How to register a Kei truck in Pennsylvania

2023-05-30

Kei trucks are a special designation of Japanese car that have very small engines (660cc) and dimensions (~10m^3). Tell 'em, Wikipedia. Whoever coined the idea of "creative constraints" should take a gander at Kei trucks; there's definitely an upper bound:

The Office 'corporate wants you to tell the difference between two pictures' meme with the Suzuki Carry and Honda Acty, which look
identical.

Japan's tax incentives have created a brisk export business for often lightly used trucks. As a result, they're available for purchase in the US.

I recently decided to do just that and had a heck of a time getting on the road. This guide serves as a lamp in the dark, helping guide fellow fools to road-legal ownership.

Why did I want one? I'm glad you ask - Kei trucks:

  • Have a 6ft bed
  • Which can fold flat
  • And carry ~1000lbs
  • With 4WD (including a locking rear diff1 and axle)
  • While getting 40 MPG
  • For $X,000.0
  • With very low mileage (22k miles in my instance)

I often need to haul stuff and had gotten sick of U-Haul rentals. I decided to find a cheap 90s/early 00s small truck. Pandemic prices were getting me rusted-out Rangers or 250k mile Tacomas2; then the Kei came into my life. Libby and I were pulling in to Construction Junction when a couple in a Honda Acty pulled in behind us. I picked the guy's brain about how useful it was, getting it insured, and so forth; it all sounded pretty straightforward, and I was sold.

Step 0: Find a truck

You have some choices here: you can import it yourself, buy from an importer, or risk craigslist. Prices rise as you work down that list.

You'll need to find a truck that is at least 25 years old. In the US, cars more youthful than that must comply with FMVSS (safety standards). If you buy a more recent vintage, you won't be able to get it registered anywhere, so pay attention to that model year!

There are exporter websites out there promising a truck for ~$3-5k all in, provided you can pick it up at the port and are willing to do the paperwork. As I understand it, the importation process is high stakes - if you make a mistake, US Customs puts your truck in a garbage compactor and you're out the money. If you're brave enough to try it, I wish you the best - come back here after you're leaving your port of choice.

The safer route is to buy from an importer. If you're smart, you'll find an importer who has already titled the vehicle and you'll be set. Of course, you wouldn't be Googling "how to title a kei truck Pennsylvania" in that case, but here we are. "Don't worry," you thought, "it can't take that long to get a title." 3

Step 1: Getting the car titled

Wait, back it up - you're going to need some paperwork only the seller can get you. Otherwise I honestly have no idea what will happen to you or your truck.

Right, uh, Step -1: Make sure the seller has the paperwork

Before you buy, make sure you'll be able to get everything you need to title the thing. You'll need:

  • The Export Certificate - this should look like this The export certificate from my Kei truck, listing the seller and exporter as well as some details about the car
  • Proof you paid sales tax - PennDOT will really, really want you to prove this, like
    a lot. I sent in a photocopy of the receipt from the place I bought the truck, Twin Ridge Lawn and Garden.

Great, back to Step 1a: Translate your Certificate

So you're gonna need a translation of that certificate. It's not required, but it supposedly helps to have the document notarized with an American Translation Association seal. You definitely need the translation to be accompanied by a sworn affadavit from the translator, though; they should know what to do.

I used the American Translators Association directory and emailed a handful of eligible translators. The prices and response times were all over the map. In the end I ended up working with Patricia Pringle; Patricia was super responsive and very reasonably priced!

Step, I don't know, 3? 1b? 2.5?: How much does your truck weigh?

Okay, so you've got your translated export certificate, you've got your proof of paying sales tax. Forget all that - now you're going to need to prove you know how much your truck weighs. Why? Because in the state of Pennsylvania that information is absolutely crucial to verifying the VIN of your vehicle. You're going to need an MV-41, but first, you're going to need to get the unladen weight of your shiny new truck.

You'll need to get your truck to a salvage yard or other weigh station4 where a weighmaster can weigh and certify the weight of your vehicle - I visited D&D Auto Salvage on the recommendation of my mechanic, Tim Walters. Thanks, Tim!

Take this slip of paper to a mechanic along with your MV-41 and your truck4. They'll need to fill out the MV-41, verifying the weight from the weighmaster and the VIN in your truck (which may be in an unusual location - mine was stamped on the wheel well). If you're lucky, you'll find a guy who's done this recently and also thinks imports are super cool - thanks Naiel!

