Wondering how to buy a car in the USA as a foreigner?
We have done this ourself more than once. We have read in multiple places online that it is impossible to buy a car as a foreigner in the USA and due to the serious lack of information online and scattered around the internet via various forums, we decided to write a guide to try to help out other foreigners who may want to buy a car in America.
It may be a bit harder to buy a car than other countries for foreigners but it is far from impossible to buy a car as a tourist in America.
We bought a minivan to convert and camp in the back so we will provide details on that. This guide however really would apply to any car you buy in the USA as a foreigner.
We love the idea of buying a minivan and having the ability to camp in all the beautiful national parks in the States simply by throwing a mattress in the back. We personally much prefer this option to a tent (that’s just us!).
How to Buy a Car in USA as a Foreigner or Tourist
Step 1 – Research the best State to fly into to buy the Car
You first step is to carefully research the state you intend to fly into and how easy it is to buy a car in that State as a Foreigner.
For example, some States require additional details such as residency and a SS number. If you are traveling into the US on a ESTA you won’t have these.
Some States like Colorado require you to obtain a USA drivers license. This will take time, making the process of buying a car not that viable. If you are traveling in on an ESTA, you only have 3 months to explore so ideally you don’t want to spend a lot of that time in the car purchase process.
We have purchased cars without issue in Florida and Nevada so these are good States to consider if you want to buy a car as a foreigner. I think it is because there are a lot of foreigners who live in these States so it is a bit easier there, even when dealing with sellers. In Florida, the seller of our vehicle was more than willing to help us out where we were a little confused as to what was going on.
We have also heard of travelers buying a car without issue in California. If you have purchased a car in a State not mentioned without issue, please leave a comment below as it will help our readers.
You may also want to factor in the sales tax of the place you are buying the car and how expensive registration and insurance is in that State. For example, we read Oregon does not have sales tax which can save you 7-10% up front. As we have not personally experienced buying a car in Oregon, we are not sure how easy/hard it is as a foreigner there, sales tax aside.
In Nevada you will avoid car sales tax if you do not buy with a dealer and buy a car with an individual seller. Of course this comes with more risk.
Step 2 – You Will Need a USA Address to Buy a Car in USA
In States where it is easier to buy a car as a foreigner you will still need a USA address. You will need to receive the Title to this address so it is important that you use an address where you can actually access mail or have mail delivered to.
There are businesses online that allow you to get an address. Make sure you don’t select a PO BOX because when you go to register title of your vehicle you will run into trouble as the DMV will not allow this.
You want to find a company that will forward your mail on so when your title arrives in the mail you can forward it on to wherever you are on your journey. In Vegas, we used a company called iPostal1 who will scan in any mail we receive and on-forward our mail. We needed to verify our ID to set up the service so we drove into their store to do so.
You will need title of the car to sell it in the future.
If you have a friend in the US you could use their address or if you stay at an airbnb they might be willing to help you out in this regard. As a general rule however, you won’t be able to use hotels, airbnbs etc as an address to register your vehicle.
Step 3 – You Will Need Insurance
You cannot drive a car in the USA without having insurance. This has proved somewhat problematic for foreigners as many insurance companies in the USA refuse to insure foreigners.
In saying this, there are some insurance companies that will insure foreigners for cars. In Florida, we used the insurer Pearl Holding Group without trouble. In Nevada, we used Progressive Insurance.
You can’t legally drive the car off without insurance so we asked the dealer in Nevada if we could access his internet to buy our insurance before we drove off.
Step 4 – Research & Consider The Right Car for you
Next you will want to consider what car you want to purchase.
We purchased a minivan for the purpose of doing some camping so I will provide details on this.
We had never converted a van before. Before we started we had no idea what type of van would be suitable for the conversion.
In our research and after seeing numerous vans, these cars would be possible to do a campervan conversion:
- Honda Odessey
- Chrysler Town & Country
- Honda CRV
- Ford Expedition (V8)
- Toyota Sienna
- Dodge Grand Caravan
We were warned against a Mazda 5 due to the problems the cars face. We can’t comment on this but we would personally recommend against it because it is too small.
Dimensions of minivans (for camping)
After you have identified the possible minivans for your search that may be possible to do a conversion with, you need to consider the dimension of the cars.
Many people we saw online were traveling solo. As we were traveling as a couple it was necessary for us to fit a 54″ (double) mattress into the back of the car.
