When I made the decision to export my Tesla Model 3 from San Francisco to Toronto I could find absolutely no evidence on the Internet that it was allowed, let alone how it could be done. Transport Canada's website always omitted the Model 3 from their list. It was neither admissible or inadmissible of being imported. It was simply ignored. But in October 2019 they finally gave the Model 3 the green light and I began researching what it would take to import my car.
Before we go any further I want to make one thing crystal clear. Don't do this! It is going to be a massive waste of time and cost a significant amount of money. You are going to end up dealing with officials from multiple branches of government and even if they are all nice (fat chance) the bureaucratic hoops you're going to have to jump through will test every bit of your patience. Knowing what I know now, I would have sold my Model 3 in San Francisco and bought a new one in Toronto.
Not only is the entire process arduous, but because Tesla's customer service is absolute dog shit your car is never truly going to be "Canadian". It is always going to be "American" in someone's eyes. I've resigned myself to the fact that something is going to go wrong a few years from now and because my car is imported I'll probably have to jump through even more hoops just to solve the problem.
Having said all of that, if you are still dead set on doing it, I am going to detail everything I wish I knew before I started and the exact steps I took to get my Model 3 licensed in Ontario. Let us begin.
Do everything within 30 days of your planned crossing of the border
With something this significant it is a basic impulse to want to do as much as possible ahead of time to prevent from being surprised. But that can actually turn out to be harmful as I found out. While you are more than welcome to research about the process, don't do any official steps unless you are within 30 days of your planned border crossing. It is likely that if you file something more than 30 days ahead of time you will find out is has expired before you cross. I got bit by this when I submitted my export request almost two months in advance only to find out the day before I planned to cross the border that it had expired.
So go ahead and gather all the documentation you need but don't engage any government agencies until you are within 30 days of your planned border crossing.
RIV.ca is your bible
RIV.ca should be your main source of truth for this whole ordeal. Even more than this article because who knows how much has changed since I've written this. The Registrar of Imported Vehicles does a fantastic job breaking down exactly what you need, when you need it, who you should send it to, etc. I did a lot of research and ended up on a lot of backwater forums with random testimonials swearing that you should do X or Y. But in the end I always ended up coming back to riv.ca and their importer checklist. It helped me create a TODO list that is essentially going to be the rest of this article with a few minor deviations that I encountered which are Tesla or Ontario specific.
Also make sure you have their contact info handy at all times. I ended up having to both call and email them and they were always quick to respond.
Step 1: Check your vehicle admissibility
My Tesla Model 3 was admissible when I crossed in 2020. But in whatever year you are reading this, and for whatever Tesla model you are driving, you cannot make the same assumption. Check Transport Canada's website and verify that your model year is still on the admissible list.
Who knows, maybe in 2020 all Tesla batteries were found to be faulty and those cars have just been banned entirely. That would just be par for the course based on how 2020 went down.
Step 2: Submit recall clearance documentation
You need to provide the Registrar of Imported Vehicles (RIV) with proof that there is not an active recall on your vehicle. Tesla has a VIN recall search tool available on their website. Search for your VIN, print the website as a PDF, and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You must do this within 30 days of crossing the border.
Also make sure you print out a copy of whatever PDF you emailed RIV and keep it with you when you cross the border. You never know when a random government official is going to decide to exercise the modicum of power they have and demand paperwork from you. My rule of thumb was anything I submitted electronically I also kept a physical copy with me at all times.
Step 3: Choose your crossing point
You should be very careful when choosing where you are going to cross the border because not all crossing points are equal. In my mind, I wanted to pick a place that was open 24 hours a day and dealt more with commercial shipping than passenger vehicles. The idea was the government officials at these points would be more likely to deal with the paperwork that I would be bringing. Hopefully that would result in them giving me less guff.
I found this website which gives an excellent breakdown of various crossing points, their contact information, and requirements to cross there.
Step 4: Get your Automated Export System (AES) Internal Transaction Number (ITN)
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must be notified of all vehicles being permanently exported from the United States. You do this by submitting your Electronic Export Information (EEI) through the Automated Export System (AES). You must do this at least three business days before your intended crossing.
