Vehicle Registration and License Plates

Search by VIN

As soon as your newly imported car has been cleared by customs, it needs vehicle registration and license plates in order to be able to get out on the road. CARFAX's U.S. Import Guide can help get you behind the wheel of your new car as quickly as possible.

What you need to do before you can drive

Technical adaptations to meet European regulations

An imported car from the U.S. frequently doesn't conform to European technical and vehicle safety regulations. To receive European approval for the vehicle, some adjustments or customizations may have to be made. In many cases, only minor technical modifications are necessary.

Getting the car inspected

Before bringing your car to get its vehicle registration, you have to bring it to an approved technical inspection authority (e.g. TÜV or DEKRA). There it will be inspected for any discrepancies in conformance against the local requirements. At the very least, minor changes are likely to be required for every U.S. vehicle. It's therefor recommendable to arrange an appointment for an inspection and find out exactly which paperwork you should bring with.

It is often not a problem to drive on your American license plates, temporarily, so long as you have the proper insurance. Otherwise, you will have to get a temporary license plate from your registration office for the trip to the inspection center.

car inspection

Check the data sheet

Checking the data sheet (or spec sheet) is one way to get an idea, in advance, how much modification will be necessary before receiving your vehicle registration. If the exact model of your vehicle was ever approved for import into your country, there should be a data sheet available. In the case of all major European-brand vehicles, finding one should not be difficult. Most manufacturers will send you the data sheet upon request, either free of charge or for a fee. Be sure to enclose all available technical data you have on your vehicle, including the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), with your enquiry. One thing to note: Japanese manufacturers, however, are notorious for either being extremely slow to respond or not responding at all.

While obtaining a data sheet for your American import is not mandatory for the vehicle registration process, experience has shown it to be a useful and cost-saving resource.

Lights out for American headlights

U.S. lighting systems will need to be modified according to European regulations. Headlamps have to be replaced with conforming EU-approved headlamps. The front amber sidelights, functioning as blinkers, have to be replaced with white lights. You are allowed to integrate these into the new headlamps as well. The use of red rear blinkers is prohibited. When possible, you can simply replace the lights with yellow bulbs. If this isn't possible, you will have to completely replace the rear lighting components. Finally, an approved rear fog lamp needs to be retrofitted.

Exhaust emission test: The decisive element

In some cases, the European emission regulations can end up being a major stopping point for U.S. models, especially if your vehicle is the first of its kind to be registered. The reason for this is that since 1993, the measurement procedures in European countries are completely different from those in the USA. This means that results from U.S. emissions tests are not comparable, even if your car is registered as a "low-emissions" vehicle in America.

If your car is in fact the first of its kind to be tested in Europe, the costs can be anywhere between €750 to €2,500, depending on the complexity of the test. Although, keep in mind that many exhaust emissions tests have already been made on American vehicles. Therefore, the technical inspection authorities will often be able to check your vehicle's certification status using the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) in order to see whether or not this expensive process is necessary. This information should also be available to you on the data sheet.

Once you receive the official, written "Green light" from an inspection expert, you can begin the process of vehicle registration.

Vehicle registration and license plates

Normally, regardless of where you have your vehicle shipped, you will need to have the vehicle registration in the country with your main residence. Although there is no European Union wide regulation on vehicle registration, the following information reflects the practices in many of the member countries.

The following documents are required in order to complete your vehicle registration:

  • Customs clearance certificate
  • Certificate of Title (used vehicles) or Certificate of Origin (new vehicles)
  • American license plates
  • Original purchase invoice
  • Report of the technical inspection
  • Proof of insurance
  • Passport or identity card

In addition to these documents, before you can complete your vehicle registration and get your license plates, you may also have to provide proof of roadworthiness.

car registration

Payment of road tax

Again, there is no European Union wide law on road tax. You will be required to pay these taxes as is necessitated by the law in the country where you live. You may be eligible for a tax exemption on your vehicle registration under certain conditions, for example: when you are relocating your residence, if your vehicle is more than 20 years old or when it is highly environmentally friendly. Check with the local authorities about your country's specific conditions and deadlines.

Once you have completed all of the above steps, you should finally be able to get your vehicle registration, install your license plates, and get out on the road. It's important to inform yourself of all local regulations regarding importing vehicles into your country. Be sure to carefully examine prices, taxes and import duty, shipping costs, etc.

If you’re looking to import a classic car from the United States, the process will be a little different. For more information on importing Classics from the USA, continue reading Importing American Classic Cars.