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Navigating Car Buying While Stationed Overseas in Germany: Tips from the Experts

Navigating the process of buying a vehicle overseas as a member of the U.S. military community can be complex, especially when stationed in a country like Germany. We’re here to simplify the various considerations involved in purchasing a car abroad.

Dealership and Spec Options

In Germany, you’ll encounter dealerships catering either to the local German population or the U.S. military community. This distinction is crucial because German dealerships for locals sell Euro/EU-Spec cars, while those focused on the U.S. military primarily sell U.S.-Spec vehicles. Spec differences vary by vehicle make and model, but common differences include details of bumpers, engines and headlights, based on compliance with various U.S. and EU regulations. EU-Spec vehicles purchased in Germany may need costly modifications to comply with U.S. standards, meaning you will not be able to take the vehicle to the States and would therefore need to sell it when you PCS back stateside. Finding financing for EU Spec vehicles can also be challenging. 

When opting to purchase a vehicle from a dealership, you’ll need to navigate through customs, the VAT Office, vehicle registration, and TÜV inspection (Technischer Überwachungsverein, which translates to “Technical Inspection Association.”) This intricate process emphasizes the importance of selecting a dealership well-versed in the U.S. military community, which can provide invaluable guidance and support throughout these bureaucratic steps. Later in this article, we’ll share tips from a few such German dealerships.

New Vehicles

When buying new vehicles, you can choose from available stock or place a special order. Special orders might entail longer delivery times, but they allow you to customize the vehicle to your preferences.

Used Vehicles from Dealerships

Dealerships catering to the U.S. military community typically offer a range of used U.S.-Spec vehicles. Some may also have used Euro-Spec options. Purchasing a used vehicle can be a sensible choice, often with warranties or the option to purchase additional coverage. Some dealerships even provide trade-in specials or buy-back options when you PCS out of Germany.

Used Vehicles from a Private Sale

Another option is buying from a private seller, often facilitated through military base “lemon lots” or online postings. Exercise due diligence, especially regarding the vehicle’s age, condition, mileage, and specifications, as these factors can impact financing eligibility. When purchasing a vehicle through a private sale, you will need a bill of sale, and if there is a current lien on the vehicle, you will need a lien release from the existing lien holder before you can go to vehicle registration and take ownership. You will also need to go to vehicle registration with the sellers at the same time to deregister and then register the vehicle. Finally, if you need a vehicle loan for the purchase, additional documentation may be needed. It is best to contact your vehicle lender for information on specific documentation requirements.

Vehicle Ownership Documents

For new U.S. Spec vehicles purchased overseas, the USAEUR (United States Army Europe and Africa) system provides a Certificate of Origin or Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin, serving as ownership documents until the vehicle is officially titled in the States. For used vehicles, it’s crucial to verify the ownership trail through bills of sale, as the USAEUR does not title or retitle vehicles. For EU-Spec vehicles, the ownership and registration document is called a Fahrzeugbrief (Kfz-Brief or K-Brief).

Age and Mileage

The age and mileage of the vehicle impact financing eligibility, with lenders often having restrictions on older vehicles with high mileage.

Vehicle Financing

Not all lenders offer financing options while stationed overseas, and some may only finance new vehicles. Look for lenders like Service Credit Union that provide financing for both new and used vehicles when deciding on your financing source. We at Service Credit Union operate in and are stationed alongside you in Germany, and therefore have a unique understanding of the process, as many of us have been through it ourselves.

Like what you’ve read so far? Finance an auto loan with us today!

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Insider Tips and Advice from Local Dealership Sales Agents

In addition to understanding the above aspects of buying a vehicle overseas, gaining insights from local dealership sales agents can prove invaluable. Here are some tips and advice we gathered from those in the know. 

The below information was gathered from various auto dealers and is not representative of advice from Service Credit Union. 

John O’Malley, Sales Executive, Patriot Military Automobiles – Kaiserslautern 

When securing auto insurance for your vehicle in Germany, some insurance companies may take anywhere from 12 hours to 1-2 days to populate on the USAEUR vehicle registration system. You also need to make sure that you select European coverage and not just Germany coverage. Another thing to be aware of is roadside assistance. The roadside assistance available stateside may not provide the coverage or responsiveness you’re used to while in Germany. There are roadside assistance options available in Germany such as ADAC, which is similar to AAA in the States. Finally, the expectations of the car-buying timeline in Germany are not the same thing as in America. You are not going to be able to get the car the same day. The stateside expectation is welcome to the dealership, look at the car, and drive off with it that day. Because of the registration process here, the timeline is completely different. Registration can take a few days and you can expect longer delays if the vehicle is currently located somewhere outside of Germany, like Italy, and needs to be shipped in.  

