We’ve all seen it. A listing on Craigslist, advertising an imported car that isn’t 25 years old. Here’s a R34 GT-R for sale on Craigslist.

This car isn’t here legally. So how did it get here, you ask. Doesn’t the government check every shipment, hunting down illegal Skylines and Silvias?

Well, not really. When you ship a container internationally, you provide an invoice and packing list to customs. This lists everything in your container and its value, so that they can asses the duties and taxes you need to pay. Customs doesn’t have the resources to check every container, so normally they take what you declare at face value. Occasionally, a container may be subject to an x-ray exam. At the port I ship to (Oakland, CA), around 40% of containers are x-rayed. Even fewer are ever physically opened. So as you can imagine, it isn’t too hard to label something as “car parts” and ship a R34 GT-R in it instead.

There are many other ways to import cars illegally. Some of them start out innocently enough. A foreign national, or a US national who is resident of another country, can temporarily bring their car to the United States and drive around on foreign plates for up to 1 year. All you have to do is check box #5 on customs form HS-7. Similarly, members of foreign armed forces who are stationed in the United States, or diplomats of foreign nations posted in the United States, can use box numbers #6 and #12, respectively.

If you read form HS-7, you’ll notice that all of these have similar conditions: that the car be exported when the time period is up, and that you cannot sell it to a US resident while it is here. But mistakes are sometimes made, and sometimes people end up with an illegally imported car. So what, you may ask. Well, herein lies the problem. You have your state DMV (which may have additional requirements such as in California), you have the NHTSA/DOT (federal), EPA (federal), and CBP/ICE (federal).

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These organizations don’t agree on everything. The EPA exempts cars that are 21 years old. The NHTSA exempts cars that are 25 years old. CBP/ICE interpret 25 years old as meaning 25 years down to the month of manufacture, even though the NHTSA doesn’t explicitly state this. Your state DMV may register anything. Or it may be like California and not let you register anything newer than 1968 without going through the tedious and extremely expensive “Direct Import” procedure. That’s a story for another time. What I can say is this: unless every agency involved has signed off on it, the car isn’t legal. But my car has plates, you say. OK, so that means your state thinks your car is legal. But the federal government doesn’t. And guess what? That means ICE will still come and seize it, and turn it into a block of metal the size of your coffee table. Don’t believe me? Have a Land Rover.

OK, so you want to buy an imported car. What should you look for? Well, if the car is here legally, the seller should be able to provide you with a copy of the HS-7 and 3520-1. Any owner of a properly imported car will have this paperwork readily available. If they can’t provide it to you, run. You won’t be held liable for the crime of importing the car (since you didn’t), but ICE will still come and crush your car anyway.

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Alright, so what about Show and Display, Off-road use, Registered Importers, etc. Well, let me put it bluntly: none of these things apply to you.

Here’s a list of all the cars on the Show and Display list. Most of them are exotic supercars, such as the 959. There’s a few problems with this list. First of all, to even get a car on the list, one of the criteria is that there be 500 or less produced (they can waive this requirement if the car is extraordinary importance, but this won’t happen). There are no strict guidelines for what they are looking for in an application. It goes to a committee in D.C. who basically just approve and deny cars based on their own personal whims. Here’s a car on it that doesn’t even exist. And the best part is that the majority of the cars that are actually ON the Show and Display list are already 25 years old. So you don’t need Show and Display anymore anyway. See where this is going?

Let’s say that beyond all odds you get your car on the Show and Display list. Great. Now you have a new problem: it doesn’t exempt your car from EPA regulations. See what I said about government agencies not agreeing with each other?

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So, you have two options. #1 is wait until the car is 21 years old, in which case applying for Show and Display is almost a waste of time as it will be free for import without restriction in 4 more years. #2 is use a ICI to conform the vehicle to EPA standards. If the car is a post-1996 model, you need OBDII. But foreign manufacturers didn’t put OBDII into their cars until much later (2002 for Japan). So you need to somehow put OBDII into your car. But in order to do this, you will need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on R&D to develop a system that actually works and that the EPA will approve. Sound fun? Some estimates put the cost as high as $250,000 to develop such a system.

So I’m sure by now you understand that Show and Display is a useless program and a waste of government employee’s time and taxpayer money. Great. Now what about all those people who say “Well I’ll import it for off-road use”?

Not so fast. You can’t just put a roll cage in your Civic and call it a race car. To get approval for a permanent import of a race car, you need to petition the NHTSA. And the criteria is such that the car must be originally manufactured as a race car, and must not contain features which would allow it to be used on the road. That strictly rules out converting a normal car for off-road use. If you were lucky enough to get your hands on an original N1 GT-R (not a replica), then sure, you could get permission to import it for off-road use only. But converting your GT-R to N1 spec does not a race car make. The concept of importing any car and simply using it off road is nothing more than an internet urban-legend.

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Lastly, if a car is less than 25 years old but on the list of vehicles eligible for importation, then you can bring it in through a registered importer. You’ll notice that the R33 is on there, but only model years 1996-1998. Which means that...you need OBDII, which the Skyline doesn’t have. Remember what I said about government agencies not agreeing?

Some RIs claim to be able to conform R33 Skylines. But you should take this with a grain of salt.

The fact is, the only R33 and R34 Skylines that are here in the US legally are Motorex cars. These have a federal bond release and a letter from the NHTSA proving such. These cars command a huge premium.

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TLDR: only buy imported cars that are 25 years old. Unless you are in California. Or Hawaii.