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I just moved to Canada from the U.S. I have Permanent Residency in Canada.

I would like buy a new Volvo in Canada and return with it when I snowbird in the U.S.

My research so far is that I will owe 2.5% duty on the car as I cross the border.

What I don't know is: will I need to modify the car in anyway to be compliant with U.S. laws.

Volvos do not allow FULL switching between Kilometers and Miles. Specifically a Canada Volvo will display kph on the speed dial and a U.S. Volvo will display mph. It counter intuitive that they just don't make this easy to change on a configuration screen on the car, but the salesman said Volvo intentionally does it to "protect markets". I confirmed this both at a U.S. dealer and a Canadian dealer.

The good news is: the speedometer will switch the smaller digital speed display (so maybe that will pass inspection?).

What is the experience of others importing a newish Volvo from Canada to U.S.?

When I imported my car from U.S. to Canada, Canada had a list of cars and what would need to be modified and what cars just plain could not be modified (Spoiler: U.S. Teslas cannot be imported into Canada.) So when I brought my car in I had some idea of what needed to be done to pass inspection.

Is there a list of cars that can be imported into U.S. with little or no modification?

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I’m a retired California attorney. While I practiced, I represented several private vehicle importers. While my knowledge isn’t current, the little research I did to prepare this answer shows the current situation is generally unchanged since I was active. Here are a few comments.

A resident of Canada may drive a Canadian car across the border and keep it in the US for up to a year. See this CBP page, about half-way down. The vehicle does not need to meet US EPA (emissions) or DOT (safety) specifications. However, the car must be exported from the US (for example, driven back into Canada) within one year; no extensions of time are allowed. I don’t know if there are limits on how many times one may do this.

On the other hand, if you wish to privately import a non-exempt vehicle (vehicles are exempt if they’re more than 25 years old) and register it in the United States, the car must comply with EPA and DOT requirements. A vehicle’s compliance can be certified only by the vehicle’s manufacturer, or by an aftermarket “independent compliance importer.” ICIs make whatever modifications are required, certify the vehicle’s compliance, and then release it to the owner. This work isn’t cheap. And as you note, you’ll pay duty as well.

The folks at the border are US Customs and Border Protection. The CBP web page linked above gives an overview of this process. EPA has more detailed information here, and DOT has more detailed information here.

While a car built for Canada might be mechanically and electrically identical to a car built for the US (rationalizing production keeps costs down), car manufacturers are fanatically defensive about their distribution channels. Neither the manufacturer nor its captive importers will certify that a particular built-for-country-x car also satisfies US requirements. The car may in fact do so, but you will receive no help or assistance in getting documentation that might satisfy CBP, EPA or DOT.

Thus, if you’re determined to register the car in the US, you’ll have to deal with an ICI. If you’re aiming at US registration of a newish car, and aren’t made of money, you’ll be much better off to buy a US vehicle in the first instance.

  • One clarification: Does this rule: "A resident of Canada may drive a Canadian car across the border and keep it in the US for up to a year." apply to U.S. Citizens that are also a resident of Canada. The context of that question is: A Canadian citizen/resident can not bring in a car into Canada for any period of time. They will make exceptions, but it has to be for very extenuating circumstances. This is counter intuitive because U.S. citizens drive their cars into Canada as long as they are not residents. – Michael Potter Jun 21 '18 at 2:37
  • The phrasing in the CBP page is "a resident of Canada," not "a citizen of Canada." I suspect that the authorities in both the US and Canada want a person to have "residence" in one country, not both or neither. – David Jun 21 '18 at 4:06
  • As to your "context" statement, I disagree that this is counterintuitive, as both countries prohibit their own citizens from bringing into their country cars from another jurisdiction. I haven't researched the issue, but I suspect the Canadian rules for importing a car and seeking Canadian registration mirror those in force in the US. – David Jun 21 '18 at 4:08
  • Yeah, "counterintuitive" was probably bad choice of words. "Surprising" might have been better choice. Not really surprised that I had to import it, but surprised there is no grace period for getting it imported. There is a grace period for getting it inspected, but none for importing. – Michael Potter Jun 21 '18 at 4:22
  • @Greg Hewgill, thanks for your very correct edits. My proofreading needs improvement! – David Jun 21 '18 at 16:25

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