Last reviewed 9 June 2021

Many businesses are still confused over the rules for importing from the EU and exporting to the EU. The rules for exports and imports to and from the EU are the same as imports and exports to the rest of the world. This article gives a general outline and links to further advice. It does not detail the rules for movements to and from Northern Ireland — this will be dealt with in a subsequent article.

It is important to understand that the names of the various countries involved as different rules can apply. Great Britain (GB) includes England, Wales and Scotland. The United Kingdom (UK) includes the countries of GB and Northern Ireland (NI).

It is essential that the specific rules are followed and forms are completed correctly. Customs officials in other countries can be very pedantic when examining forms and supporting documentation. It is often not difficult to find a reason to stop or delay a shipment. There have been stories of imports being rejected because the wrong coloured ink was used when completing a form. Also, due to Brexit, goods are being subject to more stringent checks. For example, Ireland usually only checks 1% of goods imported from outside the EU, but currently 20% of goods being moved from GB to Northern Ireland are being checked. Bureaucracy may ease as time progresses, but it is always important to ensure documents are correct to minimise delays.

Import and export rules are complex. By necessity, therefore, the information given here is in outline and a comprehensive series of links are given to government web pages and videos where further details can be obtained.

Exports from the UK

These rules apply when goods are moved from Great Britain to a country outside the UK. Different rules will apply to postal exports, goods taken personally to sell overseas and goods taken temporarily out of the UK. Special rules also apply to movements to or from Northern Ireland.

To export goods it is necessary to get an EORI number. When exporting from Great Britain the number will start with a GB. When goods are moved to or from Northern Ireland the number may start with an XI. EORI numbers can be applied for from the Government.

To enable you to move goods overseas it is essential that you understand the rules, restrictions, the tax that is to be applied and what documents are required for the export. HMRC provides a service for businesses that are in the UK to identify the rules that apply to specific products. It is, however, essential that you identify the product correctly as different rules can apply to products that are slightly different.

HMRC’s page to check for duties and procedures for exports can be found here. UK businesses based overseas will need to contact the Department for International Trade.

Businesses need to check if they need to declare goods to UK customs where they move:

  • between GB and Northern Ireland

  • to or from the EU

  • to or from other countries.

HMRC provide a system to check whether declarations are necessary.

Simplified declarations can be made and are useful when the full details are not known (for example if weight or value is not known). When the simplified declaration is accepted the goods can be moved. The full information, when known, is to be provided through a supplementary declaration which must be made within 14 days of the goods departing the UK. Simplified declarations cannot be made for goods covered by the Agricultural Policy, goods subject to licencing or excise duty (although exceptions apply) and goods that must have a full declaration. There is a simplified declaration procedure for most goods. In addition, simplified declarations can be made through an entry in the declarant’s records. Entries in the declarant’s records are, however, very limited (such as for exports of less than £900). To apply for simplified entry form C&E48 needs to be completed.

It should be noted that licences may be required for:

Where plant or plant products are exported it is necessary to register on eDomereo. Where controlled goods, such as weapons, are exported it is necessary to register on SPIRE.

Businesses that export these goods need to ensure that any licences are obtained before export and any special rules regarding these products are complied with. Links are provided in the bullet list above to government pages with more information. It should also be noted that the importer may be required to complete import declarations and obtain licences or certificates to receive the goods. Contracts with customers should ensure that the person receiving the goods complies with their country’s import regulations.

Where goods are being moved to EU countries or common transit countries, common or Union Transit can be used. This is advantageous as it will not require declarations and duties at each border crossing and some processes can be completed away from the border. The process can be completed by an agent, but if the business wants to do this themselves they need to obtain an EORI, provide a guarantee for duties suspended while goods are being moved, register for the New Computerised Transit System, register for the National Export System and choose the UK customs office of departure. A business can check to see if the EU and common transit system is appropriate.

Business should also check to see if the Authorised Economic Operator Certification is appropriate. This can provide benefits of reducing the level of guarantee that is required and speeding processing of entries.

Goods to be exported must be taken to the port of border location named in the export declaration. At the border point it is necessary to produce the master reference number from the export declaration, the invoice and any necessary licences and certificates. Customs staff may check the goods before export, but checks are more frequent at the import point of entry. Goods can be held up at the point of export. This happens usually where the goods do not pass inspection, licences are incorrect or where the goods are combined with other goods (groupage shipments) that have been held up. The National Clearance Hub can be contacted on 0300 322 7900 where goods have been held up. This number is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. HMRC can also be contacted about Customs Input Entries on 0300 322 9434, Monday to Friday from 0800 to 2200 and Saturday and Sunday from 0800 to 1600.

Imports into the UK

These rules apply when goods are moved to Great Britain from a country outside the UK. Different rules will apply to postal imports, goods brought personally to sell or use in the business and goods taken temporarily into the UK. Special rules also apply to movements to or from Northern Ireland.

