Buying Your Own JDM Car Part 5: Drivers Masochistic Visit

So, time to have some real fun! I'm sure you're aching to say you own a fully-legal JDM car and drive it around to be hounded by all the dudes in town who now think you're the greatest thing since Kenny Loggins but one final boss battle awaits – your local DMV! Cue the epic fight music!

Don't be surprised if the registration process makes you want to do this! (Image credit: GIFsoup)

So what happens when you go register a JDM car at your local DMV? Well of course the process will vary from state to state so you may be in for cake or in for a bad case of indigestion depending on where you live.

Let me help you by giving you a quick visualization exercise to prepare you for what it'll be like in most cases. Stand up. Close your eyes. Imagine you're a dog! Now imagine you're a stupid dog! One who likes to chase his tail for no reason. Now open your eyes and look behind you. Visualize a furry appendage just wagging there and start running around in circles while you chase it. Do it until you keel over from exhaustion or dizziness.

Yep, that's what it'll probably be like for you. Now, like I said, for some people it'll be easy but based on my experience and other JDM car owners I've talked to it'll probably be a huge discomfort in the buttock area.

The process should be similar to registering and titling a regular car – go to the DMV, submit papers, get car inspected (these two steps may be swapped in order depending on your state), pay relevant fees, get title and plate and all done!

I wish it were that simple. Chances are you'll end up facing someone who doesn't know what to do with an imported car with a non-standard VIN and no US title. This is usually when they try to pawn you off on someone else or just put up roadblocks. I talked to one person who was asked to get a level II inspection but then the officers doing the level II said his car couldn't even be inspected by them and wouldn't clarify where he could get it inspected. He had to go to another DMV office in another city that had experience with these cars to get it done.

Yes, the process can be silly and will vary from state to state so I can't tell you exactly what to do or how it will go but I can at least give you some tips:
  1. Have ALL your papers ready and make duplicates. Generally they'll ask you for these: Japanese export certificate, translation of export certificate (may need to be notarized depending on state), DOT HS-7, EPA 3520-1, a customs release, and a bill of lading or bill of sale. Depending on how you got the car the customs release and bill of lading may be one and the same or you may have a customs release stamp on another document plus a bill of sale. That should be all you really need but since the export certificate lists the last registered Japanese owner (usually an export company), if that's different from the company that sold you the car don't be surprised if they ask for some extra documentation. In my case I needed a bill of sale from the Japanese export company to the US importation company for my R32. Make copies because they generally will take your originals and if you ever sell your car it'll be reassuring to a would-be buyer to be able to provide copies of those documents.
  2. Be polite but firm – and know what you're doing. Like I said, most regular DMV people don't know crap about JDM cars and they might feed you bull like “it needs to have a Fed label or it can't be registered”. That's about as right as saying NOS energy drink boosts your octane if poured into a gas tank. A DMV inspector tried to do that with me. I politely corrected her that it's a 25 year old car so it's exempted from NHTSA regulations or needing a Fed label (that's the little sticker in a modern US car that says it was made to current NHTSA standards of the time). Her supervisor confirmed I was correct. Getting mad and having a tirade won't help so be polite but stand your ground if they're obviously wrong. I would have had to wait an extra two weeks to get a level II inspection in my case but I was polite and the supervisor pulled some strings. Do the same and you'll get further than cursing like a sailor – which I can't blame you for but probably won't help. Sure, there are bad apples at DMV like in any other workplace but most of them are just doing their job and like any other human being they'll be much more likely to help you if you treat them nicely.
  3. Do your homework. In order to tell them off you have to know what's right so read up on the importation process and try and see if you can find info from your local DMV about registering an imported car. Get schooled like what you're doing now and you'll have a better chance of success. As the great poet G.I. Joe once said “Knowing is half the battle!”
  4. Try to speak to a supervisor. If the drones can't help, go for the queen bee (or king bee as the case may be). Just don't ask to sample her honey or she'll think you're a perv. I had to go through a supervisor and so did other people I talked to. The low-level people may be able to get away with “not-my-problem-itis” but not the supervisor since the buck stops with her. Be courteous and she can probably get you sorted.
  5. Talk to local JDM car owners. Try to find some in your town or state either personally or on a forum and ask what they did. I'd probably still be stuck myself if I hadn't gotten a helpful DMV contact through a forum poster with a JDM car as well.
  6. Shop around. This may seem weird but I've realized different DMVs seem to make their own rules. My local one wanted a level II inspection. Another guy I talked to was only asked to get a level I in another city. Yet another guy couldn't even get an inspection at first. Use those leads from tip #5 and try to find a DMV with import car experience. Some people might suggest trying a third-party title place to reduce the hassle but unless they've dealt with imports before from my experience they're equally useless since who do they get their rules from in unusual situations? Yup, the DMV themselves.
  7. Have your importer on speed dial. The DMV people may not have dealt with this process before but your importer probably has. Having them talk to the DMV may help straighten out the process.
  8. Get ready to pay for a temporary tag and insurance. Since an inspection will probably be requested you need to be able to drive your car. You could risk driving it around without plates but do you really want to have a run-in with your local PD before your car is even legal? Most states will let you get a temp tag at least either online or through the DMV or third-party title office but generally they'll also require insurance. Talk to your friendly insurance agent and see if you can get coverage. I didn't have an issue with State Farm but most insurance companies apparently won't even look at a car with a non-standard VIN. Since there are so many companies out there it's best to talk to your agent. It might seem like a hassle to pay for this stuff before the car is even legal but you'll need insurance eventually so you might as well arrange it now- and the temp tag will let you drive your car at least and enjoy it while the registration process takes however long.
  9. Don't let them re-VIN your car! This is VERY important. You might run into this where some idiot says because your car doesn't have a US-standard VIN that it will have to have a new one assigned in order to be registered. Shove your boot in his piehole and tell him he's full of sh*t. Okay, do it in a more diplomatic way but basically that's what you want to tell him. The NHTSA has ruled that lawfully imported cars marked with a serial number by the manufacturer should not have those tampered with so it's actually violating federal law for a state DMV to do this. This is particularly important for owners of special edition cars like a Nismo whose VIN is a telltale marker of its providence. If they give you crap, print out this NHTSA paper and show it to them:

  10. Pray! I only really had nine tips but an even ten sounds much nicer so make a request for assistance from your favorite deity whether it's God, Buddha, Amaterasu, Baal, Cthulu, or Elvis. It can't hurt...probably. 

And that concludes this series on JDM car importation. Come back in the future as I talk more about what it's like actually living with a JDM car in this here United States. 

EDIT: This was supposed to be the last part of the series on importation but I later added another part listing a few reputable importers to start the search with. Here's a link:

 Part 5.5: Hot Importer Nights

If you have a question on importation that wasn't answered by these posts please feel free to post it in the comments and I'll try my best to answer.

I'd also like to acknowledge the invaluable help of several people with compiling this info and getting my own car legalized: Sean Morris and the staff of International Vehicle Importers, GTRLife forum member Config_T, NICOclub member AZhitman, Trish and Connie from AZDOT, and the letters G and T, and the number 23.