Beginners' guide to export controls
This guide is designed to highlight the basics of export control. Whether you are a new exporter investigating the possibility of exporting strategic goods, an overseas end-user, an academic or researcher affected by export controls or a non-governmental organisation or legal firm seeking more information, this guide will give you an overview of UK export controls.
This guide explains which trading activities and goods require a licence. It explains the types of licence that you can apply for, how to apply, and what compliance responsibilities you will have. Finally, it explains where you can go for help and further information.
Why export controls?
There are several reasons why governments aim to control the export of goods, depending on the nature and destinations of the proposed export. The export of strategic goods and technology is the specific remit of the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU). Exports are controlled for various reasons, including:
- concerns about internal repression, regional instability or other human rights violations
- concerns about the development of weapons of mass destruction
- foreign policy and international treaty commitments including as a result of the imposition of European Union (EU) or United Nations trade sanctions or arms embargoes
- national and collective security of the UK and its allies
Export controls are not unique to the UK. All countries should have some form of an export control policy, legislation and enforcement mechanisms. The UK has a well developed and coherent export control system based on EU and national legislation.
The ECJU is only concerned with strategic goods. If you are planning to export other categories of goods such as arts, antiques, medicines or animal products, you need to establish whether or not you need an export or import licence.
Do I need an export licence?
Whether or not you need an export licence for your goods will be determined by four factors, the:
- nature of the goods due to be exported
- destination concerned
- ultimate end use of the goods
- licensability of trade activities
Nature of goods
The following checklist outlines the broad categories of goods which are likely to be controlled:
- most items that have been specially designed or modified for military use and their components
- dual-use items - those that can be used for civil or military purposes - which meet certain specified technical standards and some of their components
- associated technology and software
- goods that might be used for torture
- radioactive sources
The main reason why these types of goods are controlled is because, they are listed on one of the UK Strategic Export Control Lists.
The Control Lists are a listing of items for which a licence is required from the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU). The Consolidated List is compiled from seven lists in various pieces of international legislation. The main elements of the Consolidated List are the UK Military List and the European Union (EU) Dual-Use List.
Depending on your goods, you will need to consult the relevant list and determine the relevant 'rating' or classification of your products, before applying for a licence.
You should remember that the ECO is concerned with goods of a 'strategic' nature such as military or civilian (dual-use) goods that can be used for military purposes. Export controls on other categories of goods are the responsibility of other departments.
If your items are on the UK Military List or are more sensitive items on the EU Dual-Use List (ie on Annex IV of the EU Dual-Use Regulation), then you will need a licence for all destinations - including EU countries.
If your goods are less sensitive items on the EU Dual-Use List (Annex I items), then you will only need a licence for export outside the EU.
Other items may well require a licence for destination countries that are subject to embargoes or sanctions.
If your goods are not listed on the UK Strategic Export Control Lists, you may still need a licence under End-Use Controls. This applies if the goods are likely to be sent to an end-user where there are concerns about the possible use of the goods in a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme. For example, cryogenic equipment could be used in a nuclear weapons facility.
Components that are not designed for military use but which are going into military goods in an embargoed destination are also covered by the End-Use Controls.
Licensable trade activities
You may also need a licence if you are arranging or involved in the transfer of goods between two overseas countries. This is known as 'trafficking and brokering'.
What export licence do I need?
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 Joint Unit (ECJU) are outlined briefly below.
Open General Export Licences
Open General Export Licences (OGELs) are available for less restricted exports to less restricted destinations. OGELs are pre-published licences with set terms and conditions which you must adhere to. There are currently over 40 OGELs available which cover a wide range of circumstances. Some are for military goods and others are for dual-use goods. A small number of OGELs cover both.
Being an OGEL holder can potentially benefit your business by saving you time and money.
Before using, you will need to pre-register for each licence you intend to use. You will also need to carefully read and understand the relevant OGEL you intend to use. You will need to make sure that you can meet all the outlined terms and conditions of the licence - eg that you only export to the exact destination allowed or that you keep the necessary records.
To check whether there is an OGEL that covers the export you wish to make, you can use the OGEL Checker. This database leads you through all conditions of the licence.
As a registered OGEL user, you will be subject to regular ECJU Compliance Audits so you need to be aware of the compliance and enforcement of export controls.
Standard Individual Export Licences
If your goods, technology, software, destination or situation is not covered by an OGEL, you will need to apply for a Standard Individual Export Licence (SIEL). SIELs are company and consignee specific, for a set quantity and/or value of goods. You will need to provide support documentation such as End-User Undertakings with with the application.
Open Individual Export Licences
The ECJU also issue an Open Individual Export Licence (OIEL) which is designed to cover long-term contracts, projects and repeat business. This is a concessionary form of licence which is company specific, but not necessarily consignee specific. There is no set quantity or value of goods, although conditions covering this may be set on the licence. Under an OIEL, you will receive regular compliance audits from the ECJU, so minimal support documentation is needed.
You will usually need to establish a track record of exporting before you can apply for an OIEL. It should replace at least 20 SIEL applications a year.
Other types of licences
There are also licences covering transhipment and trade control (trafficking and brokering) activities, as well as a global projects licence.
How can I apply for an export licence?
Applying for a licence
All licence applications and Open General Export Licence registrations should be made electronically via the Export Control Joint Unit's central online licensing system - SPIRE. If you are new to using SPIRE, you can read guidance about the system such as how to create a company account and log-in details in the GOV.UK guide SPIRE - an overview.
When making your application, you must attach all necessary documentation, including technical specifications and End User Undertakings.
Almost half of all export licence applications have to be returned due to incomplete or inaccurate applications which can cause delays in processing. Therefore it is vital that you before applying you read about the common pitfalls to avoid in export licence applications. In some cases, you will also need to read our further guidance on specific aspects of the controls.
Read our step by step explanation of the stages involved in making your application, including information on licensing targets.
On SPIRE you can also make a Control List Classification Service or End-User Advice Service request. You should note that these are both advisory services only and not licensing.
For more information about both these services see our guide on how to determine if your goods need an export licence.
What are my responsibilities and obligations as an exporter?
As an exporter, you have various responsibilities. You need to ensure that you have solid export control systems and procedures in place in terms of record keeping, training and lines of responsibility.
Businesses that have registered to use Open General Export Licences for exporting items or who have been granted an Open Individual Export Licence are subject to regular compliance visits. Read our guide on compliance and enforcement of export controls.
If a compliance visit finds that you are not complying with the terms of your licence, you could face a penalty. Penalties range from de-registration of your licence to fines or even a potential prison term if you do not adhere to your export control obligations.
The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) has a clearly defined service and performance code, which outlines the ECJU's commitments to its customers and what is expected of exporters.
Where can I find more information about export controls?
More information on the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) and export licences is available from a range of sources.
The ECJU can provide general advice on your export control query. You can contact the ECJU Helpline on Tel 020 7215 4594 or by email on email@example.com.
If you have a specific query about a specific export licensing application you can speak to the licensing officer dealing with your case (quoting your SPIRE reference number). The name of the licensing case officer is listed in your SPIRE workbasket.
Notices to Exporters
To keep informed of changes to licences, legislative amendments and other updates, you can choose to receive the ECJU's regular Notices to Exporters.
Open General Export Licence (OGEL) Checker Database
The OGEL Checker Database is a web-based search tool to help exporters find out whether there are any OGELs they may be able to use when exporting their goods, software or technology.