Step 4: Insurance

This was actually relatively easy. Don't even bother trying the "Request a Quote" forms, just start calling shops that give you multiple quotes (e.g. Zebra). They'll help tremendously. Almost all the providers declined to cover my dangerous exotic trash hauler minitruck, but Safco gave me an acceptable rate on liability insurance5. Getcher self a copy of your proof of insurance.

Step 1000: Submit the paperwork

Once you've gotten your:

  • Original export certificate
  • Translated export certificate
  • Proof of paid PA sales tax
  • Filled out MV-41
  • The mileage on your odometer, converted to miles
  • The gross weight of the vehicle, converted to pounds
  • Proof of insurance
  • A photo or two of the truck6

It's finally time to fill out the big kahuna - the MV-1, a request for a title. You won't find this form online - only an authorized agent can fill one out. There are some helpful instructions for filling this out properly, I went with AAA here in Pittsburgh. You're also going to find out that you can only register these vehicles as antiques in PA. This isn't as onerous as it once was. You can't use the vehicle for commercial purposes, and you're not meant to use it more than occasionally - for most folks, that should fit the bill just fine.

Once you've got an agent, they'll take a look at all your documents and ask you a few questions about the vehicle. It's important that you:

  • Explain that the truck can be registered as an antique
  • Demonstrate repeatedly that yes, you have paid the PA State sales tax7
  • Request it be titled as a truck
  • Ensure that they send in the original export certificate and not a copy

At this point I'd like to share a bit of wisdom I received early on in this process: this is a once-in-a-lifetime type situation for whomever you're going to work with. You are the edge case and corner case they've been warned about. You are going to be their anecdote about the wild stuff that comes through the door. "Some kind of crazy tiny truck from Japan," they'll laugh, "My God! Months!". They'll accentuate that last point by waving their hands in the air, like they're waving an imaginary beachball from side-to-side. Be ready to be patient.

Once the paperwork is submitted, you'll wait about ~30 days before you hear from PennDot. If you're super lucky you'll get a plate in the mail along with the title in a few weeks. If you're a little lucky, they'll send your agent feedback on your packet that you can correct and resubmit. You're going to need to follow up with your agent - they're probably not going to reach out. Once you've addressed their concerns, it'll be another 30 days before you'll know if things are fixed. If you're really unlucky, you'll do this loop, oh, I don't know, three or four times8? Finally, you'll get a thick envelope in the mail and inside will be your prize - an antique PA plate.

Me and the truck outside McBrooms after a 3ROC run

Step 1001: Go buy some screws

Ah, crap, sorry - you could have done this way sooner. The holes in the plate won't line up with the holes in your plate holder - damn metric system. Grab a drill and a pencil, mark where the holes should be, apply drill, and you'll be all set. You'll need two M6 20mm galvanized screws, which you can find at any hardware store.

So what's the downside?

In case you're still weighing the pros and cons, here's my take as of a few months into ownership.

  • It attracts a lot of attention. This might be a little overwhelming.
  • You're topping out at 60 MPH, maybe.
  • No air bags, air conditioning, power steering, or crumple zones.
  • Parts are all across an ocean.
  • Right-hand drive is unsettling for everyone involved.

I've been really happy with it - it's a lot cheaper than a similarly sized truck would have run me, with way fewer miles on the odometer. For bopping around town hauling lumber, yard waste, and furniture, it's perfect. Just don't expect to be cruising on the interstate in one of these.


  1. Not really sure why this is important, but this blog post might help
  2. My dad, who is smarter than me, simply bought a minivan. "Look," he gloats, "I can fit a whole sheet of plywood in here! And there's a DVD player!"
  3. The artist deploys a technique known as foreshadowing.
  4. How to get your unregistered vehicle to these places is left as an exercise for the reader.
  5. Pro-tip: most insurers offer AAA-style roadside assistance for way less - I pay $5 a year for the service.
  6. Like you haven't already take a bunch. (Note: this is mostly for illustrative purposes)
  7. This will still not land, you will still get the packet returned from PennDot, and you'll send it back with lots of arrows and highlighter pointing to the tax line on your receipt.
  8. Yup, I bought my truck in February and only got it on the road in May. Eat your heart out, Kafka.