Import and export licences
- Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Home Office, HM Revenue & Customs, Health and Safety Executive, and Animal and Plant Health Agency
- Part of:
- Import and export controls and International freight industry and businesses making customs declarations
- First published:
- 1 August 2012
- Last updated:
- 17 October 2016, see all updates
Licences are needed for import and export of military and paramilitary goods, dual-use and technology, artworks, plants and animals, medicines and chemicals - be aware of your responsibilities and who the relevant UK licensing authorities are.
Goods which may require import and export licences
If your business is considering exporting or importing goods, you will need to check if you need a licence.
There are controls on exports of military or paramilitary goods, technology, artworks, plants and animals, medicines and chemicals. Licence requirements may depend on the potential use of the item - eg if it has a military application (usually referred to as dual-use goods) and where you are exporting to.
There are also controls on imports including firearms, plants and animals, foods, medicines, textiles and chemicals. Whether you need a licence can also depend on where the goods are coming from.
Exporting or importing controlled goods without the right licence is a criminal offence, so it’s important to check first.
You may need a licence even if you are only exporting or importing goods temporarily - eg taking a sample to an exhibition.
Licences for dual-use technology, security, firearms or defence goods
Restrictions on the export of technology and defence goods do not just apply to weapons or military hardware. They also apply to goods that are designed for civil use but can be used for military purposes, usually referred to as dual-use goods - items such as machine tools, computers and marine equipment. There are also some restrictions on moving military goods between third countries, ie not involving the UK.
If you’re planning to export anything with a potential military use you should always seek advice on whether a licence is required.
For further information, read Export controls: an introductory guide or email the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) Export Control Organisation at firstname.lastname@example.org to check whether restrictions are likely to apply.
To keep updated about current arms embargoes and changes to strategic export control legislation, you can subscribe to receive the ECO’s Notices to Exporters.
The following licences are available for strategic controlled goods:
An OGL allows the export of specific goods by any exporter to a range of destinations. Open licences may be available for less restricted controlled items. You must register for these licences and adhere to all terms and conditions. If you cannot fulfil all the terms and conditions you will need to apply for a Standard Individual Export Licence, as detailed below.
An SIEL allows the export of a quantity of specified goods to a specified importer as set out in the licence.
This is specific to an individual exporter and allows multiple shipments of specified goods to specified destinations. It is a concessionary form of licence available to exporters with a track record in export licence applications only.
SPIRE is the Export Control Organisation’s online database for processing licence applications. You must use it to apply for any of the licences processed by the Export Control Organisation within BIS.
Importers must be registered firearms dealers and have the appropriate licence from BIS to accompany firearms and ammunition.
Find more information on the Import Licensing Branch in our guide to import controls.
Do you need an export or import licence for animals and animal products?
The exportation of live animals and animal products such as meat, dairy goods, pet food and wool is the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Defra is often required by the importing country’s veterinary authorities to provide certain animal health, public health and animal welfare assurances. It does this by producing export documents - typically a veterinary health certificate. These certificates usually require a consignment to be inspected by a Defra-approved veterinarian shortly before export to confirm that the necessary assurances can be met.
The regulations that apply to a particular export vary widely. Factors such as the destination country, the species, the nature of the animal products and the intended use of the consignment all influence the conditions that must be met.
Because of the array of live animals and meat that can be exported, different regulations apply to different species. In most instances however, there are standards in place for the care, treatment and processing of animals. You can call the Defra Helpline on Telephone: 08459 33 55 77.
Businesses wishing to export live animals are responsible for:
- conforming to the appropriate import conditions for their consignment with the authorities in the importing country - consignments that do not meet a country’s import rules could be refused entry, returned or destroyed
- allowing enough time for the certification process to be completed before the export takes place - it usually takes about ten days for a certificate to be produced and some require certain conditions to have been met for a month, or sometimes considerably longer, before departure
- ensuring that their consignment meets any relevant UK rules, as well as those of the importing country
Application forms for export health certificates can be obtained from your local Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) office. You can locate your nearest AHVLA office by calling the Defra Helpline on Telephone: 08459 33 55 77.
Imports of animals and captive birds
Imports of animals and captive birds (excluding pet birds, poultry and birds destined for approved institutes and zoos) are controlled by the issuing of animal health certificates and post-import veterinary inspections. Captive birds arriving into England are also required to be taken to an approved quarantine centre for assessment and testing. Additional controls apply to endangered birds and animals. Read about importing pet birds from the European Union on the Defra website.
Imports of food are also controlled and must comply with regulations such as food safety, packaging, labelling and additives.
Imports of organic food may also need authorisation before they can be marketed as organic. Read about imports of organic food on the Defra website.
Export and import licences for objects of cultural interest - including antiques and works of art
The Arts Council has responsibility for issuing export licences for objects of cultural interest which includes antiques and works of art.
You will need an export licence to export certain objects of cultural interest that are more than 50 years old and above certain financial thresholds. For example, you’ll need to apply for a licence if you want to export a book that’s more than 100 years old and worth more than £65,000 to another European Union country. For further information, read about export licensing for antiques and works of art on the Arts Council website.
Export or import licences for prescription drugs and medicines and materials used to manufacture them
Anyone wanting to export prescription drugs or medicines should contact the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), an agency of the Department of Health.
