Vanlife in the USA: you want to buy a car or a campervan instead of renting a car* to travel in the USA? When we wanted to find out more about buying a car in the USA before starting our bulli trip in alaska, we unfortunately only came across sparse information on the internet. Therefore, in this article we would like to give you a better overview and tips for buying a car in the usa as a foreign tourist give.
Attention: this report describes our personal experiences buying a car in the USA and does not claim to be complete or up to date. We give you our experience and tips to the best of our knowledge and belief, which may be different in another case. We bought our bulli in alaska. In the following you will find our experiences buying a car in the USA as a tourist without a visa (i.e. ESTA) or residence in the USA.
Ebook: vanlife in america
you also want to buy a car in north or south america and live your dream of vanlife? in our ebooks you will learn everything you need to know about buying a car, border crossings and much more!
Buying a car in the USA: where to find a car?
- We have mainly focused on craigslist (quasi the ebay classifieds in the USA) and facebook marketplace looking for a campervan.
- In addition, in appropriate facebook groups like e.g.B. Panamerican travelers association or USA ?? backpacker / traveler campervans and cars offered for sale by other travelers. Surely there are more facebook-groups, where it is worth to search.
- all in all the americans are much more carefree with their cars than we are in europe. Therefore, there is a lot of scrap offered here – so better look twice or have the car checked at a garage before buying.
- Providers such as carfax or autocheck also offer so-called vehicle history reports to. for about 30 USD you can get a rough overview of the accident and workshop history with the help of the respective VIN number of the car.
Buying a car in the USA: in each state of the USA there are different rulesn..
vanlife in central america – with US registration the return to the USA is no problem
We bought our VW bulli in alaska. alaska is one of the states where buying a car easiest and cheapest for foreigners is. we only needed to show our driver’s licenses, passports and car papers. As address we have given our airbnb.
The state alaska is one of the easiest and cheapest states to buy a car in for buying a car as a foreigner, even if the used car market does not offer too much here. To our knowledge colorado and washington also states where buying a car is relatively easy. In some other states you can only register a car as an official resident. Or you need an social security number, you don’t have as a tourist. In some states there is (tlw. Annual!) emission tests or even roadworthiness tests similar to our tuv, which you have to pass. so find out in advance about the rules of all the states you are potentially considering for the car purchase.
Depending on where you or. your desired new car is, maybe the overland title and vehicle services of alex smith is worth it for you. With the help of alex and his team you can find here any car already registered in the USA register your car simply and by mail in washington state in your name – without being there yourself. This is especially useful if you z.B. If you want to buy an american car in central america or in a state that is complicated for foreigners (more details in our guide book).
The service usually costs about 250 USD (as of 2020). In addition, there are the registration fees (approx. 50 USD), the 10% vat due in washington. On top of the purchase price and of course the shipping fees (send title to washington state, receive new license plates). For the procedure you should plan at least 2 weeks. Best you inform yourself at alex itself. by the way: alex will even help you find a suitable car in the usa if you wish!
you want to know more about our campervan trip through north america? You want to know, which highlights, highs and lows there were on the way? Which secret tips we have for you and your trip through north america we have? Or just get inspired?
From now on you can stream our travel lecture "with the bulli through north america" online from the comfort of your own sofa at home. Just have a look& let us take you on our vanlife trip through north america!
used car market in the USA
in alaska the offer of campervans was relatively limited and we were really lucky to have found a bulli after a short time, because there weren’t many alternatives besides this one in alaska… in the south resp. At the coasts of the USA the offer is clearly larger.
If you are thinking about buying a car in the USA or in canada, keep in mind that canadian cars are i.D.R. Not legal for sale are. That means: if you want to travel with your car to central america (resp. If you stay in the USA with your canadian car, you can’t easily sell it to another traveler. For cars with an american registration this is quite easy and legal. More info about the car sales in central america see our article vanlife in central america.
vanlife in the usa – with the bulli in joshua tree national park
car registration in the USA and costs
For the registration of your car you have to go to the DMV DMV (department of motor vehicles) go. This is not much different than a registration office in germany. At least in alaska there was the option to register the car directly with AAA (the american ADAC). but unfortunately our unit was broken, so we had to go to the DMV. There are also other suppliers (e.g.B. garages), which take care of the vehicle registration, but in exchange have a small additional fee take (ca. 10-15 USD). However, we did not have to wait long at the DMV, which is why I see no reason not to go there directly myself.
The costs for registration of a car in the USA vary from state to state. in alaska it was not so cheap: for 2 years registration we have here 170 USD paid. In many other states it is much cheaper to buy the. However, we were lucky in alaska: when we bought and registered our car in july, we still had 5 months of taxes paid by the previous owner, which were transferred to us. So we only had to pay the DMV pay fee for re-registration (15 USD). Whether this is done in every state, we unfortunately do not know.
