Buying or leasing a car can be difficult for expats who have just relocated to the U.S. If buying a car, it’s easiest to pay cash. Many dealerships will not be able to get you a car loan when you first move here because you don’t have a credit score (we’ll talk about building credit in the U.S. later in the series). However, there are companies which have special programs for foreigners. Most European car companies (Porsche, Mercedes, VW, etc.) and Mazda have programs for expats who have just moved here, so check with your local dealer.
If you want to buy a new car, your best bet is to go to a factory authorized dealer. If you’re looking for a used car, Carmax is a nationwide dealer with a good reputation. You can also search online at sites like www.cars.com, www.autotrader.com, or even www.craigslist.com.
There are brands that have special programs for foreigners:
- Mazda (Foreign Resident Program)
- All European brands (VW, BMW, Mercedes, Audi)
- There are dealerships that might have specific programs allowing foreigners to lease (I know about some Ford dealerships).
There are special companies that can help foreign nationals get a car lease
- International Autosource
There are offers from Hertz and other rental companies for foreigners that can be expensive. Toyota, Nissan, Honda don’t offer any to for foreigners.
Once you have your car, there’s a lot of paperwork you’re going to need to take care of. If you are buying the car instead of getting a car loan, make sure you get the title to the vehicle. The car title is the official documentation of ownership required for your vehicle. If you have a car loan, the financial institution from which you are borrowing will hold the title until you pay off the loan. The first document you need is your driver’s license. The United States has driver’s license reciprocity with Germany, Canada, South Korea, and France. If your country isn’t listed, you are required to take a driver’s test before you can get an American driver’s license. To apply for one, you need a specific set of primary and secondary documents, so check your state’s list of requirements BEFORE you go to meet the Six Points of ID criteria which will include any and all of these:
- I-94 form
- Social Security card
- Proof of residence
- Travel or work visa, or other permission to be in the U.S.
If you’re very organized and thorough before you go, you won’t have any problems. When in doubt, bring one or two extra forms of acceptable ID as a backup. Make sure your foreign language documents are legally translated copies by a state approved translator NJ MVC has a link to state approved translators on their website. The Motor Vehicle Commission only accepts true originals or acceptable certified copies. Make sure you name is the same and accurate on each document.
Additionally, you may need your Expat Partner (L1) to accompany you, immigration status verified, bring the most current I-94 by going to the I-94 retrieval website. Last, you must take and pass the vision, written, and road test(s).
Expect to pay higher fees because you don’t have a driving history in the U.S. to prove a good driving record. Many American auto insurance companies offer a price comparison between competing companies on sites like esurance.com. The major insurers in the U.S. are Geico, Progressive, Esurance, and Allstate, but there are many more. Make sure you always have proof of insurance in the glove compartment, preferably in a plastic holder.
Once you have a valid U.S. driver’s license and insurance, you can register your vehicle. This often requires that you pay annual property tax on your vehicle. Then you will have to pay registration fees. Some states require you have a registration sticker on your windshield, others require a sticker on your license plate. You must always have proof of registration in your vehicle.