Importing a car from Japan

BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of PropagandaOKC Icrontian
edited March 12 in Home & Auto

Last year I finally took the plunge to import a 25 year old vehicle from Japan. It's not hard if you're willing to be patient, and doing it yourself will be cheaper than buying from a stateside JDM import dealership. There are several paths to getting a legal car in the US, but here's the path I recommend based on convenience and buying from a Japanese auction.

ASSEMBLE YOUR TEAM

You want to find n vehicle exporter in Japan to handle the purchase overseas. Japan has a complicated title/ownership system and all vehicles must go through a de-registration process before they can leave the country. Your exporter will handle all that along with booking the ocean freight to ship your car, various Japanese inspections, and making sure the car gets to port. There are several companies that do this and their fees vary as either a flat rate per car you buy, or a percentage of the purchase price, or some combination of the two. I used JapanCarDirect.com and have been very pleased with their service.

In my case, I paid a $500 deposit to JCD which gave me access to their web platform so I could look at cars at all the Japanese auctions, view historical sales data on the cars, etc. The deposit can be used toward the purchase price of my car should I decide to bid, or it can be kept on retainer if I want to keep using them as a vendor. It is fully refundable and therefore not included in any of the cost estimates in this document.

Once you send over a deposit, you're good to start playing the game of finding a good car to import.

You also want to find a freight forwarder to handle the import of the car one it hits the US port. This will add cost but also makes life super easy because they'll handle filing all the paperwork with the port, US Customs, the EPA, the DOT, etc. Be aware that finding a company willing to import a car for your personal use can be a challenge. Many companies only focus on commercial accounts and don't want to get burned by people trying to import illegal cars. Shop around because fees vary wildly.

THE COST

As soon as you get into the auction system, it's tempting to see the sales price of cars and think OMG SO CHEAP. The price you pay is only part of the larger picture. Here's pricing for my small kei van. Bigger cars mean higher prices for inland transportation, ocean freight, and delivery to your door. Your Japanese counterparts can help estimate freight costs based on the vehicle prior to bidding so be sure to ask what the Landed Cost estimate is for your vehicle type.

Cost Group 1 - $3,700 Paid once you win a car within a couple days via wire transfer.

  • Purchase Price of the Vehicle - My van was $1,680.
  • Fee to the Exporter - Figure $1k for most cars for their services. This is how they make their $$.
  • Inland Transportation to the Port and Inspections - $300
  • Ocean Freight & Marine Insurance - $1,000
  • Wire Transfer fee from your bank - $40

Cost Group 2 - $1,700 Paid when your car delivers to port 4-6 weeks after your make your initial purchase. OMG So Many Fees!!! These are the prices I paid through a company down in TX.

  • ISF Filing - $52
  • Unloading- $172 goes to the port operator who got your car off the ship
  • Duty - $334 (Figure 25% of the vehicle price for trucks and cargo vans, 3% for cars)
  • US Customs Clearance- $145
  • Single entry bond - $95
  • Express Courier - $30
  • Documentation - $85
  • DOT - $53
  • EPA - $65
  • Transit - $650 to deliver the car to my driveway. This varies wildly based on your distance from the port and the size of your vehicle. In COVID times, budget $1,000 or more to deliver to a location 8 hrs away from the port.
  • Wire transfer fee to the freight forwarder - $40

So my $1,600 van cost $5,500 by the time I got it plated and insured in my home state. Budget accordingly. I'll break down and explain some of these fees later

LincGHoosdumGargWinfreyprimesuspect

Comments

  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian
    edited March 11

    AUCTION HUNTING

    Japanese auctions are fast paced. A car will show up online and sell within the same day, often in a matter of hours. Once you're shopping, check the auctions nightly. Bids are placed ahead of the car going on the block and the winner is the person with the highest submitted bid. My process is:

    1. Find several cars you're interested in and email their auction links to your Japanese contact. They'll translate the auction sheets which list any flaws, damages, aftermarket parts, etc so you get an idea of the car's condition. These sheets are extremely detailed. The Japanese contact may dissuade you from bidding on some cars based on concerns off the auction sheet. This is expected.

