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Buying and importing goods from overseas can be a hassle for any American. Japanese cars are some products with high demand, thanks to industry trust, engineering quality, and affordability, among other virtues. Registering JDM (short for “Japanese domestic market”) vehicles in the States is both a legal and financial rollercoaster, due to safety standards and taxes. Let’s see how you can navigate the process, translate the vehicle export certificate for the DMV, and finally enjoy that long-awaited first drive.

Import Japanese cars

Many car enthusiasts in the USA import cars from Japan; such cars are called JDM cars. Some, but not all, of the cars in this article’s images are JDM cars.

Before we start, here’s a quick history lesson. Since the first half of the 20th century, Japan’s auto industry has perfected production methods, improved upon Western equipment, and increased production. Government involvement through subsidies, loans, and the like shielded Japan’s car companies from bankruptcy and foreign competition. Anti-communist sentiment in the 1950s also led to a harsh clamping down on workers’ unions, bolstering big business.

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In America Japanese cars have become popular with the reputation of reliability as a daily driver, but JDM enthusiasts go a step further. When they buy JDM autos, they are looking for a piece of history, for a rare car that few of their friends and neighbors have ever seen before, and for bragging rights to a car with the steering wheel on the right.

Japanese imports

The back of a classic Toyota Supra.

The very first thing to be aware of is manufacturing standards. Foreign countries do not have the same laws as we do, meaning that their cars will not conform to our own federal safety, emissions, and bumper standards. JDM cars do not comply with American regulations and those that are made in Japan with the intent of foreign exportation are not considered to be JDM. So why do people go through the hassle of importing these machines?
Toyota Supra back

The back of another classic Supra.

JDM cars’ specs have been highly praised over time: high horsepower-per-liter metrics, turbocharged four-cylinder engines, and high rpm (revolutions per minute) redlines are a few beloved features. Plus, there’s always the appeal of having a rare automobile that not everyone can just buy at their local car lot.

Some of the most popular Japanese vehicles among Americans are the Nissan Skyline, Mazda RX-7, Honda Civic, Toyota Hiace, and Toyota Sprinter Trueno.

Nissan Skyline GTR

Nissan Skyline GTR

Before worrying about your state’s regulations, remember you must always have proof of ownership and that you filed the car’s entry with federal customs. Besides that, each state handles car registration procedures differently. You can find every state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office on our comprehensive list here (if you also need to show translations of your driver’s license, click here). However, we can look at a few states to gain some familiarity.

Important Note:

You are allowed to only import a vehicle in states where you live or operate a registered business. Not all states call for an established residence, but proof of an address is the general standard.

The New York State (NYS) DMV rules are pretty straightforward. You must meet requirements standard for all vehicles: this means obtaining vehicle plates, window stickers, and inspection records. The DMV also insists your foreign import comply with New York’s safety and emissions standards, even if it has passed federal tests.
japanese car import jdm
The California DMV is more or less the same. You must provide various forms relating to vehicle verification, ownership, gross weight, and more. The Texas DPS (“Department of Public Safety”) emphasises federal law, with their own state government adding that “all safety and emissions components for that model year vehicle be installed and operational.”
Subaru Japanese plates
Florida’s HSMV (“Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles”) website does a good job of laying out its international registration process step by step. It also offers printable checklists to more easily track your progress. Florida statutes point to different types of insurance you must have in order to protect against property damage, bodily injury, and more.
rx7 japanese import
South Carolina is only one of eight states that do not require vehicle safety inspections. The easiest state to import your vehicle, however, is Montana. Montana is the only state that does not mandate a U.S. driver’s license, residency in the state, or vehicle inspections. You do not have to pay sales tax there, either.

If you want a nice comprehensive list of federal forms and even of registered importers, head over to the NHTSA (“National Highway Traffic Safety Administration”) website. Another commonality among states to consider is obtaining a title and license plate. A title is just the official document showing that a vehicle belongs to its owner but is essential to have.
When the topic turns to fees, the issue again depends on the state you are importing into. New York City, for instance, charges 8.875% of the vehicle’s price. Los Angeles charges 9.25% and Washington charges 10.1%. As said before, not all states charge sales tax but you will pay for registration, processing, and more. In Texas, for example, you can pay about $152 in total fees for a light car, not including the 6.25% vehicle sales tax.
ae86 jdm import japanese cars
To cap it all off, the registration process for your shiny JDM is not a walk in the park. Adhering to both federal and state laws is essential and so is preparing enough funds. Simply allotting sufficient time is perhaps the best advice you will receive.

About the author: Althea Chokwe is a Masters student focusing on International Relations at Nottingham Trent University. She writes on a regular basis, interested in issues relating to society, global culture, the economy, and more. Althea also enjoys teaching herself languages and is aiming to become a polyglot. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

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