Canada News: Know the Law

Every year thousands of Canadians travel back and forth across the border behind the wheel of vehicles registered in the U.S. Many are breaking the law and probably don’t even know it. Nigel Matthews explains one little-known Canadian import law and why—if you’re historic vehicle is turning heads at the border—you had better have all your papers in order.

Recently on a business trip to Detroit, I decided to rent a car from Avis and hop across the Ambassador Bridge to visit a restoration shop in Blenheim, Ontario. A one hour drive over the border into Canada and everything went smoothly coming and going. But it could have been disastrous since, unbeknownst to me, I was breaking Canadian import law:

Aside from a very narrow list of exceptions, only U.S. residents are permitted to drive U.S. registered vehicles into Canada—and that includes American rental vehicles.

Rumor has it that this obscure border-crossing regulation dates back to Prohibition, an out-dated law to discourage Canadians from running moonshine across the border in U.S. vehicles. Another says it’s a law that simply relates to import duties and Canadian provincial taxes. Whatever the origin, the law is pretty clear even if many Canadians don’t have a clue that it’s even on the books.

Car Lovers Beware

I had never heard of a fellow Canadian getting turned away at the border for anything like this until, by coincidence, a couple weeks after returning from Detroit.

On the phone was an exhibitor planning to attend a car show I was organizing in my home city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Like many Canadians living along the American border, this individual was a resident of Vancouver but worked so much in the United States that he maintained a part-time residence in the state of Washington.

At my upcoming car show, this caller had been planning to display a new purchase—an exotic sports car called a Spyker—which he had recently bought and registered in the U.S. He was calling to tell me that not only would the car not be making it home to Canada this year, but also that there was a reasonable chance he may never see the vehicle again.

It seems that a week before, while driving into Canada for a weekend pleasure trip, the Spyker caught the eye of a Border Patrol official. The agent looked at the car’s Washington plates and registration then asked the Canadian driver where he lived. When the driver replied, “Vancouver,” the car was impounded immediately and the driver was issued a $5,000 fine.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are a few exceptions when it comes to Canadians driving American cars across the border. It’s called “temporary importation” and is only allowed under strict circumstances:

  • If a Canadian resident/citizen owns a property in the U.S. and keeps an owned U.S. licensed, insured and registered vehicle at ther U.S. residence, they can drive that vehicle to their Canadian residence for personal transportation only from the point of arrival into Canada to their Canadian residence. Here it must remain parked.
  • The vehicle must return to the U.S. within 30 days and side trips (e.g. car shows, pleasure cruises, etc) are not permitted.
  • In an emergency, a Canadian driver may bring a U.S. registered vehicle into Canada to reach a specified destination for which a customs official can authorize a one-time Point A to B entry.

For detailed information on Canadian vehicle importation law, check out