Get the right licences for international trading

How to check if you need a licence to import or export goods, and the most commonly licensed goods for international trade.


Following the correct procedures for goods that require permission before you import or export will help you avoid transport and processing delays and may improve your finances. You can also take advantage of trading schemes known as ‘preferences’ and ‘tariff quotas’ which aim to boost trade in certain products and with particular countries by reducing duties. You may need a licence if you want to take part in these schemes.

International trade is heavily regulated for some goods and you should be aware that you may suffer significant penalties if you don’t have the necessary documentation and your goods might be seized by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Unlawful trade in some goods, such as weapons to countries under sanction, can result in criminal action.

For detailed information on licences and sanctions related to controlled goods, refer to the guide on controlled goods: licences, sanctions and embargoes.

Check if you need a permit or certificate

Will you need extra paperwork for your goods, over and above the usual commercial and licensing documentation? Requirements for a permit or certificate will depend on:

  • the type of product
  • your product’s commodity code
  • where your product originated from
  • whether you’re exporting or importing
  • your product’s final destination

Your trade association may be able to advise on export controls applying to your products.

Using classification to find licences

When you import, identify the commodity code for your goods to find out if you need a licence.

You can also use the Tariff to check if you need a permit. You can:

  • check your product’s code in the Tariff, and look up the rules associated with it
  • check the rules regarding the origin of your products - see the guide on the rules of origin
  • check the rules that vary according to whether you are importing or exporting the product, and its final destination

You must also check with the relevant government department.

Declarations and licences

Using a Single Administrative Document (SAD), most exports to outside the EU must be declared to HMRC through the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system. You can do this electronically using the National Export System (NES). See the guide on the UK’s import and export processing system CHIEF.

You can use the SAD, also known as form C88, to make export declarations manually. Customs will then enter these goods to the CHIEF system on your behalf. Manual entry will delay the movement of your goods from the UK.

However, the SAD is an export declaration, not a licence to export goods. If your goods need a licence you must obtain one separately before the goods are due to leave the UK or EU.

Goods that are of no statistical interest or not restricted can be exported without a declaration. Included in this are:

  • accompanied personal or household goods
  • certain goods not subject to a commercial transaction
  • certain temporary exportation or re-exportation goods

You can read about the SAD in the guide on declarations and the Single Administrative Document.

You do not usually have to complete an export declaration for goods acquired or dispatched within the EU. There are exceptions, such as sales to international organisations which are treated as exports, and exports to special EU territories.

Major import licences, permits and certificates

You need a licence if you are importing or exporting certain Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) commodities from or to a country not in the EU. Licences help to monitor and control these markets. These are issued by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) - you can read guidance on CAP licences.

The Import Licensing Branch (ILB) of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) issues the licences required when you import:

  • certain textiles
  • firearms and ammunition
  • nuclear materials
  • iron and steel from some countries

There are prohibitions on the import of anti-personnel mines, torture equipment and certain goods from specified countries. You’ll find current requirements for ILB licences in our guide to import controls.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) issues licences required when you import:

  • meat, poultry, milk and other foodstuffs
  • livestock
  • blood
  • plant/plant products
  • endangered species
  • fur

Some food products, such as types of food colouring or products affected by avian flu, are banned.

Plant-health controlled fruit, vegetables, plants and plant products need a Quarantine Release Certificate (QRC) and/or import licence. Importers must also check if a product requires a Plant Health Movement Document. Download the Plant Health Guide for Importers from the Defra website (PDF, 108KB).

If you trade in products made from endangered plant and animal species, these must be accompanied by a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) licence. Species affected are listed in three appendices to the Convention, according to the degree of protection they need.

Find out about CITES permit information for import, export or commercial use of endangered species. You should also be aware that goods imported under Defra licence regimes may also require licences by a competent authority from the country of export.

Defra also administers controls on trade in ozone-depleting substances (ODS) and products and equipment containing those substances, such as:

  • refrigeration and air-conditioning products
  • fire-fighting and foam-blowing equipment
  • aerosols and solvents

To import ODS, you must have a quota licence from the European Commission under Commission Notice 2009/C132/12. You can request a licence from the European Commission’s ODS-database on the Europa website.

Certain substances that potentially cause cancer, known as carcinogenic substances, or chemicals and animal hair, are prohibited from import unless you have a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Exemption Certificate. For details of exemptions, email the HSE at or read about dangerous chemical licensing on the HSE website. Import of cat and dog fur is banned in the UK.

Under Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, importers or manufacturers of more than one tonne of chemicals a year must register with the European Chemicals Agency and declare any dangerous substances being placed on the market. Read about REACH legislation on the HSE website.

For some products, such as textiles, a prior surveillance import licence may be needed. Such licences are used to monitor future imports and change frequently. For the latest information on prior surveillance licences, read our guide to import controls.