To import goods, it is necessary to get an EORI number. When importing to Great Britain the number will start with a GB. When goods are moved to or from Northern Ireland the number may start with an XI. EORI numbers can be applied for from the Government.

It should be noted that the simplified declaration procedures can also be used for imports and that Authorised Economic Operator status may assist imports. This is discussed in further detail and links are provided in the export section above.

Contracts with the supplier should require the supplier to make any necessary export declarations in the country where the goods are being exported from and also to get any necessary licences or certificates.

Where an agent is used, the agent will be able to make the necessary arrangements for imports. For all imports a commodity code for the goods needs to be identified; the agent may or may not get the commodity code for the business. The commodity code will determine the rates of duty and import VAT that is payable. The code will also determine if any duty is suspended, the necessary licences and if any quotas, anti-dumping duties or Agricultural Policy rules apply.

The Trade Tariff tool can assist a business in finding the correct commodity code. Identifying the correct tariff code can be difficult and dependent on exactly what is imported. For example, some goods may need to be split up for ease of transport and it has to be considered if this is two (or more) separate items, or a single consignment that has been split for consignment. Further information can be found about split consignments on the government website. Some goods can be difficult to classify. HMRC will give advice on the correct tariff ruling. Non-legally binding advice will be given within five days using the Tariff Classification Service. Legally binding decisions can also be given but these take a longer time (up to 120 days) and more detailed information needs to be given. This binding advice is to be used for difficult to classify goods, if the goods are a new type or a longer lasting and binding ruling is required. In Great Britain an Advanced Tariff Ruling can be applied for. In Northern Ireland Binding Tariff Information can be applied for.

When exporting or importing it is necessary to understand the concept of customs valuations. The customs value is the value that taxes and duties will be charge on the goods. Usually the value is the price paid plus insurance and freight costs to the UK border. But it is also necessary to add in other costs such as commissions, royalty and licence payments. Also included is the cost of any containers and packaging, any other proceeds the seller gets on resale and any goods or services provided to the seller. Items that can be excluded are any buying commissions, delivery costs in the country the goods are imported into, taxes paid in the country of origin or export, discounts given relating to cash and early settlement, marketing activities related to the import and dividend payments to the seller.

If it is not possible to use the transaction value there are five other methods that can be used. These are:

  1. the customs value of identical goods produced in the same country as the import

  2. customs value of similar goods produced in the same country, able to perform the same tasks and commercially interchangeably

  3. the sale price of such goods sold in the country

  4. the value based upon the cost of production

  5. any other method or combination of methods that fits the circumstances.

Where the transaction value cannot be used it is necessary to use the alternative methods in order (that is identical goods first, then similar goods, etc). Method four can, however, be used before method three.

The value for VAT is the customs value including all incidental expenses. To this is added incidental expenses resulting from transportation in the UK and any customs duties and levies and excise duties that apply.

Whilst customs duties apply to the value of the goods, some imports benefit from reduced (preferential rates). Sometimes these rates can be nil. Preferential rates can arise if the import is coming from a developing country and the preference is available under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences, or the goods come from a country with a free trade or reduced rate agreement. To obtain the preference it is, of course, necessary to ensure that an agreement is in place, that the goods imported are covered by the agreement, the goods meet the rules of origin and this information is included on the import declaration. Guidance on preferences is available here.

Licences are required for the import of specified goods, and links are provided to government information on the necessary licences. Goods requiring licences include:

The UK imposes rules regarding labelling, marking and marketing of plant seeds, food and manufactured goods. There are a variety of rules such as declaring the country of origin, standards, type of packaging, etc. Information regarding these standards can be found here.

Plant and animal products need to be inspected before they are allowed to enter the UK. Fees may need to be paid for the inspection. There are different inspection points for different products. These are:

Goods can be held up at the point of import. This happens usually where the goods do not pass inspection, licences are incorrect or where the goods are combined with other goods (groupage shipments) that have been held up. The National Clearance Hub can be contacted on 0300 322 7900 where goods have been held up. This number is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Duty and VAT is payable at the time of entry. This can be paid by a Direct Trader Input agent using a card, cheque or bank transfer. An importer can also pay using a bank draft or bank transfer to clear the goods, but this may delay clearance.

Duty and VAT can, however, be deferred. The deferment will mean that the duty cost will be charged to the importer in the middle of the following month. This gives a delay of an average of 30 days before payment. As payments do not need to be handled goods are often cleared more quickly. A VAT registered person will be issued with a form C79 which will allow them to reclaim the VAT charged on the import as input tax on the business’s VAT return, subject to the normal VAT input tax deduction rules. The VAT on import is deferred in the same way as customs duty. Applications can be made for the different Duty Deferment accounts for GB and Northern Ireland imports.

New Border Requirements videos and webinars

There are new border requirements for trading with the EU, for the new Sanitary and Phytosanitary controls, the new regime for chemicals and for moving goods through specific routes. A series of webinars and videos have been produced by the government to provide information. These are: