Monday, September 29, 2014

How (not) to temporarily import a car to Canada

As well as being the story of our experience getting our car registered in BC, this post is also meant as a how-to for anyone who, like me, ends up confused and frantically Googling as they try to figure out exactly what they need to do to get their U.S. car legal in Canada while they're here temporarily. Skip to the end for a list of the steps you'll need to take.

After packing up everything we own, driving across the country, dealing with our immigration issues, moving into our new apartment, cleaning said apartment (the previous tenant failed to clean upon moving out), buying furniture so we'd have places to sit and put our stuff, unpacking, and starting classes/remote work, Adam and I finally looked into what we needed to do about our car. At that point we only had 10 days to do whatever-it-was, because our U.S. auto insurance stopped covering us after 30 days out of the country. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that it was going to be complicated. 

ICBC (basically BC's version of the DMV) says on their website that if you're a student here, you don't have to register your car in BC as long as your current insurance will continue to cover you while you're here. Unfortunately, our insurance (AAA) won't. Hopeful that we could switch to another U.S. insurance company that would, I spent a long on Google trying to find one, but eventually gave up when I didn't find anything promising. (After doing all that research, I don't think that it's possible for a U.S. insurance company to cover someone in Canada for an extended period of time; ICBC probably just doesn't realize that, and thus gives poor people like us false hope). 

The reason I spent so much time looking into that before resigning myself to undergoing BC registration is that ICBC's out-of-country registration webpage says, "If you're bringing your car from the U.S., you have to import it before registering it. To find out how to do that, please see the websites of these federal government agencies." And then they link to three text-heavy websites that are themselves full of links. So when just figuring out how to import our car was obviously going to take a lot of time and effort (and after Googling a little and finding people saying that importing your car is confusing and expensive), I was reeeeeally hoping to avoid it. Adam and I even talked about going back to Washington and selling our car and just living without it, because it was starting to seem like it might not be worth the cost and trouble to keep it here. But we couldn't make a decision that drastic without fully investigating our other options, so finally I accepted my fate and opened the three websites.

Fortunately I didn't have to spend much time on two of them, but the first one (for the Registrar of Imported Vehicles, or RIV) actually listed the instructions for importing your car, so I started reading, clicking from link to link and making a list of what we'd need to do. A little ways in--after they'd already started instructing you on how to start the import process--they linked to a page about being exempt from the process. And guess who's exempt? Students, for one. So suddenly I was being told we wouldn't have to go through "RIV registration"--but did they say what parts of the process I'd just been reading about "RIV registration" actually consisted of? No. No information whatsoever about what exactly being exempt from it meant--just that we were. So I knew we didn't need to do everything the website said (relief!), but had no idea what it was that we still did need to do (stress!). It was super frustrating. I read the websites more and did some Googling, trying to find other people who'd been in this situation talking about it, but I only found one blog post describing the temporary import process, and even from that it still wasn't clear exactly what we'd have to do (especially because BC's rules are somewhat different from Ontario's, where the blog author was). 

So, finally, I called the RIV to ask. I found out that since we were exempt the process would be free and actually pretty simple; we just had to go to a CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) office and get a Form 1. So I called CBSA to ask where I could get that form, and they told me to go to the office downtown, where we'd gone before to deal with our immigration issues. But when I went there and explained our situation and asked for the form, the officer asked, "Do you have your husband's study permit and your vehicle title with you?" Which I didn't, because the person I'd talked to on the phone hadn't mentioned that I'd need to bring those.

So Adam and I went back the next day, paperwork in hand, but this time the officer said that since he was the only one there, he couldn't come down and look at our car like he needed to to complete the form. So he told us to go to the other local CBSA office later that day, and there would be people there who could take care of it. So we dutifully showed up, and then, finally, an officer looked at our car and stamped the form. I had to specifically ask him for a B15 form, though, which ICBC's website had listed as necessary but he seemed to think strange that we needed. (Side note: These agencies--CBSA, the RIV, and ICBC--just don't know how to coordinate anything. None of them understands what the others require, which is a big part of why the process is so unnecessarily messy.)