    2. If one or more vehicle sounds good, you can request a pre-auction inspection. A 3rd party inspector will check out the car, starting it up and making notes if it's dirty or hard to start or smells funky, and then you'll get a report back to help you decide if you want to bid. In the case of my exporter, the inspection is "free"; paid out of the profit they make when you win a car. 3rd Party Inspection etiquette - Don't request one unless you're serious about buying the car in question. If the 3rd Party report comes back good, you'll be expected to bid a fair max price that's above the average price for that vehicle. Otherwise you'll nickel-and-dime all the profit they're expecting to make away on inspections for vehicles you have a 50/50 or less chance to win.

    3. Keep looking, or bid your max price. The winning bid is usually $50 more than the second highest bid. So if you bid $1,000 and somebody else bids $500, you win and pay $550.

    When you win, you'll get notification that you're the proud owner of the vehicle and an invoice for everything in Cost Group 1. Go to your bank and send a wire transfer. It's time to pay up!

    THE WAITING GAME

    Once you've paid, you'll play the waiting game. You'll get notice that your freight is pre-booked with an expected sail date somewhere in the next few weeks. Within a week or so you'll also get a big ZIP file full of photos of your vehicle showing every nick, ding, dent, rust spot, paint chip and upholstery tear they can find. If something stands out as sketchy or if you need a repair part, now is the time to talk to your exporter about sourcing those. Sometimes they can ship them in the vehicle. Also, you have the option to keep the car in Japan and try to sell it in the auctions there instead of bringing it over. Don't do this unless absolutely necessary.

    Now is the time to decide if you are using a freight forwarder. If you are, you need to notify the Japanese team so they can put the forwarder's info on your Bill of Lading, the official document that accompanies your cargo. This lists where the cargo was loaded, where it's headed, and who is in charge of it at various points. If your freight forwarder is on the BOL, you don't have to talk to the freight company later on and it speeds up the customs process.

    Your car will load onto a car transport ship. It's like a parking garage on the ocean. They'll drain most of the gas. It'll take several weeks to cross the ocean. Plan on a month to 6-weeks just to be safe because these ships stop in all sorts of ports. Mine went to several Japanese ports before sailing south, coming through the Panama Canal, and then hitting up several Central American countries and islands before landing in Texas.

    LincGargWinfrey
  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian
    edited March 12

    HERE COMES THE PAIN

    Once your car sets sail you've got a few weeks to sort things out. Don't procrastinate. You need to have a plan for all the line items listed in Group 2. Let's discuss.

    • ISF Filing - You're required to file an ISF filing with US Customs that tells them what's coming in your shipment. This is supposed to be done before your vessel sails and must be completed before it lands or you risk a hefty fine. If you're working with a freight forwarder, this is the first thing they'll ask you about. You can do this separately via websites like EasyISF.com if you'd rather not use a freight forwarder. The first time you do it, you'll probably have to sign some Power of Attorney paperwork to let somebody file on your behalf, and you'll usually incur a setup fee as they get you added to their system. From all I've found, it's not something an individual can do through direct government interaction to save $50-$100.
    • Unloading - The port your vehicle arrives in will charge you for unloading the ship and parking your car in some secure lot. Longshoremen gonna longshore. This is unavoidable. If you use a freight forwarder, the port will work with them and they'll pay on your behalf and then pass on the bill to you once everything is done. If you don't use a freight forwarder, expect to be contacted by the shipping line and having to pay yet another invoice via wire transfer.
    • Duty - This is the federal tax you pay for bringing your car in. Uncle Same wants his piece of the pie. For cars, it's usually around 3% of the purchase price you paid in Japan. For mini-trucks, cargo vans, and anything that might be understood to have a commercial use it's 25%. My kei van, despite having rear seats, counted as a truck because in the cargo area. This caught me off-guard but thankfully with the purchase price being so low it didn't break the bank.
    • US Customs Clearance- This is the fee to a freight forwarder to get your vehicle cleared by customs. They'll fill out the customs forms and file everything with what's called a Formal Entry. This is typically called Form 7501 and it's a single page.
    • Single entry bond - You must have a customs bond to file a Formal Entry. This is like term life insurance. You pay for a one-time use bond based on the value of your vehicle.
    • Express Courier - Payment for the freight forwarder to overnight documents to customs and/or the freight line.
    • Documentation - Payment for the freight forwarder
    • DOT - You will fill out and send to the freight forwarder a form that says your vehicle is old and exempt from DOT regulations. They must have this for customs clearance and they'll charge you to file it with the USDOT. The form is called an HS-799 Short form. It's one page
    • EPA - You will fill out and send to the freight forwarder a form saying that your vehicle is old and exempt from EPA regulations. They must have this for customs clearance and they'll charge you to file it with the EPA. The form is called a 3520-1 and it's two pages. You'll likely just put in your info, the vehicle info and then check the box for Code E.
    • Transit - If you aren't going to port to pick up the car, you need to get a transporter to deliver it. Do not plan on driving the car back; you'll want to trailer it at the very least. Auto transport rates vary tremendously. You'll pay based on the size/weight of your car and the mileage they're transporting it, and trucking rates fluxuate all the time based on driver supply and demand.

