How to get started with importing and exporting goods

Blogs 3 Nov 2021

Sending your products across the world or importing materials from suppliers overseas? From customs declarations to classifying goods, find out what you need to know about the process.


If you’re moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or from the EU to Northern Ireland, there are additional steps you must take. Visit the NIBusinessInfo website for guidance and resources.

Getting started

There are several steps you need to take to ensure you’re following the correct procedures and have the right paperwork in place. 

1. Find out what process you need to follow

What you need to do is different depending on what you’re importing or exporting, where it’s coming from or going to and where you’re based. For example, you may need to pay additional taxes and duties if your goods were sent to Great Britain from outside the UK, or to Northern Ireland from outside the UK and the EU. Find out what steps you need to take for importing and exporting.

2. Check the rules around labelling and licensing

For certain products, like animal products or hazardous chemicals, you may need licences or certificates in place. There are also labelling, marking and marketing standards for goods such as manufactured goods and food products. This includes rules around UKCA marking.

If you’re importing, don’t forget to check that the business you’re receiving goods from has made an export declaration if necessary and has the required licences and certificates.

If you’re exporting, check if there are any rules or restrictions on the goods in the destination country. Check if the importer has made an import declaration if needed and has the necessary licences.

To export dual-use items from Great Britain to the EU or the Channel Islands, you will need an export licence issued by the UK or your goods may be held at the border. Register for an Open General Export Licence through SPIRE.

Getting ready for customs

1. Get an EORI number

“If you are beginning to import and export you need to get registered for an Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number with HMRC”, says James Wilthew, FSB member and Owner of The Afghan Rug Shop. “The number means you formally exist as an importer or exporter and it helps smooth the process of your shipments coming and going as a registered entity.”

“I’d recommend using a recognised national or international carrier, as most of them are well established for assisting you in your imports and exports. With your EORI number, you will find the process very user-friendly. I get my shipments when I expect them and my carrier provides all the necessary import documents and tax invoices,” he adds.

You’ll need an EORI number that starts with:

  • GB if you’re importing to or exporting from England, Wales or Scotland
  • XI if you’re moving goods to or from Northern Ireland

You can get an EORI here.

You may need an EORI number from an EU country if your business will be making declarations or getting a customs decision in the EU. Get this from the customs authority in the EU country where you submit your first declaration or request your first decision.

2. Check if you need to register for VAT

If you are exporting to the EU, you may need to consider whether you need to register for VAT in each country you export to depending on your business model and contracts.

You may be able to make use of the EU’s VAT Import One-Stop Shop (IOSS), which allows businesses to register in one EU Member State for VAT purposes. If you use the IOSS, you will be required to appoint a VAT intermediary based in the EU.

1. Customs declarations and duties

You now need to make a customs declaration when you import goods from or export goods to the EU.

What is a customs declaration?
A customs declaration details the goods that are being imported or exported to ensure the right duties and VAT are applied. It often includes commodity codes and any necessary licences.

You can either make customs declarations yourself or hire a customs agent to do this. Our guide to customs declarations can help you to get started, and the Government has compiled guidance on how to complete export declarations and import declarations.

2. Commodity codes

You’ll be asked for a commodity code for your customs declaration to work out the rate of duty you need to pay.

What is a commodity code?

A commodity code is a short sequence of numbers used to classify goods when they are traded internationally.

You can use the Government online Trade Tariff service to look up commodity codes. This tariff doesn’t include other import duties such as VAT. Commodity codes vary depending on the type and value of your goods.

3. Find out if you can pay reduced customs duty

You may be able to pay reduced or no customs duty on goods you move into or out of Great Britain, depending on the type of goods and what you do with them. You may be able to qualify for zero tariffs if your goods meet the rules of origin in the TCA.

What are rules of origin?

Rules of origin are a common feature of free trade agreements (FTAs). They help determine the “economic nationality” of imported and exported goods and whether they qualify for reduced or zero tariffs. Rules of origin are product and process specific, and you will need to prove the origin of your products to qualify. Find out more on our dedicated rules of origin page.

 If you are importing components and products and re-exporting them to the EU without carrying out any further processing or manufacturing activity on them, your goods may face tariffs again when they are exported outside the UK. In this situation, you could consider using a customs warehouse or using a separate warehouse in EU territory to fulfil EU sales.

Check if you can pay a reduced amount of customs duty here or if you can delay customs payments and declarations.

4. Check if you can zero rate exports for VAT

You may be able to zero rate the goods you export for VAT, but depending on the Incoterms used in your contracts, you may still be responsible for import VAT payments in the destination country. Find out more about Incoterms. Some countries may also require you to appoint an EU fiscal representative.

5. Import duties

Customs duty applies to goods imported from outside the UK, or outside the UK and the EU for Northern Ireland, if they’re valued over £135 or excise goods. You also need to pay import VAT on goods from the EU. You can find out more about taxes, duties and rates for goods sent from overseas here.  For goods brought into Northern Ireland that are at risk of onward movement to the EU, you need to check commodity codes, duty and VAT rates.

Getting goods across the border

1. Getting through customs

If you have appointed a customs agent, they will make the customs declaration for you.

2. Rules for importing

You may be able to delay your customs declaration for up to 175 days if you are not importing controlled goods. Find out more here.

If you are doing the customs declaration yourself, you may be able to make a simplified declaration – find out whether that applies to you here, or check if Authorised Economic Operator status could benefit you.

3. Rules for exporting

You’ll need to send any licences or certificates and the invoice with your goods. The invoice must include the value of the goods either at the sale price or market value. Export insurance costs should be listed separately. You may also need to provide proof of origin of your goods. Find out more on our rules of origin page.

There is additional guidance for transporting goods out of the UK by road.

After your goods have arrived

1. Claim a VAT or duty refund

You may be able to defer, suspend, reduce or reclaim VAT on goods you import. For instance, if you’re VAT registered you can claim VAT back on goods you’ve imported with an Import VAT certificate (C79). Keep a record of this along with other customs paperwork and invoices. Find out more about import VAT.

You may be able to claim a refund from HMRC, for example if you’ve paid the wrong amount of duty or rejected imported goods.

2. Keep all your documentation

Keep a record of invoices and other relevant customs paperwork. If you’re VAT registered, there is guidance on how to record this in your VAT accounts.

Next steps

Find more guidance on getting started with importing and exporting from the Department for International Trade.

The Government have produced a toolkit for SMEs to provide guidance and support when trading with the EU and Northern Ireland. 

Download a copy