I recently went up to Alaska, where I observed a rather interesting car scene. Among a smattering of VW camper vans, old Subarus and lots and lots of pickups was a disproportionately high number of RVs, many of which were European-market vehicles wearing European license plates. Vehicles of this variety tend to raise a lot of questions — namely, how did they wind up in the USA? Allow me to explain.
First, we must clarify which vehicles we’re talking about here. What we aren’t talking about are gray-market imports like the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R or Mitsubishi Delicas that U.S. citizens can import to the United States and register with a U.S. license plate like any other vehicle as long as they’re 25 years old; these vehicles are unrelated to today’s topic.
What we are talking about are modern vehicles that look like they’ve been picked up from the European countryside or the Australian outback, still wearing their registration plates from their home country, and plopped down into Yellowstone National Park, the California coast or Alaska like many of the vehicles pictured in this article. This is essentially what has happened.
These vehicles are here on a temporary basis, and their owners are taking advantage of a provision with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol that allows vehicles such as these to be shipped to the United States and driven around for up to a year.
Here’s the official line straight from the US Customs & Border Protection website:
"Nonresidents/visitors may import a vehicle duty-free for personal use up to one year if the vehicle is imported in conjunction with the owner’s arrival. Vehicles imported under this provision that do not conform to U.S. safety and emission standards must be exported within one year and may not be sold in the U.S. There is no exemption or extension of the export requirements."
As could be expected, the import and export process is somewhat complicated and requires a lot of paperwork, the removal of accessories like bike racks and cargo boxes, and a thorough cleaning of the underside of the vehicle to ensure foreign microorganisms aren’t introduced to the North American ecosystem. After this is all squared away, it takes on average two to three weeks for a vehicle to arrive in the U.S. after being dropped off for shipment in Europe. This timeframe is likely a bit longer for vehicles coming from down under.
For the entirety of its time here, the vehicle maintains registration in its home country, meaning that it keeps its foreign license plates, and is simply considered to be "visiting." The same goes for the owner — holding a valid driver’s license from their home country enables them to drive legally in the United States. Outside of managing the import and export process, the owner will only need to worry about obtaining insurance for their vehicle while it’s on U.S. soil, which is available through a number of third parties.
In practice, this effectively means that an individual from Germany, Spain, Switzerland or New Zealand (and so on) who wants to spend time traveling around the United States may import their personal vehicle to use while doing so.
This is why you see the occasional Swiss-plated Fiat RV or Australian-plated Toyota Land Cruiser in national parks and other attractive American destinations: These are the personal vehicles of individuals from foreign countries who have temporarily imported them to the U.S., in most cases for the grand American road trip. While once in a blue moon you’ll see a passenger car that’s been imported in this manner, European RV owners seem most likely to take advantage of this provision, as the economics of traveling the country in an RV you already own back in Europe are far more favorable than renting or buying one here.
And that requirement that the vehicle be ‘exported’ after a year? In many cases, it can be satisfied just by driving across the border into Canada or Mexico, and then driving back over, at which point the clock resets to zero and the vehicle has another 365 days to be driven around the States.
Overall, this process is pretty airtight, so don’t get any ideas about exploiting it to bring your dream Volkswagen Scirocco R into the United States, because it doesn’t quite work that way. But nonetheless, it certainly serves to make American roads a little more interesting.
As for the vehicles pictured in this article, all were photographed in the United States. Here’s where they’re all from:
Red Mercedes Sprinter — Spain
Green Mercedes Sprinter — Germany
Tan fourth-gen Iveco Daily 4×4 — Switzerland
White & Gold second-generation Fiat Ducato RV — France
Silver VW California — Switzerland
White 70 Series Toyota Land Cruiser ‘Troopy’ — Australia
White Mitsubishi L300 — Germany
White third-gen Iveco Daily RV — Switzerland
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.