Do I need an export licence?

Which exports are controlled and therefore require a licence, how to apply and what compliance responsibilities you'll have.

This guidance was withdrawn on

This page has been withdrawn because it’s out of date. For advice on export licenses visit Export Control Joint Unit.

This guidance will continue to apply until 31 December 2020. Read more information on the transition period.


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.

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 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.

Do I need a 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

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. The Consolidated List is compiled from 7 lists in various pieces of international legislation. The main elements of the Consolidated List are the UK Military List and the 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.


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.

End use/ ‘catch all’

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 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.

See the guides about Military End-Use Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction: End-Use Control.

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’ (trade controls).

What 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 ECO 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.

As a registered OGEL user, you will be subject to regular ECO Compliance Audits. Read the guide on compliance and enforcement of export controls.

Standard Individual Export Licences (SIELs)

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 the application.

Open Individual Export Licences (OIELs)

ECJU also issues 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 ECO, 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 project licence.

How to apply

All licence applications and OGEL registrations should be made electronically via the ECO’s central online licensing system, SPIRE.

When making your application, you must attach all necessary documentation, including technical specifications and End User Undertakings. See the guide on end-user and consignee undertakings for SIELs and OIELs.

Advisory services

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, read the guide about strategic exports: when to request an export licence.

Responsibilities and obligations

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.

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.

What you can do next

You can find out more about exporting dual-use items, software and technology, goods for torture and radioactive sources.

You can find out more about exporting goods, services and technology for military use.


We can provide general advice on your export control query. You can contact the Helpline on 020 7215 4594 or by email on

Training and seminars

ECJU provides a comprehensive programme of scheduled and bespoke seminars on different aspects of UK export controls: Find out more about export control training bulletin.

Notices to exporters

To keep informed of changes to licences, legislative amendments and other updates, you can subscribe to our notices to exporters.

Published 3 August 2012
Last updated 13 August 2019 + show all updates
  1. We made the EU exit information more prominent.

  2. Changed title of this page - was 'Export controls: an introductory guide'.

  3. First published.