Importing a car to France (and getting the carte grise)

Here’s another how-to post about my experience importing our car to France. As you may have seen in my previous post, we bought the car in Germany and it had German export plates on it. This story took place in Chalon-sur-Saône, so things may differ from town to town.

Step 1- Prove that I don’t owe VAT

The first step was a trip to the finance office to get proof that I did not owe any taxes on the car. In my case, I owed none because I bought the car in Germany. The VAT system confuses me a bit, but basically I guess the car had VAT on it when it was new and since I was going from one EU country to another, it would not be charged a second time. I walked up to the front desk, armed with a translation of “I need to import a car from Germany” on my phone, and was pointed upstairs. I went upstairs, and luckily picked the correct door. The employee inside was quite friendly. I showed her my translation and found that she spoke a little English and a little German, which came in handy in the ensuing conversation. She asked for ID, but that’s when I realized I forgot my passport! Luckily she accepted my German driver’s license. She also wanted to see a document proving my French address. I have found that it is quite common in France to be asked to prove this. Luckily I had my laptop on me so I found something sufficient. She looked at my registration documents from Germany and the purchase contract. I’m not sure if she actually needed both or what information she got from them, but she eventually gave me a one-page document stating that I owed no tax.

Step 2- Safety inspection

The next step was the vehicle safety inspection (contrôle technique). I went by the shop with a coworker and we had to make an appointment for the next day. I returned by myself. The guy spoke no English but he realized at some point that I understand some German. After that we got along fine. The entire appointment only took about 30 minutes. The only thing he commented on was the broken fog light lens, which I knew about but have been putting off fixing. It was not the sort of thing that would fail the inspection though. Luckily he didn’t notice that my reverse light doesn’t work. That is another repair I have been procrastinating, because it will probably be expensive. I think I may not have passed the inspection if he had noticed that, but perhaps he would just think the bulb was blown (it’s not) so maybe he’d just advise me to fix it. I noticed afterward that he had put a sticker on the passenger side of the windshield, I guess just to show the test date. It has the old German license plate number, which I hope is normal.

Step 3- Sous-préfecture for the carte grise

Next I went to the sous-préfecture. This place was a circus. I took number 906 but they were only at around 870. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place because many LEDs on the number display didn’t work so I misread the number at first. I sat across the room, periodically checking the numbers. I waited almost 1.5 hours. The lady at the counter spoke almost no English so I just showed her the relevant papers. She took my folder and rifled through it taking some other papers. She went to the back to check on some things and eventually she kept some papers and told me to come back Monday morning to pay the fee and allegedly get the certificat d’immatriculation (informally “carte grise”). Luckily there was a girl who spoke some English that I was to see on Monday. She was excited to tell me about her travels in the US, but she didn’t seem to know the geography very well.

Step 4- Sous-préfecture part 2

I returned on Monday and didn’t have to take a number this time. I got to just go right up to the counter once there was an opening. After speaking (sort of) to a few employees, I was given all of my papers stapled together and told to go to a window to pay. I then realized they intended to take all of the papers permanently. I was angry that they indiscriminately took so many papers from my folder. It seemed that they weren’t very familiar with the procedure and just took everything that seemed related. The employees defended it saying they must have all of these documents, but they clearly didn’t need them all. For example, one booklet they took was for translating my original German export registration for travels outside the EU. I was told previously that this booklet was only for places like Russia. Many people apparently don’t even have this booklet because I didn’t have one with my second export registration. This was evidence that these guys had no idea what they were doing and they were lying to me about what they needed, because they didn’t really know. The next setback I encountered was that they wouldn’t accept my EC card or my German credit card, even though allegedly they d0 take cards. I had to go to an ATM with my German debit card (for a fee, of course). I returned with cash and they gave me a provisional certificat d’immatriculation. Note that I’m unsure if they always give the provisional one. It seems that they maybe wouldn’t have except I expressed concern that I wouldn’t be able to drive the next day, since they took my German paperwork required to drive on my old plates.

Step 4- Buy plates

The next step was to get French plates. I went to a place recommended by my colleague and, without speaking French, I was able to show him my paperwork and he understood what to do. I just got the cheap aluminum plates, though there were fancier options. After 15 minutes, I got my plates and some rivets that he indicated I needed to use to attach the plates. So this was a problem. I had forgotten that I would need to attach the plates with rivets. I should have gone to a place that would install them for me. This problem would need to be addressed later.