The MHRA issues four types of export certificate:
- certificate of a pharmaceutical product - which includes detailed information about the product
- certificate of manufacturing status - which certifies that a manufacturing licence is held
- certificate of licensing status - which can be issued for licensed and unlicensed products, contains less information than a certificate of a pharmaceutical product and can list up to ten products per certificate
- certificate for the importation of a pharmaceutical constituent - which certifies if a chemical can be used as an ingredient of a pharmaceutical product in the UK
Read about the export of medicines and access export application forms on the MHRA website or MHRA Export Section Enquiry Line on Telephone: 020 3080 6593.
Anyone wishing to export controlled drugs will generally require licensing from the Home Office Drugs and Firearms Licensing Unit. Find out about export licenses for controlled drugs on the Home Office website.
Imports of medicinal products
Imports of medicinal products are subject to licensing. See the guidance for wholesale dealers on the MHRA website.
Anyone wishing to import controlled drugs will generally require licensing from the Home Office Drugs and Firearms Licensing Unit. Read about import licences on the Home Office website.
Do you need an export or import licence for flowers, wildlife, plants and seeds?
To prevent the spread of pests and diseases, the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) is responsible for making sure that the export of flowers, wildlife, plants and seeds meets the requirements of importing countries.
If you’re exporting such items to a country outside the European Union (EU), find your nearest plant health and seed inspector contact details on the Fera website. An inspector will be able to help ensure that you meet the requirements of the country to which you’re exporting.
However, if you’re exporting to countries within the EU, you may require a ‘plant passport’. This depends on the type of items you want to export and the nature of your business.
Imports of plants
Imports of plants are controlled by the issuing of phytosanitary certificates. Further controls apply to some endangered plants. Download a guide to plant passports from the Fera website (PDF, 1.6MB).
Imports of wood and wood packaging material are controlled. Read about imports of wood and wood packaging on the Forestry Commission website.
Do you need an export or import licence for chemicals and pesticides?
Exports of chemicals and pesticides
If you’re planning to export certain pesticides or hazardous chemicals outside of the European Union (EU) you may need to go through a notification procedure and, in some cases, obtain prior informed consent (PIC) from the importing country before the export can take place. This procedure is overseen by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), which makes sure that:
- chemicals are exported at least six months before their expiry date
- exports of chemicals that have a severely restricted use within the EU have complied with a mandatory notification procedure
- no chemicals are exported that are banned within the EU
- exports to countries outside the EU are packaged and labelled in line with the United Nations’ Open General Licence Globally Harmonised System (GHS) - read about GHS on the HSE website
An export licence is required to export so-called dual-use goods which are controlled for ‘strategic’ reasons. The list of dual-use goods includes chemicals. These are controlled because of the UK’s commitments under the Chemical Weapons Convention and European Union dual-use legislation.
Imports of pesticides and chemicals
Importers of dangerous chemicals must identify the hazards, provide information about them under the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of chemical substances and mixtures (CLP) regulations and ensure they package the product safely. Find out about CLP obligations on the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) website. Under Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, importers or manufacturers of more than one tonne of chemicals a year must also register with the European Chemicals Agency. Read about REACH legislation on the HSE website.
Imports of some dangerous products such as asbestos are prohibited or require special authorisation.
Defra also controls trade in ozone-depleting substances (ODS). To import ODS, you must have a licence from the European Commission under Regulation (EC) No 1005/2009. You can request a licence from the European Commission using their online ODS-database on the Europa website.
Do you need an export or import licence for vehicles?
If you are exporting an ordinary vehicle that is less than 50 years old, you do not generally need an export licence. However, you must notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Normally you use your Registration Document (V5) or Registration Certificate (V5C) to let DVLA know when you intend to export the vehicle.
For more information, see the guide ‘Taking a vehicle out of the UK’.
You do not need to notify the DVLA if you are taking your vehicle out of the country for less than a year, but you must take your registration document or certificate with you.
Imports of vehicles
You do not generally need a licence to import an ordinary vehicle. However, the vehicle must be registered and have a valid vehicle licence (tax disc) before being used or kept on public roads.
For more information, see the guide ‘Importing vehicles into the UK’.
Other import licences and controls
The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) also issue import licences for a small number of goods. Find out which goods require a BIS import licence on the BIS website.
Other controls may apply to the goods you are importing. For example, imports of food are controlled and food products must also comply with regulations such as food safety, labelling and additives.
Imports of organic food may also need authorisation before they can be marketed as organic. Read about imports of organic food on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) website.
Imports and exports of radioactive substances are subject to additional controls. Read guidance on radioactive substances on the Environment Agency website.
For more information, call the HMRC Imports and Exports Helpline.
BIS Import Licensing enquiries
Fera Plant Health and Seed Inspectors Division
Telephone: 01904 465 625
Home Office Drugs and Firearms Licensing Unit
Telephone: 020 7035 6330
MHRA Homeopathics Unit
Telephone: 020 3080 7400
BIS ECO Helpline
Telephone: 020 7215 4594
MLA Export Licensing Unit
Telephone: 020 7273 8265
Telephone: 08459 33 55 77
MHRA Export Section Enquiry Line
Telephone: 020 3080 6593
Published: 1 August 2012
Updated: 17 October 2016
- Updated Home Office Drug Licensing Helpline number.
- Update to email contact details for BIS Import Licensing enquiries as a result of customer feedback.
- First published.