By the way, in most states you also have to buy a used car purchase sales tax payment. The tax is usually not very high in the USA, but nevertheless you should keep this in mind when buying a car. In alaska fortunately we had to no pay tax!
Nice view! With a campervan you can wild camp in many beautiful places in the USA
What kind of car should you buy? Which make is suitable in the USA?
Another aspect we had not really thought about before is the question of the right brand. it is worth to buy a car that is common in the country you are traveling to – the USA in this case. This will make your life much easier when it comes to possible repairs, because more garages will be familiar with your car model.
- local factories vs. Import brandsthe largest part of the car market is dominated by the US brands ford, GM, dodge, chrysler, GMC and chevrolet. These are followed by the import brands toyota and VW.
- camping vehicles: for a camping trip you can also use the typical US-vans chevrolet/GMC G-series, ford E series and the dodge ram at. Often also old winnebago-motorhomes (practically the american westfalia) offered cheaply. Bullis us sprinter are often very expensive in the USA. A well preserved westfalia T3 (known as "vanagon" in the USA) is usually not available for less than 20.000 USD. We have therefore opted for a cheaper T4 ("eurovan") decidedly. Pick-ups are very popular and therefore often available for a good price – sometimes even with a camping cabin on the loading area. Cheap pick-up classics are the ford F350 and the chevrolet silverado. The fuel consumption is here but of course correspondingly high.
- Availability of spare parts: in the USA there are well-stocked spare parts suppliers in almost every village. The biggest chains NAPA, O’reillys and autozone usually have all kinds of spare parts for US makes in stock. With a european brand it can be that you have to wait a few days for a spare part and that this is a little more expensive. Tip: on the internet you can clearly find cheaperspare parts than in the local trade.
- repairs: car repair shops are a dime a dozen in the USA. However, we often had the problem that the American garages do not have VW diagnostic software and general no experience with vws had. In rural areas the repair of an import car can be a problem.
By the way: if you are thinking about leaving your car at the end of your trip to ship to europe, there are some things to consider. Besides the costs for shipping (approx. 2000-3000 EUR) you have to pay additional 10% import duty and 19% sales tax! you should also check if and how the car can be registered by the TuV in germany.
picture of engine compartment
car insurance in the USA for foreigners
We have checked on the spot at geico and with AAA (the american ADAC) informed about car insurances for our bulli. In the end, we opted for the insurance with the provider progressive, we decided to buy this insurance, because we could buy it comfortably over AAA (US-pendant to the ADAC). For the insurance as a foreigner we had to pay about 100 USD/month (also here are other states where applicable). more expensive or cheaper). We initially purchased the insurance for at least 6 months completed and paid. However, since we left the USA for Mexico before the 6 months were up, we were not able to take out the insurance cancel early. That went with us quite problem-free by telephone. The difference was then refunded to our credit card.
by the way, the car insurances in the USA are mostly also valid for canada. For mexico you need however in any case a separate insurance (there is for example here quite favorably). Attention: some states require a valid insurance even if the car is in a foreign country. D.H. Under circumstances you have to pay for the car insurance double pay. Here you should inquire before the car purchase thus exactly with the responsible registration office. For alaska this was not necessary.
In addition to the insurance, we have a AAA premium membership (119 USD for one year). With this our bulli z.B. Up to 200 miles towed if we have a breakdown. We chose a medium rate for the insurance, but in combination with the AAA premium membership, everything important to us was covered. Who knows our youtube videos, knows that the membership with AAA has paid off for us..
By the way: if you decide to ship your car/campervan from germany to the usa for your trip to the usa, it can be very expensive: since 2019, you have to pay for the insurance for your car/campervan all foreign vehicles fully insured which in the USA – depending on the value of the car – can quickly cost several hundred euros per month.
Insurance is worth it after all…
Renewal of the vehicle registration in the USA
we started in july in alaska and the plan was to be in mexico in november (the month our registration expires) already. how to do it with the expired registration, we didn’t think about it enough in the beginning.
luckily we were able to simply renew your registration online. This is possible in alaska and many other states. However, you also get sent new stickers with the new validity period for the license plates. the problem: if you register them in alaska, they will only be shipped within alaska. But we were already in texas. So here is a helper in alaska resp. necessary to the respective state, which will forward you the stickers by mail. The actual registration papers we could fortunately print out online for a small fee (2 USD).
One re-registration / new registration in another state is theoretically also an option. However, this is again associated with costs. In our case this would not have been possible in texas for us as foreign tourists. in no case should you just let your registration expire in mexico! this could cause problems with border crossings, police checks and reselling the car later on.
Ebook: vanlife in america
you also want to buy a car in north- or southamerica and live your dream of vanlife? in our ebooks you will learn everything you need to know about buying a car, border crossings and much more!
When is it worth buying a car in the USA??
