Sanctions, embargoes and restrictions

Why governments put trade controls in place, how they work for exporters, and how traders can apply for a licence.

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Sanctions and embargoes are political trade restrictions put in place against target countries with the aim of maintaining or restoring international peace and security.

For details about specific destinations see Current arms embargoes and restrictions.

For the latest on the EU’s sanctions on Russia and action taken by the UK, see the Export Control Organisation’s Notices to exporters. and updated information on Russia sanctions.

What are sanctions and embargoes?

Sanctions and embargoes are political trade tools, mainly put in place by the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).

The main aim of all UN sanctions and embargoes, as set out in the UN Charter, is to implement decisions by its Security Council to maintain or restore international peace and security.

The EU imposes sanctions and embargoes to further its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) objectives. EU measures can also be imposed to uphold respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

In addition to UN and EU sanctions, sanctions and embargoes may be put in place by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who can also impose national arms embargoes.

Why impose sanctions?

Their principal purpose is usually to change the behaviour of the target country’s regimes, individuals or groups in a direction which will improve the situation in that country. All recent UN and EU sanctions contain information as to why they have been imposed and specify what their aim is.

The ultimate objective of a sanction varies according to the situation. For instance, an arms embargo and a ban on the export of certain items or raw materials could be aimed at supporting a peace process and restricting the financing of weapons by the combatants. Sanctions may also be aimed at preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands, disrupting terrorist operations, or trying to change the policies and actions of the ‘target’ (see ‘targeting sanctions’).

Types of sanctions and embargoes

When a sanction or embargo is set, the UK follows international procedure to put it in place in British law.

The UN Security Council imposes sanctions through Security Council Resolutions. The EU acts on these by adopting a Common Position and where appropriate, an EU regulation directly applicable to member states is introduced. Where sanctions and embargo measures require more than administrative action to implement them, the UK introduces new or amends existing secondary licensing and enforcement legislation.

The most frequently applied measures are:

  • embargoes on exporting or supplying arms and associated technical assistance, training and financing
  • a ban on exporting equipment that might be used for internal repression
  • financial sanctions on individuals in government, government bodies and associated companies, or terrorist groups and individuals associated with those groups
  • travel bans on named individuals
  • bans on imports of raw materials or goods from the sanctions target

Other measures may be applied according to individual circumstances.

Targeting sanctions

All sanctions and embargo regimes are targeted. A ‘targeted’ restriction is focused on individual people or organisations. In some cases, a comprehensive restriction is put in place against a particular country’s regime. Sanctions can also be targeted at a particular industry, such as banning the supply of petroleum and related products.

Putting sanctions and embargoes into practice

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has overall responsibility for the UK’s policy on sanctions and embargoes.

Arms embargoes

These embargoes are generally imposed by the UN or EU on ‘arms and related material’ (such as military ammunition, weapons and goods). The UK typically interprets this as covering all goods and technologies on the UK Military List. Goods that are not specifically listed, might also need a licence under the Military End-Use Control. Controls on the supply of military items between another third country and the sanctions target (trafficking and brokering) also apply.

Certain specific sanctions are imposed on dual-use goods such as petrochemicals or telecommunications items.

The key regulator for exporting and trading in controlled strategic goods (military and dual-use) and also the administration of licensable goods subject to arms embargoes is the Export Control Organisation (ECO). The ECO forms part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Import licensing

Some sanctions contain import bans. Read more information on import controls.

Financial sanctions

Financial sanctions measures can vary from the comprehensive – prohibiting the transfer of funds to a sanctioned country and freezing the assets of a government, the corporate entities and residents of the target country – to targeted asset freezes on individuals/entities.

Financial sanctions may apply to individuals, entities and governments, who may be resident in the UK or abroad. Certain financial sanctions may also prohibit providing or performing other financial services, such as insurance, to designated individuals or governments.

It is a criminal offence to breach a financial sanction, without an appropriate licence or authorisation from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation.

HM Treasury, through the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation is responsible for:

  • the implementation and administration of international financial sanctions in effect in the UK
  • licensing exemptions to financial sanctions
  • domestic designations under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010
  • directions given under Schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008

Travel bans

These are administered by the UK Border Agency.

Exporting without a licence

It is a criminal offence to export strategic or controlled goods that are subject to sanction and embargo regimes without a specific licence issued by the Export Control Organisation (ECO), part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The export of some goods is also banned outright.

It is vital that individual traders and brokers check that their goods can be exported or traded to a particular destination, as missing or incorrect licences can lead to delays, seizures, fines, penalties, and even imprisonment.