- Honda Odessey (Van) – 48″ – 51″ at narrowest (depending on year and model)
- Chrysler Town & Country (Van) – around 50″ at narrowest (depending on year and model)
- Honda CRV (4WD) – 41″ (if you want a CRV need to lift your base above the wheel)
- Ford Expedition (V8, Workvan) – around 50.9″ at narrowest (depending on year and model)
- Toyota Sienna (Van) – around 48″ at narrowest (depending on year and model)
- Dodge Grand Caravan – around 50″ at narrowest (depending on year and model)
- Mazda 5 – Didn’t have a tape measure handy but smaller than the above
As you can see near all of the options are less wide than the width of a 54″ (double) mattress.
For two people traveling in the car you are going to have to get creative in how to fit a double mattress within the back.
The next mattress size down is a Twin which is around 38″ but obviously won’t give you as much mattress to share.
MPG (Miles Per Gallon)
When buying a car in the USA you will want to consider the MPG if you are doing a road trip.
We decided against a car like the Ford Expedition due to its very large V8 engine. It would be a fuel gussler. The Ford Expedition has terrible MPG due to the very large V8 engine.
You can check out the MPG for a car on this website. It may also be handy to ask the previous owner how the car performed in terms of fuel efficiency.
The Dodge Grand Caravan has a V4 motor as opposed to a V6 motor in the Chrysler Town & Country. This means it will have slightly better fuel efficiency however, with lots of luggage, people, mattresses etc, a V6 motor will perform a lot better on highway driving etc. Something to consider.
Our Minivan Selection
A Ford Expedition (Workman’s car) and Honda CRV are alternative campervan conversion options as they are not traditionally vans. For this reason, we opted out of this option this time.
Due to the abundance of information online on previous conversions of this car, the Honda Odyssey was the campervan conversion leader in our mind in terms of the mechanics of the car. Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna’s tend to be made better mechanically than American cars so you can buy a car with higher miles and not have to worry as much.
Both times we bought a car in the USA, we didn’t see a good option available for a Honda Odyssey. We did view one however, the engine did not appear to be in good working condition.
I will note however that both the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna do not offer “stow and go” seats which mean you have to remove and dump/store your back seats. We thought the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan were better options for us in the sense that we did not have to dump the seats, which provides better resale value, if someone wants to buy the car later as a family minivan and not a campervan.
Both times we did our van conversion we ended up with a gold Chrysler Town & Country purely by chance (first time a 2002 and the second time a 2007).
The 2002 did not have the stow and go seats so I believe only newer models of the Chrysler Town & Country do this which we found to be really worthwhile. We dumped our 2002 Chrysler Town & Country seats in a bin in Florida which seemed a bit of a shame as we did not have anywhere to store them!
Step 5 – Where to find a Car in the USA
You can look for a car in places like offerup, facebook marketplace or craigslist when buying a car. Of course you need to be aware of scammers on craiglist. We bought our first car via craiglist in Florida and our second car via offerup in Vegas.
In Vegas we ended up purchasing through a car dealer but he did not add on extra fees like document fees etc so it was only the cost of the car + the state tax.
In Vegas if you don’t buy through a dealer you don’t pay the State tax but we really liked having this extra security rather than buying through an individual. We did buy through an individual in Florida and it turned out ok.
If you are in Vegas, the dealer we used is Island Motors LLC. The owner is an honest and really nice man originally from Jamaica. His number is (702)772-8986. He is located at 4061 W Charleston Blvd. Ring before you turn up as he is by appointment only and as he is a “one man band” so to speak he has limited stock so he may or may not have the car you want available when you turn up.
The most important thing is to make sure the person has the title of the car when you buy it from them. This makes sure the car is not stolen or otherwise and there is clean title to the property when you buy it.
Make sure you take your car for a test drive before purchasing and if you are not familiar with cars, you might want to get a mobile mechanic to inspect the car before striking up a deal.
Dealers and car owners won’t let you drive the car off to your mechanic (obviously) but you can get a mobile mechanic to inspect it which has proven to us to be highly worthwhile.
If you happen to be in Vegas, we know a good reliable mobile mechanic who can do pre purchase inspections. His name is Jordan and his number is +1 702 335 2390. He charged us $115 for a pre purchase inspection.
