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How my Jeep finally got license plates?

I decided to put this page up to inform all curious people in Finland and elsewhere about the obscurities of the Finnish car tax and registration policy.

Car prices in Finland are probably the highest compared to any other country in Europe. We are talking about big differences. For example my Jeep Grand Cherokee, the second most popular SUV in the US, costs there something like 20 000 eur (25 000 usd) when new. The price in e.g. Germany and our neigbor Sweden is only a bit higher. However, the same car costs in Finland 85 000 eur (over 100 000 usd) which is four times of that in the United States! (I am assuming that 1 usd is close to 0.80 eur as in the spring 2004).

On these grounds it is no wonder that Finns inspect eagerly for every opportunity to ship cars from other European countries and the US to Finland. Luxury taxes and bureaucracy are, however, difficult obstacles.

Some time ago the Finnish car taxes were cut because of EU pressures to a steady 29%. Ideally, it would mean that you pay 29% extra to any car you import to Finland before you can get it registered. Sounds simple. I decided to test the new system by shipping a car from California and register it in Finland.

It is worth noting that there is a tax and drivability inspection exemption system that applies when you have lived over 12 months abroad. I had shipped before in 2001 a Corvette from California with that exemption so I had some previous experience with these import things. This time I lived in California only the summer months of 2003 so I needed go through all the details. So here is my story.

Buying the car was easy enough. I ended up getting a nice Jeep Grand Cherokee 1999 with V8 and all the options for something like 9000 eur (10500 usd). There were number of factors that made me feel that would be an easy-import model: they import them officially to Finland, and the model is quite popular. Before shipping I called the importer in Finland who promised to help me with the paperwork.

I had some trouble getting the car into boat. The problem was that pink slip was with a financing company. My seller had already left the country and it turned out to be rather difficult to get the pink slip afterwards. Always get your slip when you hand money! Because all those troubles, the car stayed in California at least two months more than I had originally planned.

The months pass and the car enters eventually Finland. I pay around 5000 eur for shipping, customs and - the first surprise - the valued added tax of the purchasing price. The last one is basically the Finnish equivalent to sales tax and stands currently at 22%. The sales tax was added to the total of purchasing price + 10% customs and was around 3000 eur (3500 usd), or the majority of the first payment.

Next comes the official car tax (or luxury tax, whatever you call it). They also added sales tax to the car tax so in the end the real car tax percent was around 34 and not 29! It didn't help that the Finnish customs had published a table saying that the official importer had paid only 25% car tax for similar cars in the the 1999 model year. Since my car _maybe_ had different configuration than those officially imported, they taxed me according to the higher figure. Of course, the tax collector is always right.

They officially valued my car to around 35 000 eur (over 40 000 usd) and ended up charging around 12 500 at this stage. I had paid a total of about 26 500 eur (over 30 000 usd) for the car, shipping, customs and taxes. Sure, it seemed like a good deal since comparable cars were sold at newspaper ads for over 40 000 eur (almost 50 000 usd).

So far so good. It had taken just two weeks to reach this far and the only real surprises were the obscure sales taxes to everything (including car taxes and customs). I was given a three month temporary driving permit and thought the rest is just conversation: I needed to change some parts like lights to make the car registrable under EU regulations. Little did I know what was to follow.

Now I contact the Finnish Car Registration Agency and ask what I need to do. I quickly learn that this information is not easy to get. Different persons give me different answers. Some say they don't know, others give me a list of five requirements, others a list of almost 50 requirements! I finally find the right guy who seems to know enough. He says that in addition to lights, the emissions requirement is the most important. Other information would be needed as well.

I arrange the lights repair at a local shop. This ends up to be more expensive than I thought. The shop advices me to first check with a control center who does the final registration and inspect the car's drivability in Finland. They should give me details of the changes needed. Now I do a mistake by contacting the former state run A-Katsastus. At that time I thought they could do more tests to the car if needed which later proved to be just illusion.