    GOING THE CHEAP ROUTE

    Is your vehicle under $2,500? Do you want to do more work yourself? Do you live a life of leisure and can casually spend your days waiting in a Customs and Border Patrol office? Then you don't need a freight forwarder. You also don't need to pay additional fees for a single-entry bond, or any documentation filings. You'll instead do what's called an Informal Entry.

    Informal Entry means you show up in person with your Form 7051, HS-799 Short and 3520-1 all filled out at the customs office along with a cargo release showing you paid the freight company for the unloading. You pay your duty there and any other misc. fees, take your car and go home. Bring a check book.

    GargWinfrey
  • GHoosdumGHoosdum Icrontian

    This is an amazing write-up. Thanks @BuddyJ for sharing the experience, and de-mystifying it for anyone else interested in taking the plunge.

    BuddyJ
  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian
    edited March 12

    ITS IN THE MAIL

    Right before your car arrives, you'll get an envelope from DHL or some other air mail courier. This will contain important documents you'll need to get your car. If you're working with a freight forwarder, be sure to scan them copies of the important items as soon as this arrives. It's very likely a freight forwarder will have been pushing you to provide these for several weeks prior to their arrival, but most exporters don't drop them in the mail until a week before your car is scheduled to land meaning the freight forwarder will likely get the copies you send them 48 hrs before the car shows up in port. It can be a bit stressful for everyone involved waiting for these vital papers to show up. Here's what you get:

    • Japanese De-Registration Certificate - Looks like a title. It's all in Japanese. It shows that the vehicle is no longer owned in Japan. From what I gather, once a car is de-registered it pretty much has to leave the country. For ownership purposes here this is what you need to show your state when it comes time to tile the car. Not that they'll be able to read it. Thankfully you also get...
    • Japanese De-Registration Certificate - English Translation - Your exporter will translate the above item and give you something to show the DMV that actually makes sense to them. They'll want both items.
    • Commercial Invoice - This is a legal document showing what you paid for the car. It'll be used to assign the duty rate and also works like a Bill of Sale. Make copies of this to show customs and your DMV.
    • Original Bill of Lading - We talked about this previously. This is the original copy that Customs will want to get a copy of when your Formal Entry is files or you make an Informal Entry. It's so they know you're not smuggling the car in.
    • Freight Insurance Certificate - If the parking-garage-on-water ship shinks or your car is damaged in transit and you can prove it, this is your insurance policy. File it for safe keeping. You'll only need it in an emergency.
    Garg
  • BlueTattooBlueTattoo Boatbuilder Houston, TX Icrontian

    It better be a cool car for all of that! Nice write-up.

  • _k_k P-Town, Texas Icrontian

    That is flippin' hot

    LincBuddyJ
  • WinfreyWinfrey waddafuh Missouri Icrontian

    This looks like it would be a lot of fun to turn donuts in!

    BuddyJ
  • GargGarg Purveyor of Lincoln Nightmares Icrontian

    That Sambar had a ton of space with the seats folded down!

    BuddyJ
  • primesuspectprimesuspect Beepin n' Boopin Detroit, MI Icrontian

    I hope Nicole never sees this thread because next thing I know I'll have some weird exotic 1970's work truck sitting in front of my house

    RyderBuddyJ
  • RyderRyder Kalamazoo, Mi Icrontian
    edited March 14

    {pokes Nicole to show her the thread} MOVE ALONG, NOTHING TO SEE HERE!