It is technically possible for you to submit the EEI yourself using the AESDirect tool provided by the government. However, this process is absolutely insane and I do not recommend that anyone attempt it. Instead you should find a broker who can submit the information on your behalf. I recommend Simplified Trade Solutions because they responded promptly and helped me out when I realized there was something wrong with my filing the day before I was supposed to cross.
Once your EEI is submitted to AES you will receive an Internal Transaction Number (ITN). This combined with your vehicle's title and valid registration documentation are the absolute minimum you will need to cross the border. It is at this point I recommend you call the border crossing you are planning on using and verify exactly what documentation they expect. Some may require you to email the documentation ahead of time while others may be completely old school and demand paper copies.
My general advice for this whole process is never make any assumptions about what documentation you need and when. Do not hesitate to reach out to whatever government agencies you will be interacting with to ensure you will have everything they need.
Step 5: Notify the DMV
The California Department of Motor Vehicles must be made aware of your intent to export a vehicle out of the state so they know it is no longer operating and will not try to come after you for things such as expiring registration.
The DMV's preferred method is for you to fill out Form REG 32 and submit it in-person to your local DMV office before you export the vehicle. If you forgot (as I did) and have already exported the vehicle, you can fill out Form REG 256 and detail when and where you exported the vehicle.
Step 6: Create your Vehicle Import Form – Form 1
By this point you should have sorted out everything you need from the US side, so it is time to start dealing with Canadian customs.
Your first step is to use their online portal to create an E-Form. You will be prompted for a whole slew of information about your vehicle (the majority of which you've probably already gathered) and once you've finished entering it all you should be able to download a PDF containing your "Vehicle Import Form – Form 1". This form will be verified by the Canadian agents when you cross the border. Just in case it isn't mentioned, print out four copies of this form because they will all be needed at the border.
Step 7: Pay your registration fees
You may have already done this because when you create your vehicle import form, the RIV.ca tooling is very good at prompting you to pay your registration fees at the same time. But if for whatever reason you skipped this, you should go back and do it now. When I crossed it costed $310 CAD plus tax.
Technically "The RIV registration fee must be paid before an RIV inspection form for your vehicle will be released. You may pay the RIV fee at the border, on-line, by mail or in person at an RIV office." but don't drag this out. Pay for it online, print out the receipt, file it away with your other paperwork, and barely think about this again for the rest of your life.
Step 8: Crossing the border: Dealing with US customs.
After double checking that you have all of your paperwork with you it is time to head to the border. I recommend trying to cross as early as possible just in case anything goes wrong. I myself left at 8 am but didn't end up crossing until 10 am because of the difficulties I encountered. I actually drove to the wrong address because I mistook the government office as the place I was supposed to go before heading to the border crossing. It turned out there was a second office directly on the US side of the border that I was supposed to go to instead. I've said this before but do not hesitate to contact whatever government agency you are about to deal with to be 100% certain you are doing the right thing.
Another pro-tip is that you should not be trying to cross the border until you get your paperwork approved. I made the mistake of driving up to the border crossing and telling the nice woman there who took the toll that I wanted to import this car. She then relayed my request to some border agents who proceeded to give me dirty looks and yell at me to park to the side and walk to the office where I should have gone to in the first place. Again, call ahead and double check exactly where you are supposed to go.
The agent who dealt with my paperwork literally took my file folder from me, told me to sit down, and then called me back up 10 minutes later and sent me on my way. I don't actually remember saying a single word to him.
Step 9: Crossing the border: Dealing with Canadian customs.
Once you have all of your US paperwork stamped you can cross the border. When you get to the Canadian side tell the agent you are importing the vehicle and they will most likely direct you to a secondary screening office. I ended up parking my car and bringing all of the necessary paperwork inside.
It is at this point you will give your four copies of the "Vehicle Import Form - Form 1" to Canada customs. They will ask you for the estimated value of the vehicle because you need to pay GST on it. I gave them the value I saw on Tesla's used sales website but the agent then pulled a value that I think was from Kelley Blue Book. Regardless, be prepared to pay 5% GST on your $60,000+ car.
