prove that they meet set safety standards.
  • In addition to the crash tests, a buyer needs to bring other parameters such as headlights and the speedometer into compliance.
    • The headlights should be angled per the US standard. If they are not, they should be replaced with others.
    • The speedometer readings should be converted from kilometers to miles.
  • You will be required to install orange reflectors on the front seats, while red reflectors are required in the back seats.
  • The positioning of the bumpers and the third brake should also be under safety standards.
  • Stuff that you may not consider, such as the devices that make beep sounds when you don’t lock your safety belts or prevent fuel spillage in an accident, need to be installed before driving the car on American roads.

The setback of meeting these specifications is the cost, which can amount to over $10,000. Assuming a vehicle fails the crash tests, you have to fit additional reinforcements to the roof, bumpers, doors, front and rear ends. Once you have spent hundreds to thousands of dollars on crash tests, there is still a possibility you will spend more on the car to pass all tests.

However, there are no annual or re-testing procedures once you have passed the crash tests. Indeed, this is an expensive means to an end, but it is a one-time expense. Once certified, you can import and drive as many cars of the same kind as you want.

Can You Drive a Right-Handed Vehicle in America?

A vehicle must comply fully with all FMVSS standards provided by NHTSA to become legally acceptable in the US. With that in mind, it is possible for right-hand drive (RHD) cars to be manufactured following the set FMVSS standards. Furthermore, at 25 years, all vehicles imported to the US are FMVSS exempt, meaning they can be legally driven around after successful importation.

It is worth noting that FMVSS doesn’t specifically talk about the position of the driver. However, it does mention that controls and displays should be standardized. Once an RHD car has been lawfully imported into the US, it can be legally driven.

Author

The Eyerly Family is a tight knit family from Texas. Married for 10 years Dane and Deena are the parents to six awesome kids! In 2021 the Eyerly's are leaving normal life behind to travel full-time throughout the United States in their Double Decker Bus which has been converted to a tiny home. Learn more about The Eyerly's here.

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