  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian

    @primesuspect said:
    I hope Nicole never sees this thread because next thing I know I'll have some weird exotic 1970's work truck sitting in front of my house

    Best work truck idea I've seen so far is a converted Japanese firetruck.

    I'd be all about this.

    GargMt_Goat
  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian

    NEGATORY, GOOD BUDDY

    I made a mistake last week. I trusted an auto transporter's timeline. Rookie mistake. I should have known better...

    When you need a car hauled, the freight forwarder usually reaches out to a broker to get the car moved. The broker is a middle-man who works sort of like Uber, throwing jobs out there and hoping a driver will take it. Drivers usually are looking for extra things they can carry on their routes because driving an empty truck usually means you aren't making any money. They more you haul the better your payday.

    It's a good time to be a trucker. There's a shortage of drivers. There's a ton of loads to haul. And technology has made it easier than ever to find ways to fill your truck. All that means it's a bad time to be a consumer or business relying on trucking. Drivers will often accept a load, and if it suddenly becomes an inconvenience, they'll cancel it and find something easier, more lucrative, or a combination of the two. So you pay more In the case of the Subaru I brought in vs the Honda I'm importing now, the cost of freight to ship has increased 50%. Thanks supply and demand.

    Thursday, the driver said they'd deliver to me Friday afternoon. Friday afternoon, I reached out to the broker. The driver cancelled because there was a 3hr wait to pick up the car in-port. So now I'm back to waiting until somebody else accepts the load.

  • GargGarg Purveyor of Lincoln Nightmares Icrontian

    That firetruck is the coolest truck I have ever seen.
    Hope someone sends your Honda soon!

  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian

    Beat arrived yesterday afternoon. It's incredibly fun to drive.
    Be prepared for long times at the gas station filling it up. A full tank is only 5 gallons, but it's inevitable that you'll get stopped by somebody wanting to talk about the car. :D

    CBGargMt_GoatThrax
  • edcentricedcentric near Milwaukee, Wisconsin Icrontian

    I haven't known anyone that has done this in the last 20 years.
    Great info.

    BuddyJ
  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian

    What other stuff does everyone want to know? A crash course in the Auction process and how to judge inspection sheets?

    GHoosdum
  • GHoosdumGHoosdum Icrontian

    That sounds awesome - by the end of this I'm going to be sorely tempted to import a car...

    BuddyJ
  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian

    Auction shopping like a pro

    Once you've got auction access through an auction service, you'll usually see some variation of this screen because most companies tend to use the same service to give you access.

    The three buttons at the top are where you'll likely spend your time. Japanese Auctions is where you see currently available cars. Sales Statistics is where you'll can start trying to figure out the going price on cars. Oneprice is for searching dealership inventory, which is only recommended for people with deep pockets.

    Click on either of the first two buttons and you'll get this menu to navigate by Make and Model. Once you select a Make, you can also access filters to narrow things down. As of today, you'd only want to limit search results to cars 1996 and older if you're going to the USA.

    Now we can see I've selected the Honda Beat and it's giving me all the results of cars at the auction. They're sorted by year with the newest first, and we can also see their mileage, condition, and hopefully average selling price for a cars with similar mileage and condition. Note that car 50740 has already sold for roughly $4,330 (quick hint -- drop the last two digits off the price in Yen and that's what your price in USD should be). The cars above it are scheduled for later today and a countdown timer under the auction date shows how much time is left before they go on the block. The car below it is set to go the next day.

    CONDITION NUMBERS

    Conditions are key to navigating the auction. The higher the number, the nicer the car and the more you'll pay.

    • Condition 5 is immaculate.
    • Condition 4 is very good. It might have a scratch or small ding.
    • Condition 3.5 is better than average with minor dents, dings and imperfections.
    • Condition 3 is good with average wear and tear.
    • Condition 2 is rough.
      I wouldn't buy a car less than Condition 3. Anything with No Condition, X, XX or something else is to be avoided.

    CONDITION R and R2

    Cars with collision repair or that have been tuned are usually R cars. R cars aren't scary and can represent tremendous value. Remember that Japan has super-strict inspections so repairs have to a level that still meets all safety requirements. Simple things like a fender-bender can move a Condition 4 car to an R designation. They're always worth a look but also worth a pre-bidding inspection if at all possible.

