Step-by-step guide to exporting

Exporting to the EU and beyond - frequently asked questions


When exporting, you need to follow specific rules that depend on whether your goods or services are being exported to a country in the EU or outside the EU.

Here are a number of common questions relating to exporting and importing.

What is import duty and when is it to be paid?

Import duty is a tax that an importer has to pay to bring foreign goods into his or her country. Import duty is also known as customs duty, a tariff or import tariff.

Imports may be liable to import duty, depending on the classification of the goods and where they come from.

For example: An importer brings bicycles from China into the UK and pays duty on them. They are now in free circulation. You can buy the bicycles and dispatch them to another EU country, such as France, without paying duty on them.

If duty hasn't been paid on goods arriving from outside the EU you have to follow the rules for importing goods from non-EU countries.

What is a harmonised code?

A harmonised code is a customs tariff code and a key element of customs declarations. The harmonised tariff code identifies the type of goods that are being imported/exported. It is the basis for calculations of duties – such as customs duty and import duty – and defines whether goods are subject to import or export controls.

It also helps governments to produce statistics on international trade flows and understand the impact of trading agreements across the world.

A harmonised code is also known as a 'tariff number', 'commodity code' or 'HS code' (HS stands for harmonised system), and is an internationally agreed common protocol for identifying goods.

Top tips:

  • European HS codes are usually 8 digits for export declarations, 10 digits for imports
  • Some import codes can be 14 digits
  • The first 6 digits are defined by the Harmonised System, the rest are individual
  • There can be variation in codes between countries, so make sure you double-check

Why do I need to classify my goods?

You, as the importer or exporter are responsible for the correct tariff classification of your goods.

Classifying your goods correctly means that you:

  • pay the correct amount of duty and VAT
  • know if duty is suspended on any of your goods
  • know if any preferential duty rates can be applied
  • know if you need to obtain an import or export licence

By correctly classifying your products you’ll know what measures apply to them

How do I classify my goods if I am exporting within the EU?

The UK Trade Tariff is an easy-to-use online tool. It gives you free and direct access to current trading information on taxes and levies, rebates, preferences, restrictions and other information supplied by HM Revenue & Customs on all imports to and exports from the European Union.

It enables you to find commodity codes that accurately describe your goods, as well as a full list of duties and other measures such as taxes, rebates and conditions that apply to any code.

The UK Trade Tariff is based on the EU TARIC which holds commodity codes for all EU member states. The information in the EU TARIC is consistent across the EU.

Read more about classifying your goods for importing and exporting .

Access the UK Trade Tariff 

How do I classify my goods if I am exporting outside the EU?

If you’re trading with a country outside the EU you can access the relevant tariffs using the European Commission Market Access Database.

You can search for a product code based on your product description. The database also gives important tariff information and how it’s applied in other countries.

Do I need an export licence?

Whether or not you need an export licence for your goods will be determined by 4 factors, the:

  • nature of the goods due to be exported
  • destination concerned
  • ultimate end use of the goods
  • licensability of trade activities

There are a variety of different types of licences that you may be able to use to export your goods. The main categories of licences issued by the Export Control Organisation (ECO) are:

  • Open General Export Licences (OGELS)
  • Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELS)
  • Open Individual Export Licences (OIELS)

Read a beginners' guide to export controls

What is a regional trade agreement?

Regional trade agreements (RTAs) are preferential trading arrangements between countries or groups of countries. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has rules under which groups of countries can agree to trade together on preferential terms. They are designed to encourage open and competitive markets for businesses in the participating countries.

As a member of the European Union (EU), the UK currently participates in EU regional trade agreements. These are negotiated by the European Commission.

What are the current EU regional trade agreements?

Since the UK is a member of the European Union it participates in EU Regional Trade Agreements. These deals are negotiated by the European Commission with other countries or trading groups. The purpose of these agreements is to make it easier for EU businesses to sell their goods to the other country (and vice versa).

The European Union has 34 bilateral and regional trade agreements in place, which cover 60 partners in total.

Read more about EU regional trade agreements

What are the regional trade agreements between non-EU countries?

The World Trade Organisation (WTO), which regulates international trade, has rules under which groups of countries can agree to trade together on preferential terms.

You can find information on all current RTAs notified to the World Trade Organisation in the RTA database

Read more about Regional Trade Agreements