I check the car into the control center and get a list of little details I need to accomplish plus some additional insults (When the testguy learns the car came from the US: "I don't think you can register this car in Finland. You need an exception from the Agency and to my knowledge that is impossible to get". When he sees the new all season tires "Wait... do you have summer tires on it?"). I pay the man and head to the shop. The shop needs to install special lights in the front including small motors. Now I can adjust the height of the front lights! There is some obscure EU rule requiring that. The repair costs around 1500 eur (1800 usd).

Next I contacted the importer. They give me a statement saying that the car more or less fulfills necessary EU regulations. 100 eur (120 usd), thank you. Now I have a print of a detailed equipment list of my car and a comparable sold at the same time in Finland. Almost match. The only major thing they couldn't guarantee were emissions since they thought US models may have different electronics inside the engine as compared to European models.

I submit these papers to the Registration Agency and they advice me to contact the State's Technical Research Center for emissions inspections. They are the only ones having authority to pass cars outside of Europe from emission requirements. All right, I call the the Research Center. This is my problem, can you help?

They write me a one A4 statement quoting US Environmental Protection Agency's tests for the same model and comparing them to EU regulations. The conclusion seems clear: they believe my car should pass the EU tests with ease so there is no need to do any additional and expensive empirical tests.

I submit that paper to the Registration Agency with an application to get exception for the rest of the EU reguirements. I start waiting. I wait and wait. Two months pass and I start calling the Registration Agency again. Finally they answer and say they cannot accept the Research Center's paper since it leaves room for doubt: you cannot use conditional statements in that paper! So I need to do the empirical test? Just for formal reasons since the result is known beforehand. So frustrating...

I arrange a test day with the Research Center and drive the car in. It is going to be 1700 eur (over 2000 usd) for this part. Deadly frustrating... Happily enough the Center happens to be located just a five minute walk from my work and only a bit more from my home. What if I'd be living and working in northern Finland? (Actually I learn not to make any questions, just do what they ask - quickly!)

Meanwhile, I call the taxman and ask if they can extend my three-month temporary driving period since it ends tomorrow. "Actually, your temporary driving permit has ended 10 days after you paid the tax." Well, that was two months ago! Anyway, can I get additional time? No. Great. I shouldn't have worried about this in the first place.

Next day and back to the Research Center. Since my car has continuous four wheel drive the test couldn't be completed. This means I save the hefty 1700 eur but don't have any water-proof paper proving my car complies with the emission regulations. What now? The friendly guy at the Research Center writes now a three-page little study on the emissions of my car based on real tests done both for California (US) and German (EU) markets with a similar car. They conclude that whatever the case is, the evidence suggest that in no case could my car fail in the tests and add that the closest place to do a full empirical test for four wheel drives is in Germany. I submit the new statement to the Agency.

Another day and I call back. They think it will approved. But they still need authorization from some big guy. One more day passes and I call again. (They never called me back despite numerous promises.) Big news: the big guy has finally approved my emissions paper! Good. But wait: they don't send me any exception statement before the control center checks some minor details in the car (What details? Wrong question!). They advice me to go to the control center (A-katsastus), call from there and they would then fax the exception document.

Next morning at 8.00 am I arrive at the control center. They check the lights and cross the marks. "But where is your exception document? You need to get it from the Agency. Here is your test paper, you failed. Now go and do not return before you have that paper! You know, I'm not criticizing or anything but if you bring cars from some places, like the US, it might be impossbile to register the car in Finland... bla bla blaa" I need to listen to tons of "advice" and a few more insults from some fucking motor mouth. Unfortunately they gave me an old test guy who claims he has perfect knowledge with "over 22 years of experience with these US imports". Now, please, can I finally interrupt you. I talked with the Agency yesterday, and this car is ok with them. Got it?!

I call the Agency, they say the guys at this test center have problems. I agree. I give the phone to the fabulous guys at the control center - you talk with each other god damn it. No progress. Agency seems to be in my side but the control center thinks it's not their job to inspect these regulations. The Agency guy calls the head of the control center. Now it gets interesting. Time passes, it is close to 12. Finally, the head guy comes out from his office: "Listen, you need to still prove that the drive protection system is effective." What the hell, where did that come from?