A full list of import restrictions and prohibitions is listed in volume 1, part 3 of the Integrated Tariff.

Find commodity codes and other measures applying to imports and exports by accessing our online UK Trade Tariff tool.

Major export licences, permits and certificates

When you export, identify the commodity code for your goods to find out if you need a licence. You can do this using the UK Integrated Tariff (the Tariff). A full list of commodity codes is available in volume 2.

Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) licences are required for exporting raw or processed food and are issued and controlled by the Rural Payments Agency. Read about CAP export procedures in Preparing to trade in CAP goods.

You will require an export licence issued by the Export Control Organisation (ECO), part of the BIS for weapons and other strategic goods with a potential military use, called ‘dual-use’ products. Trafficking and brokering - including warehousing and shipping - either military or dual-use strategic goods also carries restrictions.

All military controlled items and some highly sensitive dual-use goods and goods subject to end-use controls need a licence, even if the export is made to another EU country.

Less sensitive controlled dual-use goods exports need a licence if shipped outside the EU.

To find out about strategic export controls, see the guide on export controls: an introductory guide.

Watch a video about your export control responsibilities and how you can ensure you have the correct licences.

If you export animals and animal products, and certain plants, you will require a Defra supply licence. Exports of endangered plant and animal species and products made from them require CITES licences. Find information on plant and animal export and trade procedures.

Defra also administers controls and quotas on trade in ozone-depleting substances (ODS) and products and equipment containing those substances, such as:

  • refrigeration and air-conditioning products
  • fire-fighting and foam-blowing equipment
  • aerosols and solvents

Licences are required for all controlled drugs. Find information about exporting controlled drugs.

Export licences from the HSE and occasionally BIS are needed to move dangerous chemicals outside the EU. The Prior Informed Consent (PIC) procedure gives importing countries the opportunity to refuse, or apply conditions to, imports of certain dangerous chemicals. Read about PIC on the HSE website.

Licences for importing and exporting particular products

Apart from the licences supplied by the main government departments, you may need many other licences to trade internationally in a wide range of products.

If your business includes trade in certain services you must make sure specific information is available about how you work to your customers before you complete contracts or make agreements.

From 2013 onwards, special rules will also apply to firms supplying communications services. Find guidance on the Provision of Services Regulations 2009.

Importing and exporting of medicines and medical devices is regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Find out about licensing medicines and medical devices on the MHRA website or see Healthcare and medical: international trade regulations.

Under Registration, Evaluation, and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, importers or manufacturers of more than one tonne of chemicals a year must register with the European Chemicals Agency and declare any dangerous chemicals placed on the market. Read about REACH legislation on the HSE website..

Strict rules apply to trading in biotechnology products. Biotechnologists, for example, must comply with export control regulations co-ordinated by BIS, particularly for materials which can be used in the manufacture of chemical warfare. For more information, see the guide on biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Worldwide trade in rough diamonds is controlled by the Kimberley Process.

Traders must register with Defra or the Forestry Commission prior to importation of any plant, forestry or timber product, including wooden packing materials. For controlled forestry or timber imports an advanced notification to the Forestry Commission is required.

A Quarantine Release Certificate obtained from the third country must also accompany import consignments of controlled products.

For details of how to apply and requirements, download a Plant Health Guide for Importers from the Defra website (PDF, 108KB).

A licence known as a Catch Document is required if you trade in toothfish. Read information on the Catch requirements from the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) website.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport licences are needed to export heritage items, including antiques, paintings or any collectible items. Read about the export licensing controls for objects of cultural interest on the Arts Council website.

Import licence quotas

These relate to set amounts or values of particular goods under reduced customs duties for a limited period. For example, many agricultural commodities cannot be imported into the EU without a valid licence. Licences may also be used to restrict imports by imposing quantitative limits. However licences may also allow a reduced rate of duty on the goods they cover. Such licences are usually issued against financial security. Licences issued in other member states are valid in the UK.

The Tariff

To find out whether you need a licence for your product you should first identify its commodity code. A full list of commodity codes is available in volume 2 of the UK Integrated Tariff.

Find commodity codes and other measures applying to imports and exports by accessing our online UK Trade Tariff tool.

Tariff quotas

Trading schemes throughout the EU exist to control the import and export of certain goods with the aim of boosting business opportunities for member states. Tariff quotas are an EU mechanism for importing limited supplies of specific goods at a reduced or nil rate of customs duty. When the quota runs out, the duty rate returns to normal. When you claim a quota, you can reduce your customs duty, agricultural levies and/or Common Agricultural Policies charges.

The limits in a quota can be set on the quantity, value, volume or weight of the goods, or the time period over which it operates.