    Some popular cars are rare to find in conditions outside of R, especially turbo sports cars and Kei sports like the Subaru Vivio RX-R, Suzuki Alto Works, Nissan Silvia/180SX turbos, and Toyota Mark II Tourer V.

    BE PATIENT

    If you don't see something that catches your eye, don't fret. Auctions come and go every day. Patience and persistence pay off. It's easy start telling yourself something is good enough because you're excited to start bidding. Don't fall for that trap.

  • BuddyJBuddyJ Dept. of Propaganda OKC Icrontian
    edited March 25

    I LIKE THAT ONE

    Once you find a car you like, it's time to dig in. Click on the car to bring up its individual auction page. This is Lot 85043 and it goes up for auction in 3 hours.

    Here's an R-grade Beat. Photos down the left show it's been repainted, has a body kit, and the interior is not stock. If you're still interested, we dig in to the auction sheet. This tells us what works, what doesn't, and lets us better understand the condition of the car.

    This shows us a couple things. In the upper right corner, the R designation is clearly visible. The letter grade under it is the interior condition; in this case a C. I'll guess there's some wear-and-tear on the seats or some mounting holes for things like cup holders or gauges evident in there somewhere.

    Below the condition box is a text box with a bunch of stars drawn in it. This is the hype box. They highlight all the good things about this car in there. If you're lucky, you might be able to use Google Translate to take a photo of it and get it to translate the text.

    Lower left corner is where all the concerns are listed. This is what your import specialist will translate for you. I live in a hot state where AC is a must. In Japan, if the AC is broken or has issues you'll see the English letters AC in this area. For me, if I see AC there, it's a deal breaker.

    Bottom right corner is a generic car image. This is where dents, dings and repairs are marked. The key to understanding it is at the bottom of the page. In general, XX means something has been replaced. It's not a bad sign. Dots or dashes along the body panels indicate the locations of dings and scratches. Anything with S and C mean rust and corrosion and should raise concern. For this car we see it has an A2 marking on the front of the car. Because it has a front lip kit we can assume there's a good curb scratch on the lip. But otherwise the body looks straight. We'll want to get details from our importer on what the marking on the windshield means.

    Time to talk to the Pros

    At this point I'd email my auction contact with a short email saying the following "I'm interested in Beat 85042 (The lot number). Can you translate this for me?" and I'd send a the URL to the page we were just on.

    After a while if it's within business hours I usually get a response like this example.
    "mt, ac, timing belt sticker, front end repairs, interior dirty, dashboard bracket attached, steering wheel worn, audio missing, seats torn and sunk, soft top tears, mirrors scratched, rear panel/tail panel dents, right baffle/right front inside panel slightly bent, side duct painted, small chips in windshield, other dents scratches paint cracks"

    Your contact may also briefly translate it and then recommend passing.
    "5mt, ac, turbo, aftermarket steering wheel, floor mats, brake noises and vibrations, engine oil leak, let me know if you want the rest..."

    STILL INTERESTED?

    Time to check the car's history. At the top of the page is a "Check Vehicle" icon. Click it to bring up the car's past auction history. Some cars get purchased by flippers and will have a long auction history. You'll see the purchase price the flipper paid Most flippers want to make at least a grand over what they paid so only bid on the car if you're willing to try and chase the flipper's reserve.

    Also, look to see if the car was recently won and suddenly back at the auction with a different grade. It could be the car is a lemon that somebody purchased and then is trying to get back out of. It takes a little detective work but checking the car's auction history can be a good way to learn more about your potential purchase's history.

    GHoosdumMAGIC
  • mertesnmertesn I am Bobby Miller Yukon, OK Icrontian

    Warning: do not let @BuddyJ take you for a ride in the vehicles he imports. You’ll find yourself purchasing something you never knew you’d want.

    The Beat lives in my garage now :biggrin: …and a couple people have already asked how they get one.

    He’s not kidding about having conversations about the car. In the six days I’ve owned it I’ve talked to two people waiting for the light to change, one in the parking lot of my local cider shop (and one inside said taproom, but that was to let me know the lights were on), and several with coworkers who saw the photo on my work laptop during a meeting.

    10/10 would import again

    BuddyJQCH
  • ThraxThrax 🐌 Austin, TX Icrontian

    Congrats on your car from BuddyJapan!

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