How to Import to and Export from the UK

There seems to be more public awareness and media attention on the issue of importing and exporting to and from the UK in the wake of the Brexit decision. This article will briefly explain what the main legal requirements are so we can all hopefully get a better understanding, and if you’re a business owner looking to import or export, then these insights will be of great help to you. 


The first thing to note is that the UK is currently a member of the EU Customs Union, meaning there are no import or export requirements between EU countries. The second feature of the Customs Union is that the same rules apply to EU countries when it comes to importing or exporting outside the European Union, also known as Third Countries for the purposes of European law. So an American exporter of corn will face exactly the same rules and requirements whether they’re exporting to the UK or to Finland. How all this will change after March 2019 of course remains to be seen, but this article to deal with the situation as it is now and will not speculate on potential future arrangements.

Exporting from the UK to a Third Country

The government is pushing hard in its public relations campaign to get British businesses exporting more. So how do you do it?

Firstly you will need to check if you need an export licence for the type of goods you wish to export. These are known as controlled goods and include as you would expect things like military equipment, chemicals, and pharmaceutical products. If you are a technology company, even if you’re in software development, you will need to check, and you will be surprised by how many items are controlled items. You can check at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills website, where you can also find out how to apply for a licence.

Food and agricultural products have special controls and different sets of rules depending on the type of produce. So you will definitely have to consult the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ website.

Once you have satisfied yourself of these controls and you are ready to export, you have to submit an electronic export declaration on the HMRC’s NES system. This is the point where you will also find out about any export tariffs. The declaration stage is a critical one and unless this is done correctly you will fall foul of the HMRC.

Two other important points to make in relation to exporting from the UK, is if you are transporting goods through other EU countries with the intention of permanently exporting them to a Third Country, this requires a special procedure and paperwork. Secondly if you’re exporting goods which you have purchased in the UK you can zero-rate your VAT, as long as it’s within 3 months.

The above covers the requirements from exporting from the UK, you will of course need to be keenly aware of the import requirements of the destination country. You are very likely going to require further procedure and possibly incur tariffs. Please do check with the relevant authorities in the destination country what the procedures would be.

Importing into the UK from a Third Country

Certain restrictions apply when importing specific products into the UK, such as plants, animals, food, medicines, textiles and chemicals. The requirements may also change depending on the country of origin of the product. The UK authority to check with depends on the goods themselves, so for example if you are importing food animals or plants the relevant government department to check with would be the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The Single Administrative Document, which in the UK is known as C88, is used for import declarations when trading with Third Countries. The form can be obtained from the gov.uk website along with clear and comprehensive guidance notes for its completion.

Import duty and VAT are payable as the goods enter the UK, which are calculated as the overall value of the goods as disclosed on the invoice plus freight and insurance costs. The VAT element is worked out from this combined total.

Remember to consult

This article is only intended to be the briefest of introductions into an area which can get very technical. If you are going to trade outside the EU remember to check both the relevant authorities in the UK and the country with which you are trading. Those authorities will vary depending on the nature of the goods, but in relation to the UK side of operations, the best places to start would be the HMRC, the Department for Business Skills and Innovation, and the UKTI.

Finally if you are dealing with controlled goods be extra careful, and it would be prudent to consult an expert lawyer as well as the relevant government agencies.

Written by Bruno Rodrigues. If the contents of this article interested you and you would like to discuss it or any other legal issue, then please do not hesitate to contact us using the details contained on this website.

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