Non-licence quota duty reductions are given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Quotas are administered in the UK by the Central Tariff Quota Unit. Find out about EU quota balances and check currently available tariff shares on the Europa website. To make a claim for a tariff quota share you may require an EUR1, GSP form A, or ATR Preference Certificate. You may need to provide financial security if the quota is nearing exhaustion.

Find detailed information about tariff quotas in Notice 375.

Working with import and export preferences

Take advantage of schemes that allow you to import or export at low or nil rates of duty. The EU has a range of preferential trade agreements with third countries, ie countries outside the EU. The agreements enable trading at a reduced rate of duty, or duty-free. To take part in one of these schemes you must ‘claim a preference’.

Import preferences allow a wide range of products from outside the EU to be imported into the EU at a reduced or nil rate of duty. See the guide on importing and exporting using trade preferences.

Export preference arrangements also exist with a number of third countries which in turn grant preferential rates of duty to goods originating in the EU. Read about European Community Preferences: Export Procedures in Notice 827.

For you to qualify for import and export preference schemes, your products must comply with strict rules of origin. For more information, read the guide on rules of origin.

Types of preference scheme

There are two types - autonomous or non-reciprocal, such as the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), and reciprocal, such as the agreements between the EU and South Africa, Chile, Mexico, Mediterranean countries and European Free Trade Association.

To claim a preference, you’ll need to prove the origin of your goods using one of these forms:

  • GSP FORM A - must be used to support claims to preference from GSP countries
  • EUR 1 Certificate or EUR-MED - must be held or issued for imports and exports under all other preferential arrangements Find out about EUR1 in Notice 827.

Specifically worded origin declarations and invoices or other commercial documents can be issued or presented for low-value consignments in both the autonomous and reciprocal arrangements. Certain reciprocal preference arrangements also allow approved exporters to issue invoice declarations for consignments of any value.

Protecting your intellectual property rights

It is important that you protect your intellectual property (IP) and take action if you suspect someone is infringing your rights.

IP legislation exists to protect your intellectual property, whether it is a patent, design, trade mark or copyright. It prevents anyone from profiting from your IP, whether in the UK or abroad. The legislation also aims to protect the public from fake products which endanger their health and safety, or from being misled.

In order for action to be taken to protect your IP rights, you must first of all make sure that you have registered them. The Intellectual Property Office has produced a supply chain toolkit containing advice on how to protect your intellectual property rights. It also contains guidance on the steps you should take if you discover counterfeit goods in your supply chain. Download the supply chain toolkit from the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) website (PDF, 349KB).

HMRC can help you if you suspect your business identity and products are being abused.

Goods considered as infringing IP in international trade include:

  • counterfeit goods - incorporating any symbol, goods or packaging carrying or portraying a trade mark without authorisation
  • pirated goods - copies made without the consent of the copyright holder
  • patent-infringing goods - cover infringements of a patent under UK law
  • national or community plant variety right - covers infringements of plant varieties under UK and EU law
  • designations of origin or geographical indications infringing goods

If you suspect that goods arriving in the UK are infringing your IP rights, you can submit a National Intellectual Property Rights Application and HMRC will take action. If the IP right in question needs protecting in two or more EU member states, use Community Intellectual Property Rights Application.

In both cases, you must prove you hold the rights to use the IP you are asking HMRC to protect. Find downloadable versions of the National and Community Intellectual Property Rights Application forms on the Europa website.

If HMRC rejects your application you are entitled to an explanation and a request for further investigation. Read about procedures for IP rights infringements in Notice 34.

Government departments and sources of help

This page lists the main sources of help for traders, including how to get help with legislation and duty queries, and how to find advice on beneficial trading schemes and licences.

HMRC can answer many queries related to legislation, the Tariff, quotas, intellectual property and preferential trading schemes. For help and advice contact the HMRC VAT Helpline.

If you have specific queries about getting a trade licence, permit or certificate for a particular product, you must contact the relevant government department.

  • BIS is responsible for trade, business and science and technology. Their website contains a wide range of information, a comprehensive glossary and a frequently asked questions section. Find information relating to international trade.
  • Defra is responsible for environmental, social and economic matters. Their website provides a wide range of support and contacts for international trade. Find information on animal imports and exports.
  • The HSE is responsible for health and safety regulation in Great Britain. Their website provides information on regulations and codes of practice, and trading in controlled substances such as chemicals. Find information and help on the HSE website.
  • The RPA is responsible for issuing and controlling Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) licences. Throughout the UK, they operate regional and local offices and drop-in centres for advice and collection points for application forms. View the range of CAP schemes the RPA operates.

Further information

British Chambers of Commerce

Telephone: 024 7669 4484

Defra helpline

Telephone: 08459 33 55 77

Published 1 August 2012
Last updated 13 June 2013 + show all updates
  1. Fixing references to specialist guides
  2. First published.