The USA is a huge country, covering almost 9000 km from east to west and over 3300 km from alaska to mexico. rental cars* are relatively cheap in most parts of the USA, but as soon as you are in more remote areas like alaska, a rental car can cost up to 100 EUR per day!! As a rule of thumb, we would say that a car purchase in the USA is probably worthwhile from a stay at least 8 weeks travel time worth it.
Do you have any further questions or experiences about buying a car in the USA?? feel free to leave us a comment, we will reply as soon as possible! have a look at our youtube-video, where we present our VW-bulli from alaska, which we converted into a campervan!
all tips are our personal recommendations and opinions. this article may contain affiliate links (also called advertising links). these are marked with *. What does it mean? Nothing for you. We get a small commission if someone buys something through these links. The price remains the same for you, of course, d.H. you pay not more. These affiliate links help us to cover the running costs for our blog. We put affiliate links voluntarily, nobody pays us for it. We only link to products and services that we are really convinced of and that we would recommend to our own grandma with the best conscience! thanks to all who support us with this!
4 comments . Leave a reply
for us we are going to mexico in april and our plan is to drive north and south along the panamericana to explore first north and then south america overland. After one month in mexico we are planning the start of our trip and with it the purchase of a car. Now the question arises, where is the best place to buy a car – with the goal to sell it at the end (probably in argentina) again?. Is it easier to buy a car in the USA (e.g. california would be our idea) or is it better to buy a car in canada?)? our goal is to sell the car about a year later in south america again. Do you have any experience? We are looking forward to your inputs. All the best, linda& roger
Hello linda& roger,
during our research for the purchase of our car and during several conversations with other overlanders we have met on our trip so far, we have actually been able to learn a lot about this topic.
If you want to sell the car later in south america, you should never buy a canadian car, because you can’t legally sell a canadian car in a foreign country, unlike a US car! If you have a car with an american registration, it is even possible to re-register the car in a different name abroad (have a look at the facebook-group "panamerican travellers association" – there is a certain alex smith, who offers this service for overlanders).)
states that are suitable for this are as mentioned in the text u.A. Washington, alaska or colorado.
if you start your trip in mexico you could possibly. Also our bulli could be something for you (we would like to sell it in mexico or central america in spring)?
You have to ship your car to south america anyway (and that is relatively expensive from panama), so why not start from mexico/central america towards the north and then ship from the USA to colombia?
I hope that I could help you a little further&
my cousin and i(18/ 19 years old) both want to do a road trip after school among other things.
Before that I’m alone in BC, where I do workaway, so I don’t spend much. After that we both want to backpack to south america, but we are not afraid of some work against accommodation&food. All in all we will spend approx. We will be gone for one year, with an estimated 6000-8000 euro in our pocket, flights will be paid for as well.
Now my question: is it financially realistic to make a 2 to 3 month road trip between canada and south america with the mentioned annual budget?? We do not have high demands, and can cook ourselves / sleep in the car. Do you have somewhere ALL costs for the car in the USA listed (car, gasoline, insurance, registration…)? Most sites tell you what you need to buy a car in the USA, but I haven’t found a total calculation anywhere.
the car should be as cheap as possible and as expensive as possible.
I hope you can help me, an honest assessment would be very helpful!
The majority advises you under all circumstances not to buy a car yourself.
sounds like a cool trip you are planning! Do you have the 6000-8000 euro together or each of you? Canada and USA are much more expensive than central america. We spent about 10 euro per person per day on food – and we mostly cooked ourselves. However, we have also always eaten "sensibly", so not just bought the cheapest thing. If you want to live on asia noodles and ravioli, this is certainly also cheaper again. I’m working on an article for backpacking in the USA, there you will find a cost breakdown. Where exactly do you want to go to south america?? Do you also want to go to south america by car?? In 2-3 months I honestly find it quite sporty to drive from canada to south america. Or do you mean Central America? That would definitely be more realistic. in mexico we spent about 1000 euro per person per month. This includes all costs (insurance, gas, camping, food, excursions). In the USA we didn’t spend much more per month (except for the cost of the car) – but we lived very different than in mexico. In the USA we were able to wild camp for free much more often, we almost always cooked ourselves (in mexico we went to restaurants more often because it is much cheaper), we mostly went hiking in national parks (in mexico we did more activities like snorkeling, boat trips, etc.). Made, because it was super cheap). In the end, we spent almost the same per month, because we adapted our lifestyle to the cost level of the country&
Conclusion: calculate per person and month with about 1000 euro if you live frugally. In addition, there are still flight costs and the purchase costs for the car. If you are lucky you can sell the car for a similar price later on. Don’t rely on it completely. There are enough backpackers who broke down their car on the road and it was worth almost nothing to them. I think that in the USA you will have little choice but to buy another car, since you are still too young for an affordable rental car.