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Driving You Crazy: How do we register a car from Mexico I drove here to Colorado?

Mexico plate
Posted at 4:44 AM, Aug 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-24 10:25:02-04

Juanan from Denver writes, “What's driving you crazy? Hello Jayson. I read your article of July 28, 2020 about out-of-state plates. But what about out-of-the-US plates? We drove our Prius all the way up from Mexico City. The car was bought in Mexico and has Mexican plates. We are living in Denver. Where can we find the regulation for that?”

The process to register a foreign car in the United States is confusing, lengthy, frustrating, and expensive. Every country has their own standards and equipment mandates for motor vehicles. Those standards and mandates are different between vehicles sold in Mexico and those sold in the United States. There are also differences in standards between vehicles sold in the US and Canada. That’s why you will see different models of cars in foreign countries than here in the US.

Vehicles sold in Mexico aren’t necessarily equipped with the same emission or safety standards like the number of air bags, antilock braking systems or electronic stability control system as cars sold in the United States. Cars assembled in Mexico then exported to the United States must meet US Federal Standards.

These federal safety standards are regulations written in terms of minimum safety performance requirements for motor vehicles or equipment. The U.S. Department of Transportation says these requirements are specified in such a manner, "that the public is protected against unreasonable risk of crashes occurring as a result of the design, construction, or performance of motor vehicles and is also protected against unreasonable risk of death or injury in the event crashes do occur."

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as general rule, motor vehicles less than 25 years old must comply with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in order to be imported permanently into the United States. Vehicles manufactured after September 1, 1978, must also meet the bumper standard, and vehicles beginning with model year 1987 must meet the theft-prevention standard.

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Vehicles older than 25 years, generally classic or antique vehicles, are exempt from EPA and DOT pollution and safety requirements. If the vehicle is at least 21 years old, there are no EPA compliance requirements upon importation. A motor vehicle that is at least 25 years old can be lawfully imported into the U.S. without regard to whether it complies with all applicable DOT Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This is called the 25-year rule.

When vehicles that do not meet United States Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are brought to the United States, federal law requires that these “non-conforming” vehicles be altered to meet federal standards. Any importer must contract with a DOT-registered importer to modify the vehicle and certify that it conforms to all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Before a registered importer can modify your vehicle, it must first be determined whether the vehicle is capable of being modified to comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. If a vehicle has not previously been determined to be eligible for importation, it must go through a petition process to determine whether it's capable of being modified for such compliance. If the vehicle under petition is not similar to one sold in the United States, the process of bringing it into compliance becomes very complex and costly. A List of Nonconforming Motor Vehicles that are eligible for importation may be obtained from a registered importer or from NHTSA's website.

The Colorado Department of Revenue Motor Vehicle Division says, “anyone who wants to register a vehicle coming from a foreign country in the United States needs to make sure that vehicle first meets United States Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards”.

That process, as I explained, is expensive and, in most cases, costs more than what the vehicle is worth.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has additional requirements for vehicles brought into the US. For vehicles coming from Mexico, you must first prove that when you drove the car into the United States, you filled out an entry form with CBP. The vehicle will need to be inspected to determine if it meets all Federal safety and emissions standards. CBP says vehicles that do not meet all U.S. safety and emission requirements, unless eligible for exemption or exclusion, must be imported through an independent commercial importer (ICI). That ICI will perform any required modifications and be responsible for assuring that all requirements have been met. The importer must also post a US Department of Transportation bond for one and a half times the vehicle's dutiable value. This bond is in addition to the normal CBP entry bond. Customs and Border Protection also warns that some vehicles cannot be successfully imported or modified by an ICI and would not be allowed to be registered in the US.

The State of Colorado says registered importers would then need to submit a conformity packet to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for review. Those vehicles must be held and cannot be sold, titled or registered before the NHTSA issues a “bond release letter”, or until 30 days following submission of a conformity packet have passed, whichever comes first. Because of past fraud, the Colorado DMV no longer issues vehicle titles without a NHTSA “bond release letter” or proof that 30 days have passed following submission of a conformity packet to the NHTSA.

Separate from all of the non-conforming vehicle requirements, according to AAA, non-residents must register a vehicle within 90 days of becoming a resident or becoming gainfully employed in the state. There is a supplemental unregistered vehicle surcharge of $25.00 per month that begins after the initial 90 days.

If you aren’t planning on being a Colorado resident, Colorado law states “…a foreign motor vehicle may operate or permit such vehicle to operate within this state without registering such vehicle or paying fees so long as the vehicle is currently registered in the state, country, or other place of which the owner is a resident, and the motor vehicle displays the number plate or plates issued for such vehicle in the place of residence of such owner.” Basically, you need to keep the current vehicle registration up to date in the place you permanently live. You can legally drive the car in the United States with your Mexico license plates for a period of one year from the time you entered the US assuming the registration is current.

If you are staying in Colorado, unless you really, absolutely, truly love that Prius, it might be easier, and may be less expensive, to sell the car back in Mexico and buy a car here in Colorado.

Denver7 traffic anchor Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 25 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes , Stitcher , Google Play or Podbean.

UPDATE from Juanan:

My wife just imported the Prius. The thing is this car is made in Japan and has a sticker on the interior of the door that says it complies with US regulations. It took her like 20 minutes just to fill out a form. The guy from Customs and Border protection went to see the sticker in the car and asked to open the hood. He sealed the document and that was it. The main point is the car is Japanese that complies with US regulations.