About three months ago, I went to Switzerland from Germany by car. And when I parked the car in Zürich, I realized that the car (BMW Coupe 3er) that parked beside my car had a non-EU registration plate. When I looked closely at that license plate, I realized the license plate was from Washington DC.

First, I think it was just a fake dummy license plate that was put on the Swiss car, but when I observed more on the bottom corner of windshield, it has a sticker that stated some kind of parking subscription member, and it also mentioned Washington DC.

And then I peeked through the driver windows; I saw it had MPH measurement for speed (EU doesn't use MPH; they use KM/h).

Was that really a person who drove a car to EU from USA? Not quite a important question, but I'm curious about it.

  • It is not possible (or very difficult) to drive from the US to the EU. (Maybe there's a ferry over the Bering Strait?) So I suppose it has been shipped or flown in. It is quite rare, but I've seen cars with American plates in Geneva before.
    – drat
    Jun 18 '14 at 10:40
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    @drat There is certainly no ferry over the Bering strait, and there are no roads within thousands of kilometres from it.
    – gerrit
    Jun 18 '14 at 14:20
  • Note that every (or almost every) American car has both MPH and KM/h markings on the speedometer.
    – user428517
    Jul 31 '18 at 16:41

After living in the USA for over 10 years, I moved to Europe. I did consider bringing my car from the USA to Europe, however later rejected that idea. Yet in the process I did look into various options.

There are several shipping companies that will ship vehicles across the Atlantic, usually inside containers on a ship, but for the right price they'll do air shipments too. Once the vehicle is in Europe, the same rules apply as for any other vehicles registered outside the country: you must re-register it in your the country of residence within a predefined period of time (usually 1 year, but it varies by country), do required adjustments if necessary (e.g. rules on turn signals being yellow/amber vs. allowed red colour in the USA), etc. The most important one is that the vehicle is not allowed to remain within the country for over that predefined period without leaving the country or being re-registered there.

Usually, it's the diplomatic staff that bring their cars over from USA to Europe, as the department of foreign affairs (read - taxpayers) is paying for moving all their stuff across. However anybody can do it, really.

So, the simple answer is - there are shipping companies that will do this for you. The cost is usually in the area of about $2000 for a simple car and growing for something bigger or more expensive (because of higher insurance premiums).

In addition to that, vehicles registered to US army will have plates of the home base location - and these vehicles would have also been shipped to Europe, but paid for by the Army (read - taxpayers again).

  • 1
    (+1) I might be wrong but I believe the bit about the US army is incorrect (see my comment to the other answer). Diplomats definitely do get local plates as well (and tax-free, with some privileges…).
    – Relaxed
    Jun 18 '14 at 10:59
  • @Relaxed and you're wrong... They USED to get US military plates, they now use US civilian plates. Embassies typically get local registrations, tax excempt, and in special series, which are often used privately by employees as well as for official business.
    – jwenting
    Jun 18 '14 at 11:22
  • @jwenting I am not talking about US plates, military or otherwise but about local (e.g. Dutch or German) plates and the example I have in mind is not very old. Wikipedia also confirms this regarding Germany. When is that change supposed to have happened?
    – Relaxed
    Jun 18 '14 at 11:50
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    @jwenting: The US armed forces handles this differently in each foreign country. In Germany, they used US military plates until 2005 (from 2000 to 2005, the plates had a design similar to German plates). In 2005, they switched to German civilian plates with the official rationale that it is a security risk for soldiers and their family members to publicly display their affiliation with the US army. Bavarian farmers armed with hay forks are probably a much harder enemy than Taliban warriors. Jun 18 '14 at 16:19
  • @Tor-Einar Jambo Bavarian Farmers don't use pitch forks any more. Nowadays it's tractors and combines... :) Jun 19 '14 at 1:57

The vast majority of cars in Zürich have non-EU plates... Because Switzerland isn't in the EU!

But I guess you mean non-European. In this case, it is quite common to see US models on Swiss roads: as others have pointed out, they usually belong to US citizens working at one of the large number of international organisations in Switzerland.

It is worth pointing out that Swiss regulations allow US cars to be driven on Swiss roads without modification - for instance, they are allowed to use the flashing stop-light indicator paradigm. In the EU (i.e. over any border), the car would require european-style amber-yellow indicators that are independent of the brake warning light. Perhaps this is the reason why, in Switzerland, US people bother to ship their cars over, instead of just buying a local model.

  • Actually people working at international organisations or diplomats usually do have Swiss plates. There's a special format of plates for diplomats noting "CD" which you can see in abundance in Berne and mostly Geneva. While they might be US models, they mostly have Swiss plates. It is really rare to see US number plates in Switzerland. I've lived here my whole live and I have seen them once or twice only.
    – drat
    Jun 18 '14 at 13:35
  • 2
    Most people working for international organizations are not diplomats and buy cars locally. As mentioned before, diplomats get local plates. I don't really know but my guess is still some rich guy who just had this car shipped to Europe just because he could. You do see some exotic stuff (e.g. UAE plates) in Geneva from time to time. Incidentally, I don't know about the legality but I have seen US cars with flashing stop-light indicators and local plates in the Netherlands…
    – Relaxed
    Jun 18 '14 at 13:48
  • 1
    .. and about the amber turning signal. I think there are some cars that using american style turning signal (flashing brake lights) in EU. I saw several Dodge vans (The one that gangster use in Hollywood movie) Rams, and Cadillacs with flashing brake lights in Paderborn. Jun 20 '14 at 13:50

There are a large number of US troops stationed in Europe, many of whom have cars with US license plates, the registration being that of their home state.

You likely saw one such.
The only alternative would be someone putting a US registered car on a ship or aircraft and transporting it to Europe that way. Not impossible, but given the cost being much higher than that of a rental car extremely unlikely.

  • 1
    I doubt that. US troops in Germany used to have special number plates but that has been discontinued in the name of security. US servicemen I know had their car shipped from the US (the US army paid for it, maybe only for officers) but they also got a local license plate (bypassing all the local import requirements, incidentally, but it does look completely normal from the outside).
    – Relaxed
    Jun 18 '14 at 10:58
  • @Relaxed They used to have license plates issued by the US military. I still regularly see US licensed civilian cars (with civilian plates, not military plates) in the Netherlands driven by extremely fit young men. Could of course be they're NATO staff rather than part of regular military commands.
    – jwenting
    Jun 18 '14 at 11:19
  • 1
    Well, I personally know a US officer who got a Dutch plate three or four years ago. I definitely don't see many US plates, either in the Netherlands or in the area in Germany where the US army is stationed (whereas HK plates were once very common) so if those people are actually US servicemen, there is something unusual about their situation.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 18 '14 at 11:48
  • @jwenting those extremely fit young men might as well be american car importers.
    – user141
    Jun 18 '14 at 11:53

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