Importing an Airstream or other American Travel Trailer into the UK
I am a restorative engineer of some 30+ yrs experience. I now run a company that specialises in the restoration of vintage travel trailer caravans in the UK.View all articles by StreamerUK
Making the dream of vintage Airstream ownership a reality for residents of the UK takes tenacity, patience and some clever problem solving. We can help, here are some tips to facilitate the process.
You can hire a professional to handle the importation details and we would be happy to assist, but you can DIY! Be sure to allow enough time to work through the details and watch for pitfalls on the way.
If you decide to get someone to handle all or part of it for you, beware of traders (on both sides of the Atlantic) that promise everything and they can do it all in a week; it probably won’t happen. Importing a trailer can take many months.
Familiarize yourself with local laws regarding towing sizes before you even start as when it arrives you will need to either move it from port yourself or have someone collect it for you and deliver it whence it needs to go.
In the UK the law states that for a vehicle under 3.5 tons GVW the maximum you are allowed to tow is 7mtrs long by 2.3 mtrs wide. NOW BE CAREFULL HERE. In the UK trailer length is taken to be the overall length of the trailer without the draw bar or any towing equipment (this also discounts the rear bumper), however the width is determined as the widest part of the vehicle so this includes things like awnings, door hinges, cowlings and any other sticky-out bits. Don’t let this put you off though, hundreds of trailers are successfully shipped every year from all over the world.
Here are a few tips to consider, before you hand over all the cash, that may save you a load of hassle.
- Remember that a trailer that has cost you only a couple of thousand dollars is likely to cost you in excess of £5000 by the time it lands on your doorstep. Plan your budget appropriately.
- Check the documentation for the trailer. All trailers should have a VIN number in the states and a registration similar to our V5c for a car (a title). You need to check this out in the same way you would for buying a car in the UK. If a seller is selling with no title make sure they have the right of disposal (they are allowed to sell it) and make sure you get a bill of sale.
- If the seller is selling on a bill of sale then make them get it notarized. This costs a few dollars and is then an official and legal binding document in international law.
- If you are buying blind, get the trailer checked out for suitability for towing (bearings, brakes, tyres, electrics, hitch and general structure) by a reputable company specializing in travel trailers. Have the bearings repacked and get some new tyres if necessary. It is cheaper to get this work done before the trailer is transported than try and do it on this side. A blown tyre can seriously damage valuable trailer skin segments causing expensive and difficult repairs.
- If you are paying a lot of money for the trailer consider using an escrow service.
- You will need to coordinate road transport (Stateside) marine transport, insurance, clearing agents and road transport UK so make sure that everything is in place before you agree to a shipping date. If this is your first import experience, get organized to avoid a bumpy ride.
- You are allowed to take an imported trailer from the port to your home or a place of repair or conversion so you can legally get it towed from the port if it is suitable for towing on the UK roads. Remember your trailer will arrive with American brakes, lighting and hitch gear. Your UK transport needs to take this into account. If the trailer is towable, the tow truck will need to be fitted with the correct sized hitch (usually a 2 inch or 2 5/16 inch not the European 50mm), a means of controlling the brakes (often electric but sometimes vac over hydraulic or plain hydraulic dependant on the trailer and age), towing lights, number plate, towing insurance and of course, the correct license to tow. If the trailer is over 2.3 metres (approx 7ft 6inches) wide and/or 7 metres (approx 23 foot not including the hitch and draw bar) long, then you will need a towing vehicle of over 3.5 tons GVW. In any case the overall length of the towing vehicle and trailer combined must not exceed either 18m (approx 59 foot) or 18.75m (approx 61 foot 6 inches) depending on the type of towing vehicle. If your trailer is going to exceed these criteria then you will need a specialist transport company to deliver it from a UK port to your location. If you choose to use a transport company be careful of the type of equipment that they use and express to them that your trailer will not go on a standard recovery vehicle it will need either a low loader of the type used to transport bulldozers etc or a full drop bed. DO NOT try to crane as a cranage company that does not know how to handle these trailers will wreck it and a standard UK recovery ramped truck the ramps are too steep to take most American trailers.
- Only deal with reputable shipping and forwarding agents. Be cautious of a seller that offers to arrange everything for you unless they are a dealer who is used to exporting from the States.
- Choose a shipping and forwarding agent Stateside and a clearing agent in the UK. Many Stateside companies will have their own clearing agents in the UK but not necessarily and it may be better to use a company that is not tied to the shippers. And shop around; remember that the cheapest deal is not always the best.
- Choose the port you want to ship from and your arrival port UK. We have found that it is often better to ship from east coast America to South coast UK even if it means more land transport to get to and from the ports.
- Check all shipping docs and insurance docs very carefully. One of the most common complaints we hear is "my trailer was damaged in transit and the insurance won’t cover it." Marine insurance is different to any other insurance and often shippers will insure under a domestic policy that does not cover transit damage to vehicles. A trailer is a vehicle in the USA so they then will refuse to pay out.
- Overland transport Stateside is a nightmare to deal with from the UK but it is possible. Some sellers will offer to take a trailer to the port for you for a fee. This is often a good idea if they have the time. Failing that, you will need a transport service. Again seek out a reputable service that is used to transporting travel trailers. Make sure that they have all the correct legal documentation and licences as well as insurance. Also make sure that they know where they are going and what to do when they get to the port!! More than once I have sat up till the early hours trying to talk a transport driver through the details of checking a trailer in for shipping. One driver could not even find the port.
- The port will have a window for your trailer to arrive in for shipping with a cut off date and time. Be sure to get your trailer to the port before the cut off date otherwise you could end up paying for the space and the trailer not being shipped.
- Be careful that you are not "bounced". Many shipping companies will over sell space and then, when it comes to loading, will load more lucrative contracts first.
- Once onboard the ship you can relax a little. Your clearing agent should be aware that it is onboard and will know when it is due to arrive but it does not harm to give them a ring anyway just to make sure.
- Your clearing agent, if they are any good, will work out the most economical import taxes etc based on UK law. They are working for you so they should exercise UK law to make sure that you only pay what you have to. Once they have cleared the trailer they will tell you what you must pay and advise you of the date that you can collect the trailer.
- Be aware of added charges and if you don’t understand a charge then challenge it. It is not unusual to find that you have been charged for unloading and reloading at a transfer port when you have already paid for a straight through service. Another common additional fee is for storage because the shippers failed to notify the clearing agents that your trailer had arrived and it was sitting in port for days before the clearing agent was aware. Ports do charge for storage so be prompt with your collection.
Now you have your lovely American Travel Trailer sitting on your drive. Congrats! Well done!
Err wait a minute.... There are probably 101 little jobs that need doing that don’t become apparent until you are sitting in your trailer and you will need to update systems to meet current local codes. But restoring your new trailer can be fun, rewarding and part of the adventure!