Jordan found a few things wrong with the car we bought like the driver’s side window was not working properly and Island Motors LLC offered to fix it before we bought it. Jordan also saved us buying a real lemon of a car from another dealer so we would highly recommend getting a mechanic to inspect your car before you purchase!
Our car happened to need new tyres which we got done at Tyre Works in Vegas for around $100 a tyre. When we were getting new tyres on, the mechanic at the tyre shop noticed the wheels would not align properly as parts behind the wheels had broken. Jordan was able to fix this for $800 including parts which was cheaper than Tyre Works quote of $1100.
Usually the price of second hand cars are subject to negotiation so be prepared to haggle a little if you are buying a second hand car. Both times we purchased a car we were able to get a few hundred off the final price with the use of an old fashioned haggle.
Step 6 – Check the Carfax!
America has carfax which is a site which allows you to look up the history of the car to know whether it has been in any accidents, how many owners it has had, if it has been recalled and whether the title is clean.
Most dealers have access to carfax and will print out the report for you to check out. Alternatively, you can buy a report online yourself if you decide to buy a car privately.
Step 7 – Register your Car with the DMV to get your title (ownership)
When we bought our car in Florida with a private seller, we went into the DMV with him to organise our new plates and transfer of title.
When we bought our car in Vegas, the dealer gave us a slip of paper to take to the DMV to register the car. They give you temporary plates to use for 30 days, so effectively you have 30 days to get to the DMV to register the car and get your new plates from them.
The new title of the vehicle (in your name) gets sent back to the dealer and they send it to your postal address, hence where step 2 comes in (a USA address). So you need a place you can receive mail or you won’t receive your title and then you’ll have a hard time ever selling your vehicle in the future.
The DMV in Vegas is a bit strange. You need an appointment to visit and often you can’t get an appointment for up to a month. For this reason, we used a Vegas DMV service to register our car. There are lots of DMV services advertised in businesses right nearby if you buy a car in Vegas.
The service cost us around $120 for her to go and register the vehicle plus the car registration fee of around $100. She was able to register our car and get our plates back within 1 day (she must have appointments pre booked – who knows!).
Anyway, this was great as it meant we were able to hit the road and not have to wait for ages for our plates. We had a mail on-forwarding service so we were able to get our title when it came in and did not have to wait. If you buy a car in Vegas, the lady we used in Vegas JROD Multiservice at 8425 W Flamingo Rd Suite 2, Las Vegas.
Step 7 – Off you go on your adventure!
And that is pretty much it – after all that you are all set to go on your adventure! You’ll of course need to give your car/van a name – you can check out some ideas here. We named our first car “Golden Girl” and our second car “Golden Girl the second” or “Number 2”.
If you have any questions, we are happy to help where we can so let us know in the comments below.
Is Buying a Car as a Foreigner worthwhile? The long of the short of this answer is – it depends. If you want to buy a van to sleep in and camp, I think it would definitely prove worthwhile, depending the initial price of the van and what you can resell it for at the end.
Are there any companies that can help you? Yes, there are companies that have now popped up to help foreigners buy cars in the USA in almost any state.
The way they get around rules like needing a social security company is by setting you up as a company and buying the car in the name of the company as opposed to the name of an individual. They usually charge around $1,000 USD for this service. This is necessary in places like Colorado but not really necessary in other States like Florida and Nevada.
One thing to consider is you will need to allocate a bit more time if you wish to go through one of these companies as they send your plates out to you in the mail after you purchase the car.
One of these companies you might like to check out is visitor.us if you are interested in a service like this. Personally, I think it is worth saving the money and time to do the process yourself. There is also a risk these companies are scams although it does not seem likely.
Another reason we decided against going through these companies is because we wanted to get our plates straight away. It took us about 1 day to get plates through the DMV using a $100 fast track DMV service whereas I believe some of these companies take a week or so to get you the plates through the registration as a company.
Can I buy a car with international driver license? It depends on the State. In Florida and Nevada you can. In Colorado you have to take a driving test and get a local license. Make sure you check the State you intend to buy the vehicle.
Is there anything that could go wrong? Yes, of course. We actually lost the car we purchased first Florida. We put our car in storage with CubeSmart (see our story here) while we went away and traveled, paid every month and the car was disposed of. We have no idea why – we think they were just dodgy.
The storage company also scratches their head as to why they disposed our car and the saga is ongoing. From our experience, we would advise selling your car after your journey rather than put it in storage.