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What you need to know about importing cars to Australia

Importing a car is a great way to get your hands on a rare of valuable vehicle.

It's a sad fact that we Aussies miss out on a tonne of killer cars that were sold in other parts of the world, and the spread of the Internet has made it easier to learn about rare and unique vehicles from all over this vast blue planet. The good news is, thanks to this online technology, it is even easier to buy said automobiles and go about importing vehicles into Australia.

While vehicles considered "classic cars" are practically a free-for-all to import, things are very different for later model cars as the federal government imposed restrictions on grey imports in the early 2000s, making the process more involved as a way of protecting the local new-car market. The Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicle Scheme (SEVS) prevented Australians from importing vehicles already on sale in Australia, but allowed us to bring in certain models which were vastly different to the models sold new locally.

This was policed through listing approved cars on a Register of Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicles. These cars 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 Design Rules.

Import laws were relaxed in 2017 with the previous January 1989 date for Classic Imports scrapped 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 to import it, and it doesn't apply to commercial vehicles.

There are plenty of European and UK-sold cars which Aussies never got to sample and are now proving to be desirable for car enthusiasts to ship over. There are plenty of European and UK-sold cars which Aussies never got to sample and are now proving to be desirable for car enthusiasts to ship over.

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 JDM grey imports are climbing, particularly as Americans are now free from their own import restrictions and can bring previously-banned models to the USA.

When discussing import vehicles most people think about Japanese car imports Australia fell in love with in the late 1990s like Skyline GT-Rs and Toyota Supras, or classic American cars like Ford Mustangs, Chevy Corvettes, Bel Airs and Camaros which were never sold new out here. However, there are plenty of European and UK-sold cars which Aussies never got to sample and are now proving to be desirable for car enthusiasts to ship over.

Importing cars from UK to Australia is no different to the process from Japan or America, but you do need to watch out for rust as with cars from northern Japan or eastern USA. Most UK imports have come in under the "Private Import" scheme, which was for Aussie ex-pats returning to live in Australia having lived overseas for a few years.

They would have to prove, with paperwork, they had owned and used the car they were applying to import for a minimum of 12 months overseas, and this then meant they were able to import models of cars not on the SEVS list without paying import duties, though the number of cars they could import was strictly limited.

There are a few key steps you need to navigate before you start dreaming about bringing boatloads of import cars in from USA or Japan. Importing motorcycles is largely the same process, but cheaper as they're generally smaller and easier to ship.

1. Find an import agent

The easiest way to purchase a car overseas is through an experienced specialist car or motorcycle import agent, like Iron Chef Imports, Import Monster or Jspec. These companies have ideally been sourcing and importing cars to Australia for years and they can handle all the difficult paperwork you need to handle.

This includes de-registration in the home country, shipping the vehicle to the destination port, and organising its processing through Australian ports and compliance. You'll pay for their legwork, but it is much safer and less stressful for end users as they'll overcome language and bureaucratic barriers for you.

Asking around car clubs is a great way to find an import agent as you can see who most people trust and use.

2. Important paperwork

The single most important piece of paperwork you need is called a Vehicle Import Approval (VIA), and you need to apply for this online before you attempt to ship that car as the VIA goes with each and every specific car.

Without this crucial sheet of paper from the Australian government's Department of Infrastructure, you cannot legally import the car. You shouldn't buy an unregistered import car that doesn't have a VIA as you might find you can't register it.

Once lodged, these take approximately 20 business days to gain approval, cost $50 and can be applied for online. They're fairly straightforward forms, which require scanned copies of your invoice for the car's purchase (always get a receipt!), some ID numbers from the car (like the VIN), and your details.

For American car imports you'll also need a title, which is state-based proof of ownership paperwork. These have sometimes been lost with older cars, or the vehicle might be sold with a "salvage title" which is like a car appearing on an Australian insurance write-off database. You can apply to have a vehicle re-titled in your name but it can be difficult to do from overseas and expensive.

When discussing import vehicles most people think about Japanese car imports Australia fell in love with in the late 1990s like Skyline GT-Rs. When discussing import vehicles most people think about Japanese car imports Australia fell in love with in the late 1990s like Skyline GT-Rs.

3. Car shipping

Once the vehicle is delivered to the docks it can be shipped in several different ways depending on budget, the car (or truck) size and which port it is shipping from.

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 could safely budget for $5000 to import a small car from Japan to Sydney, and up to $10,000 for larger vehicles from further afield like the UK or USA.

4. Landed in Oz

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. The GST and import duty Australia charges is calculated on the combined purchase and shipping prices, and these costs are payable before the vehicle is free to be picked up and taken for compliance work. The good news is there are plenty of import duty calculators on Australian websites to let you work out these charges ahead of time so there's no nasty bill shock.

5. The final steps

A classic vehicle can then be transported to the owner's destination but, if it is a later model car, it is to be 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).

6. Further reading.

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.

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