Vehicle Importation: Know the Law

by Nigel Matthews

June 22, 2011

When it comes to Canadian and American vehicle importation laws, sometimes persistence—and getting the right official on the phone—is just as important as having the law on your side.

Vehicle importation legislation into Canada from the U.S.A. is typically more forgiving—and easier—than importing a vehicle into the U.S.A. from Canada. But not always.

As the new President of the SVABC (Specialty Vehicle Association of British Columbia), I recently spent some time intervening with a government agency on behalf of a member who was considering the purchase of a modified 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle Pro-Street car. In short, he wanted to buy the car from a Washington seller then bring the vehicle across the border into British Columbia.

Was there any paperwork that needed to be filled out ahead of time? It seemed like a fairly straightforward request.

A “Dirty” Word

So imagine the would-be owner’s surprise when he contacted the Registrar of Imported Vehicles (RIV)—the Canadian equivalent of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration—only to have the representing official who answered the phone tell him that trying to import this particular car was illegal because it was modified.   

Clearly, the RIV had made a mistake. Due to the age of the Chevelle (1969) it no longer fell under the legislative power of Transport Canada that relates to the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. But the RIV agent had heard the term “modified” and immediately assumed that the vehicle fell under the legislation for new vehicles, which says:

  • Vehicles that have been modified from their original state, other than for regular maintenance, may not be eligible for importation into Canada. For example, a van transformed into a motor home (often known as Class B motor home), a van equipped with raised roof and/or modified interior, a pick-up or a passenger car equipped with a lift kit, a motorcycle converted to a motor tricycle (trike), etc.

Making the Law Understandable

It took many more days and couple more calls before I was finally greeted by a representative who was very familiar with the rules and clearly understood the fact that ALL vehicles older than 15 years are exempt from the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. In Canada, the RIV has nothing to do with their importation because they fall under the “transport legislative” criteria listed below:

  • Vehicles fifteen (15) years old or older, as determined by the month and year of manufacture, and buses manufactured before January 1, 1971, are no longer regulated under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act by virtue of their age.
  • While Transport Canada does not regulate the importation of these vehicles, it does not preclude the vehicles from having to meet provincial/territorial safety and licensing requirements.

In being persistent, I finally contacted a knowledgeable RIV agent who quickly cleared things up and kindly gave me a file number in the event that the Chevelle owner ran into any problems at the border. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that all these phone calls and time wasted in waiting for the proper documentation resulted in the missed opportunity for the SVABC member I was trying to help. In the interim, the car of his dreams had been sold.       

The moral of this story is this: where cross-border vehicle transactions are concerned, you ought to know the law well before the time you intend to buy. Also, you should never assume that the information you receive from a government office or appointed agency is correct or accurate.   

In Canada, your research can start by seeking out the help of organizations such as the Specialty Vehicle Association(s) in most provinces. Call an import broker—your local car club can help you find one. And be well versed in the law yourself. Here’s a start:

On Historic Vehicles Entering Canada from the United States

  • Vehicles must be 15 years old or older and will have to pass a Provincial safety inspection before they can be registered, licensed and insured.
  • IMPORTANT : Kit Cars and Replica steel- and composite-body Hot Rods are not admissible under any circumstances unless they were built over 15 years ago and documentation can be produced to prove that they were registered, licensed and insured for highway use in the U.S.A. more than 15 years ago.
  • Some of the large auction houses selling these types of vehicles in the U.S. will make it clear that they are not eligible for entry into Canada before the bidding begins.

You may access the list of newer vehicles admissible into Canada from the United States by going Contact the Canadian RIV at 1-888-848-8240 or visit their Website at for detailed information on the importation process.

On Importing Historic Cars into the United States

American import laws clearly state that “any motor vehicle that is at least 25 years old or older" is not subject to importation restrictions. All vehicles less than 25 years old must be deemed eligible for importation. 

The only exceptions are imports from Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea or those that involve the governments of those countries. These imports are prohibited pursuant to regulations issued by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

For more detailed information, check out


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