The border agent is going to stamp a lot of things and give you back a copy of the "Vehicle Import Form - Form 1". You will also receive a receipt for the GST that you paid. For the love of all that is holy, ensure that receipt has your VIN number printed on it. By default the border agents will probably omit it because they say your receipt can be tied to your vehicle import form via the shared case number. But if you get a stickler for details at ServiceOntario you may find that they absolutely will not accept the receipt unless the VIN is printed on it.
Step 10: Getting your vehicle inspected
Congratulations you have successfully crossed the border but your vehicle still has US plates. Before you can get Ontario plates you're going to need to go to a ServiceOntario office to register your vehicle. But obviously it can't be that simple. Before you can do that you need to get your vehicle inspected to ensure it meets all regulations.
The first thing you need to do is get your RIV inspection form. A few days after you cross the border you should receive an email saying that your inspection form is available online. If you aren't contacted within three or four days I recommend emailing them an image or PDF of your stamped vehicle import form to get the wheels in motion. I didn't hear from them for over a week before I emailed and got a response back within a few days. This inspection form should detail everything that needs to be correct with your car before it can be licensed in Canada. If you are importing an older vehicle it is possible the form will detail modifications that must be made. But with my Model 3 there was absolutely nothing I needed to change.
With your inspection form in-hand it is time to find an inspection center using RIV.ca's handy tool. If you're in Ontario there is a 99.9% chance that you are going to be heading to a Canadian Tire and they don't take appointments for these sort of things. But it can't hurt to call ahead of time and be certain.
We are at our very first major "gotcha" moment that RIV.ca failed to tell me about and if they did I could have killed two birds with one stone. Not only do you need to get your RIV inspection form stamped at Canadian Tire, but in Ontario you also need a safety standards certificate. Just because your car passes the RIV inspection does not mean it is safe to drive in the eyes of the Ontario government. You must have a secondary inspection performed for that which costs around $200 and takes a couple hours. The good news is that this inspection can also be performed at a Canadian Tire. I recommend calling ahead of time, explaining you want both inspections done, and arrange to have your car dropped off for 2-3 hours or potentially overnight if they are too busy.
When they are finished you should be given a photocopy of your inspection form, told that they faxed a copy in to the government, and your safety standards certificate.
Step 11: Insurance
Hopefully you're reading through this entire article and not just following step-by-step because this step is something that can definitely be done in parallel while your car is being inspected. To register your car in Ontario you need to have valid insurance which means start looking for quotes as soon as possible. Because you may have been out of the country for a while it is possible that insurance companies will have to do a deeper background check which could take multiple days. I was all ready to get my car registered when I remembered I didn't have Canadian insurance and it took almost a week to get it.
Step 12: Register your vehicle
It is finally time to visit a ServiceOntario office and register your vehicle.
Be sure you have your:
- Stamped Vehicle Import Form - Form 1.
- Receipt from Canada customs for GST paid, with VIN number printed on it.
- Proof of residence (driver's license, bank statement, credit card bill, etc).
- RIV.ca registration fee receipt.
- Signed RIV inspection form.
- Safety standards certificate.
- Proof of insurance.
- And honestly every other god damn piece of paper you've acquired because you never know what these people are going to want.
I'm not going to lie. This step is an absolute crapshoot. You are at the mercy of the person you get at ServiceOntario. Some could be super anal and want explicit documentation, others could be incredibly lax and just let you breeze through.
Something to be aware of is that at this step you could potentially be asked to pay PST on the vehicle. Thankfully a reader of this article, Brian Glick, pointed out to me that if you are assuming Ontario residency you should get an exemption on the PST. It is very likely that you'll get some pushback about this so Brian provided links to the websites that he printed out which helped him get the exemption.
You would not have to pay the provincial motor vehicle tax in some cases, including the following situations: You are returning to Canada after an absence of at least one year, and you owned your vehicle and used it abroad for at least six months.
If you are becoming an Ontario resident, you can declare an exemption when you register the vehicle instead of paying the retail sales tax.
If everything goes smoothly you should be walking out of the office with two brand new license plates and registration papers. Attach the plates to your car, toss the registration in the glovebox and you're good to go.
Congratulations! You have successfully imported your Tesla Model 3 into Ontario. Wasn't it totally not worth it?#Cars