Exporters and traders, particularly those who work in controlled sectors, eg defence manufacturing, must keep up to date with legislation, which is subject to change. You are advised to subscribe to the update notices issued by the relevant government department including the Notices to exporters from the Export Control Organisation (ECO), Import Licensing Branch or HM Treasury.

If you or your business are impacted by sanctions you should seek your own legal advice.

Strategic export control and arms embargoes

Secondary legislation introduced under the Export Control Act 2002 provides licensing and enforcement powers to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in relation to sanctions and embargoes on military and dual-use items.

Brief overview of export controls

The chief task of the ECO is to process applications for licences to export strategic goods, software and technology from the UK. Strategic items include not only military products but also a wide range of other dual-use items such as chemicals, lasers, high-powered computers, cryptographic items and much more.

The key to determining if your export or trade deal is licensable depends on four key factors:

  • type of items being exported - whether the items on a list of licensable goods (the UK Strategic Export Control Lists)
  • destination concerned - whether the country is subject to sanctions or other concerns
  • end-use of the items
  • other licensable trade or export activities

For information on applying for a licence and export controls in general, read Do I need an export licence?.

Banned goods

It is illegal to import or export some types of goods, including anti-personnel landmines, laser weapons or significant amounts of new nuclear material or to export nuclear weapons or technologies to countries other than recognised nuclear weapon states. It is also illegal to import or export certain items that could be used for torture or capital punishment. Read our overview of current arms embargoes and other restrictions.

Your export responsibilities

It is vital that individual exporters check that their goods can be exported or traded to a particular destination, as missing or incorrect licences can lead to delays, seizures, fines, penalties or even imprisonment.

Subscribe to receive email alerts to the ECO’s Notices to Exporters which provide updates on arms embargoes and other export control announcements.

Applying for a licence

All applications for licences to export military or dual-use items controlled for strategic reasons are considered on a case-by-case basis by the ECO.

SPIRE is the ECO’s fully electronic system for processing export licence applications.

Find out about the licensing process in the guide to export control licensing process and how to appeal. You can use the Goods Checker on the Checker tools website (registration required) to find out if your items are included on the UK Strategic Export Control List controlled by UK or EU legislation.

Complying with financial sanctions

Financial sanctions in force in the UK may apply to individuals, entities and governments, who may be resident in the UK or abroad.

A consolidated list of asset freeze targets designated by the United Nations, European Union and United Kingdom under legislation relating to current financial sanctions regimes is available.

You may also wish to be aware of the list of organisations which are proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. Providing of funds to these organisations is a criminal offence. Please see the proscribed terror groups or organisations page for more information and the list of organisations.

Failure to comply with financial sanctions is a criminal offence. HM Treasury treats all breaches of financial sanctions seriously, and expects you to fully comply with all current and future financial sanctions. If a breach of financial sanctions has come to your attention or if you wish to self-disclose a breach, please fill in the form below.

Breach form

Revision of policy on funds arriving in the UK

HM Treasury has revised its policy on funds arriving in the UK from or via a designated person based outside the EU. From 1 August 2014 such funds will be required to be frozen.

Financial sanctions - notification of revision of policy

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Obtaining a licence or authorisation

Applications to release funds from frozen accounts, or to make funds, economic resources or financial services available to or for the benefit of a designated person should be made in writing by:

email to:

post to:

Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation
HM Treasury
1 Horse Guards Road

Download generic licence application form (MS Word Document, 69.6 KB) for all sanctioned countries

For licence applications relating to Al Qaida and Terrorist Financing asset freezes, you should write to Financial Sanctions setting out the full facts and details of the licence needed if there is not already a relevant general licence.

Download Terrorism licensing policy (PDF, 47.7 KB, 1 page)

Further Information

Export Control Organisation (ECO) helpline: 020 7215 4594 or email:

Project Alpha @ King’s College London – information, guidance and country profiles intended to assist the exporters of dual-use commodities. The Export Control Organisation neither monitors or endorses non-governmental providers of information.

Financial sanctions enquiries

Enquiries relating to asset freezing or other financial sanctions should be submitted to HM Treasury either by email to or by post to Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, HM Treasury, 1 Horse Guards Road, London SW1A 2HQ.

Subscribe to our e-mail alerts to receive updates from OFSI on financial sanctions in effect in the United Kingdom.

Published 3 August 2012
Last updated 31 March 2016 + show all updates
  1. Updated Terrorist Licencing Policy

  2. license file changed to fix issue with editing

  3. New breach form attachment and additional text under 'Complying with financial sanctions' section

  4. Updated with a link to the proscribed terror groups or organisations page.

  5. Link added to the latest developments regarding export of strategic goods to Russia.

  6. Added Financial sanctions notification of revision of policy

  7. Terrorism licensing policy added

  8. added Generic Licence application form

  9. Added content on financial sanctions

  10. First published.