Guide to importing a car from Northern Ireland

While savings can be made, the rules surrounding car imports from the North are now fiendishly complicated.

Published on February 20, 2024

Importing a second-hand car from Northern Ireland could be a useful money-saver, and there are some significant differences between bringing a car directly across the Irish border and bringing one in from the rest of the UK.

That's because of Northern Ireland's special status post-Brexit. Does that mean cars from the North count as already being in the EU? In some cases, yes but sadly - and as ever with Irish vehicle imports - it's never quite that simple.

First off, the requirement to pay Vehicle Registration Tax, or VRT, applies whether a car is brought in from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or indeed any other country. Being in or out of the EU makes no difference to that.

Don't forget, as well as paying VRT, you'll also have to pay the NOx levy - this is effectively a tax on older diesel engines and won't cost a lot on a petrol or hybrid car. It's zero for electric cars.

Get your paperwork together

If you're bringing a car in from Northern Ireland you'll need to bring it for an NCT as soon as it arrives in the State, and you'll need to bring along paperwork including a ferry ticket showing the date of arrival of the vehicle in Northern Ireland, with the identification of the vehicle clearly marked; a copy of an invoice from a transport company identifying the vehicle and delivery date; tax and insurance details indicating use in Northern Ireland; and a copy of the V5C registration document showing the last registered keeper in Northern Ireland and a date of registration to that keeper.

For cars in Northern Ireland before 2021

Now, this is where it gets complicated. Cars registered in Northern Ireland before the 1st of January 2021 are counted as having been registered within an EU member state (because of the complexities of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, which began in 2016 but only officially concluded in January 2021) and so you will pay no VAT nor any customs charges to bring one of those cars across the border.

That applies irrespective of the age of the vehicle itself. So whether the car was first registered in the UK in 2020, or any year prior, as long as it arrived in Northern Ireland before midnight on the 31st of December 2020 - and supplying proof of that arrival is critical - it will be VAT and customs duty free if you buy it and import it to the Republic of Ireland. 

For example: A 2019 Ford Fiesta, first registered to a buyer in Manchester and subsequently traded in to a dealer in Northern Ireland in November 2020. That car is treated as an EU-registered vehicle, and as such you will not have to pay customs duty nor VAT.

VAT on importing cars from Northern Ireland

VAT, remember, is currently charged at 23 per cent on the "customs value" of the vehicle. Usually this will be the purchase price plus the cost of transport and insurance plus any customs duty payable. Customs duty (sometimes called import duty) is usually ten per cent of the paid price of the car plus shipping costs.

Incidentally, if you're importing a new car built in the UK, then customs duty does not apply (another quirk of Brexit), but it will apply to any and all used vehicles.

Got that? Again, prepare for more complication.

For cars brought into Northern Ireland after 2020

Any vehicle which was brought to Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales) after December 31, 2020, is liable for a full payment of VAT at 23 per cent and customs duty if you're importing it into the Republic.

It doesn't matter whether the car you're looking to buy was first registered in 2020 or any year prior; what's critical is the day that it arrived in Northern Ireland. If that day is on or after 1st January 2021, then you will have to pay Irish VAT and customs duty to bring it across the border. 

For example: A 2010 BMW 520d, first registered to a buyer in Birmingham then subsequently bought at auction by a Northern Irish dealer as stock and brought to Northern Ireland in February 2021. That car will be liable for both Irish VAT at 23 per cent and customs duty at ten per cent if imported south of the border.

Dealers can claim the VAT back

However, there is potential to claim back at least some of the VAT. From May 1, 2023, the UK government introduced the Second-Hand Motor Vehicle Payment Scheme (SHMVPS), which replaced the old margin scheme. That allows car dealers who are VAT-registered in Northern Ireland to reclaim the VAT element of the vehicle cost if the vehicle is purchased in Great Britain and removed or exported from there by the purchaser or by the GB dealer. This means that Irish car dealers will now be in the same position as NI car dealers when purchasing a qualifying vehicle from Great Britain.

In other words, the dealer selling you the car can claim back the UK VAT portion of the price and can pass that saving onto you. It's not a total saving - UK VAT is charged at 20 per cent and you'll still have to pay Irish VAT at 23 per cent - but at least it's some kind of saving on the price of importing. However, there's no onus on the dealer in Northern Ireland to do this; you might need to use it as part of your bargaining process, although some dealers will doubtless advertise it up front as a potential incentive for cross-border shoppers.

Revenue also states, rather ominously, that: "Vehicles that were moved to NI prior to 1 May 2023 will also be subject to additional VAT requirements if imported into the State" - that last phrase we interpret as being a warning that Revenue will be looking out for any potential tax avoidance by the dealers under the old margin reclaim scheme.

Grey area

There's a further potential saving. Vehicles bought by Northern Irish dealers before 1st May 2023 and sold after 1st May 2024 can be registered in the State without customs obligations, though it seems unlikely that many dealers would sit on stock for so long.

There's another small loophole, although there is some very vague wording on the rule. According to Revenue: "There are no customs obligations for a vehicle that has been brought into Northern Ireland after 1st May 2023 and where the vehicle has been in private ownership in Northern Ireland for a reasonable period of time."

Again, the age and first registration of the car are immaterial here - what matters is that the car first landed in Northern Ireland after the 1st of May 2023, and again proof of this will have to be supplied when you submit the car for its VRT inspection.

What precisely is meant by a reasonable period of time? Well, that seems to be judged on a case-by-case basis with Revenue saying: "What is considered to be a reasonable period of time depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. A vehicle that has been brought into Northern Ireland after 1st May 2023 and been in private use in Northern Ireland can be registered for VRT in the State without liability to additional customs duties and import VAT. Proof will be required that the vehicle has been in private ownership for a reasonable period of time." 

For example: A 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5, brought into Northern Ireland by a private buyer in Belfast after May 1st 2023 and used as their daily car and is now being sold second-hand by them or by a Northern Irish dealer. According to Revenue, this vehicle can be imported "without liability to additional customs duties and import VAT."

So, yes, there are some potential savings to be found by shopping for second-hand cars in Northern Ireland, not to mention the simplicity of being able to get there and back without recourse to a flight or a ferry. Do your homework, keep your paperwork in order and you could save yourself some money, but double-check all your facts before you commit to bringing the car home.

Ask us for help

The above is our interpretation of the rules, as laid out by Revenue, but even we realise that it's not all as clear as it could be. Feel free to send us your queries via the Ask Us Anything page and we'll do our best to help.

Further reading

How Much VRT is Paid in Ireland?
Motor Road Tax Prices in Ireland Explained
Guide To Importing Cars From The UK