Little briefing and I'm on my way to a nearby shopping center. They do me a duplicate key for 8 eur (10 usd) to check that you cannot operate the car with a such "fake" key. The key maker asks what year my car is. 1999 - and he throws the key immediately in the trash. No, I need that key. Not to operate the car but just to prove that key is useless. See, I'm importing a car from overseas. You can see smile on two faces.

Back to the test center. Hey, I got the key! (Nobody seems to care - remember not to ask anything). They check that the key works - or doesn't work. Next, for some unknown reason, the control center decides to charge me 5 eur (6 usd) for additional paperwork before we can continue. Ok, there you go. Then I call the Agency. Ok, ok, we'll fax you the document. But you need to wait an hour for the signature of the big guy. I wait another hour and something like 12:30 I got the exception document! Finally! Unfortunately the head of the control center is having his lunch. Boy, I'm feeling hungry too.

Its 2 pm and the head returns. Unfortunately, he explains that the exception document cannot be accepted. According to his opinion it has some dubious parts subject to interpretation. (Yes, I've learnt that in these ultrabureaucratic matters anything subject to interpretation has no value). The guys at the Agency cannot be contacted. I need to sit back and continue this fucking waiting. I am hungry, tired and frustrated. I decide to write this document on my Mac, call my friends and laugh at the whole story.

3 pm the head returns and gives me my registration paper. What happened in between, I don't want to know, I don't want to see any papers anymore. Can I just get the registration plates to my car now? "My job is done", the head bitterly responds and vanishes back to his office.

To the cashier. "Where is your registration paper?" Ok. "You need an insurance." I already have one. "We can sell you an insurance." But I've had one for three months? "So.. have you paid your car tax?" Three months ago, here is the tax decision and here is my receipt. "This is a copy. Where is the green paper?" What green paper? This is what the taxman sent me. "It doesn't have the stamp!" What fucking stamp? Do you think I pay 12 500 eur taxes in cash just to get some kind of stamp for you? Now here is my receipt, I paid it through online bank three months ago. Customs, post office, you name it. Everyone accepts online bank receipts these days. "You must have stamp, this paper wil be filed to our map." Aargh...

Seven hours braking my back there, a full working day, just to get kicked in the ass!

So I have one more day to go. I quickly visit taxman to get the stamp, just in case, and head to another control center. They are much better, maybe because their staff is definitely younger. They ask for 26 eur (30 usd) and I get my plates. No questions asked.

I rush to home just to find mail from the Agency. They want 250 eur (300 usd) for the exception document. Pretty good for a state run agancy that didn't do any inspection work but let everything to the customer - without ever promising anything. I expect there is still something similar coming from the research center.

Somehow, I'm no longer interested in their messages or documents. I get to my car and screw the plates in. I put in Led Zeppelin 3, start the engine, and browse on to Gallows Pole. The end of this story.

So how much did it cost:

Car: 9000 eur
Shipping, customs and related taxes: 5000 eur
Cartax: 12500 eur
Lights and other changes: 1500 eur
Papers from the importer, research center, agency and test center: 700 eur

Total: 28700 eur

In addition, I installled new tires in California and fixed one electronic lock in Finland. These count for something like 500 eur more.

If I now compare the price of my car to a comparable in Finland, the difference is almost 10 000 eur. The system is crazy.

However, I cannot advice anyone to start shipping cars from the US to Finland from now on. I think I managed to register my car and get through the bureaucratic hurdles mainly because:

  • I was active and persistent, called the guys around all the time, met many of them personally.
  • I learnt the rules myself and in the end knew much more about my car and the EU requirements than anyone else.
  • I followed all orders quickly, didn't pose too many questions, and didn't care too much of any negative prognoses.

To summarize, getting a US car registered in Finland is definitely possible. Any model year and any car should do it. Requirements differ but it is entirely possible to get exceptions to most of the requirements. However, the registration process is formal, not factual. It doesn't help to know similar cars are currently driven on the Finnish roads. They don't take imports as a representative of some "class of cars" but as individual problems.

To me, customs and the taxman were easy. Registration Agency was bad. But the control center was still the worst.

You have all been warned!

(C) 2001-2002 Mikko Välimäki // PGP