I had figured out that (as part of the registration process, not the temporary import process) we'd have to have our car inspected, so we got that done too. On Friday afternoon, with a folder of car-related documents, we showed up at an autoplan broker's office--because you don't actually go to ICBC to get your registration and insurance, but rather to an independent broker. Fortunately I'd called ahead and found that we'd need to bring our birth certificates and passports as proof of identity, so when we went in we were confident that we had everything we needed. 

And we did, except that, after the agent started going over our paperwork, she discovered that the VIN had been mistyped on our inspection report. They couldn't accept the report with an incorrect VIN, so we had to pack up all our documents again, drive back to the place that had done the inspection, and get a corrected report. At that point it was too late to go back to the broker that day, so we had to wait till Monday, today, two days before our deadline.

It took two hours, and there was one moment where we thought we might have to go back and get another inspection report because the odometer reading on the one we had said kilometers, when of course it's actually in miles, but that ended up not being an issue and now it's done! Canadian auto insurance is super expensive, though, and if you file a claim it gets even higher. But we did what we had to do, and now we're BC legal, just in time.

The moral of this story: don't own a car in Canada! Rely on a bike, or the bus, or a scooter, or your feet. Or, if you're willing to pay the high insurance cost, then buy a car here instead of in the U.S. Except that now I'm going to give you a handy list of what you need to do to bring in an RIV-exempt vehicle and get it registered in BC, so actually, go right ahead and bring that car, because unlike me you'll actually know what to do.

1. When you enter Canada, tell them you need to get the vehicle registered here and ask them for a Form 1 and a B15. The Form 1 should be stamped by them twice. The B15 is a "casual goods accounting document" and will show that you paid zero tax on the vehicle, since you don't owe any for a temporary import.

If you're only researching this after arriving here, like us, and the border officers didn't say anything about your car when you entered (also what happened to us), call CBSA and ask where you can get a Form 1. Then go there, being sure to bring your study/work permit and your car's title. Make sure you get the B15 in addition to the Form 1.

3. Once you're in Canada, get your car inspected at an approved facility. Here's the list for BC; I assume the other provinces provide lists as well. Make sure all your info is correct on the inspection report!

4. Go to an autoplan broker. Find one on ICBC's website--there are lots (and it doesn't matter which one you go to). When you go, bring:

  • Your Form 1
  • Your B15
  • Your inspection report
  • Your car's title and registration.The registration isn't listed as a requirement on ICBC's website, but when I called the broker's office they told me to bring it, and they kept it as well as the title. (Edit: The broker actually mailed the registration back to me about two weeks later, along with the original B15.)
  • If you haven't obtained a BC driver's license, your passport and birth certificate as proof of identity
  • Letter(s) from your current/previous insurance company stating that you haven't had any claims. These will get you a discount on your insurance. Here's ICBC's info about the discount.

The autoplan broker will get you set up with (expensive) insurance and give you your plates and registration sticker, and then you'll be all set. You won't have to do anything with the RIV or get any modifications made to your vehicle, so by all means, remain blissfully ignorant about that whole process--I wish I had!


  1. Your next book: Tabitha's Adventures in Canada

  2. Wow! It is a little different than it is in Ontario. Seeing this post is giving me major flashbacks to my whole process....

    It's so interesting you note the major expense of auto insurance. Now I'm back in the U.S., in Michigan, and it's amazing how whiny people get over the cost of car insurance. I tell them how much I paid in Ontario, and that usually ends the conversation....

    1. It was sooo frustrating not to be able to find the information we needed, and I got pretty desperate for a little while there. You'd think there would be better information on the temporary process because students must be going through this all the time...

      I had a mini panic attack when I realized how much insurance was going to cost. Over twice what we paid in the U.S., and we're not even driving that often! If we'd known beforehand, we probably would have considered not taking our car. But now we can look forward to returning to the U.S. and feeling like everything is super cheap. :)