Over the last 3 years, I’ve received thousands of emails from thousands of readers and viewers with thousands of questions, comments or suggestions, and I can sum up their general message for you now: Roughly 12 percent offered me an insightful idea, politely requested my help or inquired about more information on a certain topic, and about 78 percent asked me how to import a vehicle to the U.S.
There’s no single topic that has captured the interest of my readers more than importing a car to the United States. Of course, there’s a reason for this: Last year, I owned an imported Nissan Skyline GT-R, which found its way over from Japan in one of those cargo ships the size of suburban Milwaukee. And while I went to great lengths to document my ownership experience and the import process, I never really did explain all the steps that go into registering an imported car once it’s here. So today, I’m going to do that, because I took my Nissan S-Cargo to the DMV earlier this week to get it registered.
Before I get into exactly what happened when I went to register my S-Cargo, let me tell you what I thought would happen. Even though I bought my S-Cargo with a clean Virginia title from Japanese Classics, and even though it’s completely legal and was correctly imported, I thought the DMV employees — a bunch of people whose dream workday involves registering two Camrys and then taking a 7-hour lunch break — wouldn’t let me register it.
The DMV isn’t really set up for special cases, and the S-Cargo is the most special case: It’s right-hand-drive, has a 9-digit VIN number, has no rear seat belts, was never built for the U.S. market, isn’t in any computer system and doesn’t have a dash plaque with the serial number on it. So I thought they’d look at the S-Cargo, laugh at it, maybe take some pictures with it, then deny me a registration and move on to the guy behind me in line trying to register his Camry. Then they’d take at least a 4-hour lunch break.
I put my chances of walking out of the DMV with a license plate at roughly 50 percent.
This was in spite of the fact that I had every piece of paperwork I could imagine. I had the Virginia title from Japanese Classics. I had the bill of sale. I had the import documents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection people, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. I had my insurance card, my checkbook, my driver’s license and even my Social Security card — just in case.
And yet, in spite of all that, I still thought I’d walk out with no license plate after a DMV employee insisted I needed to bring back more documents, ideally when someone else was working.
So, here’s what actually happened. I went in to the DMV and presented the employee with all my documents, and she began working away. Quickly, she told me she’d have to verify the VIN — the usual practice in my state, Pennsylvania, when registering a car from out of state. She also told me she couldn’t accept the VIN if it wasn’t printed "in the dashboard area."
This, I knew, would be a problem. Imported Japanese cars have the VIN printed on a plaque under the hood and stamped to the frame, but not in "the dashboard area." This problem isn’t unique to imported cars: Printing the VIN in the dashboard area wasn’t standard practice until the 1980s. I asked the DMV employee what she did about older cars — ones that don’t have the VIN in the dashboard — and she tersely replied that she had never seen that before.
This was not going well.
So we walked out to the car, and the clerk confirmed the VIN was not where she expected it, so she asked a supervisor for help. The answer: She would have to submit the registration request manually, rather than through the computer system. And while she was doing that, I would have to — I swear this is true — walk outside with a pencil and a piece of tracing paper and trace the VIN myself to prove it actually appeared on the vehicle. Now, I’ve heard of VIN tracings before, but I’ve never heard of them performed in the DMV parking lot by the owner of the vehicle.
So she got to work filling out the forms, and I got to work angling my body under the hood, behind the engine, up against the frame, to trace the VIN. I bet the Japanese guy who stamped it never thought there’d be some lanky idiot standing in a DMV parking lot in Pennsylvania trying to get it to show up on tracing paper from Hobby Lobby.
Unbelievably, that was the only snag. After I finished the tracing, I walked back inside and handed the tracing paper — complete with several mess-ups — to the DMV clerk. She accepted it, placed it in a big packet with all the other documents and issued me a license plate.
Now, I admit, I’m not out of the woods yet. When I’ve registered previous cars at the DMV, I walked out with a license plate and a full registration. This time, I have a license plate but only a temporary registration. I’m waiting for the state to process my manually mailed-in registration application, complete with VIN tracing. The DMV clerk told me the state will likely send me my full registration in 4 or 5 weeks — assuming they accept it.
The other interesting factor: The DMV clerk told me she’s dealt with imported cars before, all involving people moving to the United States from Canada, and it’s a much more involved process if you’re bringing your car directly from another country. Because I got a Virginia title first rather than simply showing up with a Japanese title and a bunch of import paperwork, she explained, the process is much simpler — vindicating one of the main reasons I chose to buy my S-Cargo from Japanese Classics.
So after all the questions, concerns and uncertainty about registering an imported car with the DMV, I can safely say that it ended up being surprisingly easy (assuming my registration goes through). And the hardest part wasn’t arguing over the VIN, the legality, the import paperwork or the customs forms — it was standing in the parking lot, trying to figure out how hard I should push my pencil down on the tracing paper. Find a Nissan for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.