Step 5- Buy car insurance

Next I had to find insurance. I knew nothing about French insurance companies. All I knew was that my credit union was closed on Mondays and I had once heard the name AXA. So AXA it was! I found an office that was open on Monday and I went about teaching my credit union a valuable lesson about capitalism. The employee in the office did speak English. I showed her my letter GEICO stating I had no claims. She didn’t really like it because it didn’t have my policy number or my contract attached. I told her that in America we don’t really have a uniform “no claims bonus” so insisting on my “no claims bonus paperwork” wasn’t helpful. I offered her a copy of my GEICO contract and eventually I convinced her that was the best she was going to get. I only needed 30 days anyway at this point, so I could drive the next day and then further determine my options.

Step 6- Get plates installed

Finally, I had to go to a shop to get the plates riveted as required by French law. I should have gone to this shop in the first place because the price was 11 Euro for installation. The guy who did the install spoke English and he was quite friendly. It turns out they don’t actually have to rivet to the car itself. In my case, they just riveted the plates to the brackets that were already mounted on the car. He ended up letting me go without paying, so that worked out well.

That was it! The car was ready for a drive to the Geneva airport the next morning.


  • igor
    2014-11-17 - 01:25 | Permalink

    I’ll have to go through the same procedure in January and I’m already looking forward to this adventure. Not.

    If I understood correctly, you finished everything in one day? Is there an agency that can do the trick for me? Are the offices that you had to visit open on Saturdays?

    • Eric
      2014-11-19 - 22:46 | Permalink

      It could probably be done in one day, except in my case I had to make a next-day appointment for the inspection.

      I doubt there are agencies in places like this (Chalon-sur-Saône), but perhaps it’s a possibility in big cities where they deal with more foreigners. We only have a sous-prefecture (basically a satellite office of the normal prefecture in Mâcon) and it has quite limited hours that definitely don’t include Saturdays. It’s pretty much just open on weekday mornings. Perhaps in bigger cities there will be more hours but I wouldn’t count on it, knowing France. It is, however, still possible that you could find a shop to do the inspection or stamp/install the plates on a Saturday.

  • igor
    2014-12-13 - 02:51 | Permalink

    Thanks for the info, Eric. I’m about to buy a car in Germany next week and I’m as much as familiar with this procedure as with registering it in France 🙁

    I see that you mention a purchase contract. Did you have to go to the “notar” to stamp the contract?

    In your experience, was it worth to import the car? I’m going to France to study for one year and I can either buy the car in Germany or I can buy it in France when I settle. The main reason for buying a car in Germany is to take my stuff with me, but I’ve also heard that used cars are cheaper in Germany.

    • Eric
      2014-12-14 - 11:24 | Permalink

      The purchase contract was just a document that we signed. It said the purchase price and the mileage. Additionally, when I purchased it, I had some minor repairs that we agreed for the shop to do if I bought it for that price. This stuff was all on a 1-page document that the dealer and I signed. There was no notary or the like, as far as I can recall.

      We imported the car instead of buying it here for a few reasons:

      1. The French don’t care for their cars very well. They run into each other a lot and they don’t really take any pride in proper mechanical operation. The Germans are perfectionists in this area. They care for the appearance of their cars and also they are mechanically perfect. It’s important for their culture but also because when driving on the Autobahn you don’t want parts falling off. So by buying in Germany we were able to get a much nicer used car than in France.
      2. The prices seem to be lower in Germany, particularly up north in Bremen, than they are in France. This was true across the board, but it was probably even a greater difference for diesels because Germany has a higher tax on the registration. This likely drives demand for diesels down in Germany.
      3. We were moving, so having a car was a good way to transport our belongings. We bought a Kombi (in English I guess we’d say wagon) so my entire flat made it in a single trip.
      4. I don’t know this for a fact, but I expect there is a higher percentage of German cars available in Germany. I prefer German cars to French cars.

      So 2 and 3 seem to be the same things you are considering.

      • Eric
        2014-12-14 - 11:26 | Permalink

        Another bonus is that our car speaks German. The manual is in German and every time we need gas, the display says “Bitte Tanken,” which is fun.

      • Eric
        2014-12-14 - 11:36 | Permalink

        By the way: I bought from a small dealer. If you are buying from a private seller, I’m not sure exactly what documentation will be needed. You will need some sort of “contract” just to prove that you paid a certain price on a certain date and with a certain number of miles. I’m also not sure how the tax works on such a purchase.

  • Jo
    2016-04-11 - 12:43 | Permalink


    You mention a translation booklet for your German export papers. Did you get this at the office in Germany with reg documents? Do you know what it is called? Was it free?

    Thanks jo

    • Eric
      2016-05-21 - 19:02 | Permalink

      I seem to recall that I got it from the Stadtamt when I registered the first time. I don’t think I got one when I registered the second time in Göttingen. It’s all a bit fuzzy given the passage of time.

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