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Japanese Car Imports Australia: How to Import Cars from Japan

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Rare Nissan Skylines are grey import holy grails.
Rare Nissan Skylines are grey import holy grails.

If you want to get your hands on a car that was never sold new in Australia by the manufacturer, there is only one way to get it: you have to import it. We Aussies missed out on a lot of cool cars as our market was too small for the manufacturer to go through the time and expense of sending specialty vehicles all the way to us.

However, enterprising souls realised in the late 1990s that importing cars from Japan to Australia in small batches was possible. Japanese used cars were particularly attractive given how cheap many examples sold at their local online auctions, and Japan’s close proximity to Australia for shipping.

This opened the door to high-performance late-model Japanese cars like the Nissan Skyline GT-R, Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, Nissan 180SX, Mitsubishi 3000GT, twin-turbo Nissan 300ZX, and Toyota Chaser. All of these cars featured excellent build-quality and reliability, individuality, and scintillating performance not found in regular Aussie cars of the time, and the costs for Japanese owners to keep these cars after a certain age meant they were listed for sale at very low prices.

As the market for Japanese enthusiast car imports swelled in Australia, the number of other Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) models finding Aussie support also picked up as luxury people-mover vans and small quirky micro cars from Japan were available at bargain prices. A large industry grew around Japanese imports in Australia and Japanese cars for sale because, as an island nation, Australia imports many goods already and has plenty of companies able to handle importing vehicles into Australia.

However, this all changed in the early 2000s when the federal government imposed restrictions on the types of cars Australia imports, making the process much more involved and expensive as a way of protecting the local new-car market and ensuring high-quality vehicles end up on Australian roads. Japanese imports were thought to be costing the new car business too much money, and Japanese cars for sale were rumoured to have been improperly imported.

While vehicles built before January 1, 1989 were practically a free-for-all to import (yay, Hakosukas for all!), things were very different for cars built from January 1, 1989. The Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicle Scheme (SEVS) prevented Australians from buying vehicles already on sale in Australia, but allowed Aussies to bring in certain models which were unique, or which were vastly different to the models on sale in Australia.

This was policed through listing approved cars on a Register of Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicles, and these could be imported and legally registered in Australia once they had been through a modification process at a Registered Automotive Workshop (or RAWS) that made them comply with Australian standards for cars.

How to import a car from Japan to Australia

The process for importing cars from Japan is nominally simple; you purchase a car in Japan (normally at Japanese car auctions through an agent or representative in Japan), the vehicle is deregistered and prepared for shipping (normally done by the agent, and this includes paperwork required to bring the vehicle to Australia), it is then delivered to the docks where it can be shipped (in several ways depending on budget and which port it is shipping from).

Port workers in the destination port then unload the car and it goes through the checks from customs and quarantine departments (including cleaning), import duties and taxes are payable and once they’re paid the car is free to be collected and taken to the nominated RAWS site where it has various modifications done to the car to bring it in line with Australian standards. Normally this compliance work involves fitting Australian Standard seat belts, tyres, re-gassing the air conditioning, and sometimes fitting side-intrusion bars to the doors.

The RAWS will affix a special compliance plate identifying that the car has been properly imported and made legal to be registered for road use in Australia. This is important as there are various ways to import cars to Australia, and some of them cannot be registered for road use, or are only legally allowed to be in Australia temporarily (called a Carnet De Passage).

Luxury vans were once less common here.
Luxury vans were once less common here.

Low-volume enthusiast-oriented imports like Nissan’s legendary Skyline GT-R, or Toyota’s JZA80-series Supra were particularly popular imports back in the day as they offered genuine supercar performance for a fraction of the price of the latest Porsche or Ferrari, while smaller turbocharged four-cylinder imports like Nissan’s Silvia/180SX, Subaru’s Legacy GT and Mitsubishi’s RVR and Galant VR-4 provided a cheap entry point to fast turbo sports cars for young enthusiasts.