Patrick Burns, Lead Military Sales Consultant, BMW Military Sales Landstuhl, Autohaus Euler Kaiserslautern GmbH 

When you first move over here, you may be so focused on finding a house and will put finding a vehicle on the back burner. I would recommend making finding a vehicle also a priority. This will help you to avoid paying rental vehicle costs, as they are extremely expensive in this area. It is important to know that U.S. Spec cars overseas may not have 100% feature functionality due to limitations on things like telecommunications and certain app features, which may be only authorized to function in the U.S. Also, navigation apps built into the vehicle itself may not be able to function properly, as they lack the European-specific map data. Lastly, it is important to be proactive in scheduling your maintenance care. I recommend setting up appointments well in advance as appointment waiting times can be months long even for simple services like oil changes. 

Philip Cave, Sales Representative, Military Autosource, Ramstein KMCC 

Patience is key when coming from the U.S. to Europe due to the logistics and customs paperwork. Expect the process to take a little more time than in the U.S. When choosing between new and used, don’t rule out new cars. A common theme can be that a new car depreciates 20% when coming off the lot. However, over the last couple of years that may not be the case due to inflated used car prices. Also, do some due diligence yourself on tax breaks when returning to the U.S. Don’t just take one person’s word for it as each state is different and what one person got may not apply to you.  Your specific state Department of Motor Vehicles is the place to go. Many people are led to believe that the car is tax free even when it goes back stateside, but this may not be correct. Last but not least, have awareness before you go to the dealership of what seems to be fair market value on vehicles so you don’t get caught high on emotion on a poorly priced vehicle. 

Jodie Stevens, Sales Consultant, Ramstein Used Cars – Stuttgart 

While in Germany, you must get a USAEUR driver’s license to drive and register your vehicle. Information on how to complete the online test to obtain your license is here.  

For the U.S. customs form, with a bill of sale you are required to collect an AE-550 form from your local customs office. This form waves any taxes to be paid on the vehicle and is a free form to collect. To register your vehicle, it is important to complete TÜV (Technischer Überwachungsverein), which is the authority that inspects vehicles and ensures your vehicle is mechanically safe. To officially register your vehicle, we recommend you book an appointment at your local registration office and download the AE-190 form.  

Perry Williams, MAS Support Manager, Military Autosource 

Start the process early to ensure you have more options. Work with sales agents in the country in which you are going to be stationed as they know the local customs rules. Work with long-serving military companies. Consider selling any large full-size trucks before PCS’ing overseas as they may not be best suited on European roads, and thus trade offers for those type of vehicles overseas may not be as good as in the States. 

Robert Reckendorf, General Manager, Ramstein Carmax GMBH  

Two things to keep in mind are to have the all-season tires (mountain peak and snowflake) and a warranty, which is something you can only get when purchasing a vehicle at a dealership. 

David Sweeney, Managing Director/Co-Founder, Used Car Guys 

There are several steps to buying a used car in Germany. The first step is to send the dealership an inquiry. With us you can do that via our website, Facebook, phone call, or WhatsApp. The next step is to find a vehicle you are happy with. This process typically involves a test drive. If you are interested in a vehicle but unable to see it in person, we at Used Car Guys can do a virtual walkthrough. If you are happy with the vehicle, the next step is to secure financing. Most of our loans actually go through Service Credit Union! The final step is all the things to do before you take delivery of your vehicle. This process is a little different than what you are used to in the states and that is mostly due to the tax-free, VAT (value added tax) free status that our customers have over here. (We can actually give you a delivery checklist!) 

The first thing needed to take delivery is to get insurance for the car. Next is getting the customs forms sorted, which allows you to buy the car tax and VAT free. You get these forms from your local U.S. Customs office on base. You bring your purchase order into U.S. Customs and give it to them, and they give you back four copies of a form called an AE-550, which allows you to buy the car and avoid the import duties and value added tax. Then you take the customs form to vehicle registration on base and with the customs form, your purchase order and proof of insurance you can get your temporary tags, which will allow you to get your vehicle. Next we need to get you and your car to German Customs, and they need to check your car and check the paperwork so they can verify that you qualify to buy the vehicle. If German Customs is OK with everything, they will stamp your paperwork. We then go back to the showroom, finish the paperwork, sign for the vehicle, and you can drive off into the sunset.  

For a more detailed explanation on buying a car when you PCS to Germany, check out this video from Used Car Guys. 

As always, Service CU is also here to help with any car-buying questions!