To start with, the single most important piece of paperwork you need is called a Vehicle Import Approval (VIA). Without this crucial sheet of paper from the Australian government’s Department of Infrastructure, you cannot legally import a road-going car. Once lodged, these take approximately 20 business days to gain approval, cost $50 and can be applied for online.

You need to apply for a VIA after purchasing your car in Japan, but do this before you book any shipping as you shouldn’t buy an unregistered import car that doesn’t have a VIA as you might find you can’t register it. They’re fairly straightforward forms, which require scanned copies of your invoice for the car’s purchase, some ID numbers from the car (like the VIN), and your details.

The Galant VR-4 sedan had many features that the Magna missed out on.
The Galant VR-4 sedan had many features that the Magna missed out on.

How much does it cost to import a car from Japan to Australia?

Shipping and import costs will vary, depending on the cost of the car and how you choose to ship your car (roll-on, roll-off, or in a container, and direct port-to-port, or if the ship stops at ports along the way). You should budget at least $5000 to import a small car from Japan to Sydney and up to $10,000 for larger vehicles, on top of the cost of the car, plus compliance costs on top again as these vary car-to-car.

For vehicles brought in under SEVS you’ll also have costs to pay once it hits the Aussie docks, including a cleaning fee, plus duties and GST which is calculated on the purchase and shipping prices together, before the vehicle is free to be picked up and taken for compliance work.

If this is all sounding confronting, convoluted and daunting, then the best option is to use a company like Iron Chef Imports or Import Monster, who have the expertise and resources to take the guesswork out of importing. While both companies will take a fee for their services (both quote about $1200 on their websites), it means you're less likely to run into unexpected costs due to errors or bureaucratic surprises.

Both Iron Chef Imports or Import Monster have been bringing awesome JDM cars and parts into Australia for decades, including for the Japanese car-obsessed guys from Mighty Car Mods. Marty and Moog have been regular Japanese car importers to Sydney for more than a decade, and one even brought a rare Nissan March Super-Turbo in under the recently changed “classic car” import laws.

Good luck finding a stock S15.
Good luck finding a stock S15.

Import laws were relaxed following the closure of the Australian domestic car industry in 2017. The previous January 1989 date was scrapped for “classic” imports and a rolling 25-year structure was put in place, coming into effect on December 10, 2019. This means the car needs to be 25 years old in the year and month you apply for the VIA to import it, and it doesn’t apply to commercial vehicles.

The compliance costs for these 25-year-old imports are generally lower as they do not normally need to comply with current Australian Design Rules like a newer vehicle would under SEVS. However, with their age and reducing numbers, prices for “classic” 25-year-old or older Japanese cars are climbing, particularly as Americans are now free from their own import restrictions and can bring previously-banned models to the USA.

You can read more about the government requirements and processes for importing cars here. The outline of the overall SEVS programme can be found here and RAWS is explained at this link here.

Updated from: 28/05/2020

Iain Kelly
Contributing Journalist
A love of classic American and European cars drove Iain Kelly to motoring journalism straight out of high school, via the ownership of a tired 1975 HJ Holden Monaro.  For nearly 20 years he has worked on magazines and websites catering to modified late model high-performance Japanese and European tuner cars, as well as traditional hot rods, muscle cars and street machines. Some of these titles include Auto Salon, LSX Tuner, MOTOR, Forged, Freestyle Rides, Roadkill, SPEED, and Street Machine. He counts his trip to the USA to help build Mighty Car Mods’ “Subarute” along with co-authoring their recent book, The Cars of Mighty Car Mods, among his career highlights.  Iain lends his expertise to CarsGuide for a variety of advice projects, along with legitimising his automotive obsession with regular OverSteer contributions. Although his practical skills working on cars is nearly all self-taught, he still loves nothing more than spending quality time in the shed working on his project car, a 1964 Pontiac. He also admits to also having an addiction to E30 BMWs and Subaru Liberty RS Turbos, both of which he has had multiple examples of. With car choices like that, at least his mum thinks he is cool.
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