Topic overview

Importing and exporting

Warehouse worker with clipboard in front of multiple shipping containers

Importing and exporting can present exciting new business opportunities, from opening up entire new markets to sourcing unique or competitively priced supplies. Understanding export and import law and the impact of any overseas regulations is a crucial part of developing and managing your international trade.


UK import regulations impose bans or licensing requirements on some products. More generally, you must check that any import meets UK requirements in terms of product safety, labelling and so on.

You should also check whether you are likely to be affected by any overseas regulations in the country you are importing from. For example, any local export taxes or requirements for an export licence.

Your contract negotiations with the supplier need to cover payment and delivery terms, including the payment method. Unless you are a regular importer or your supplier takes responsibility for customs procedures, you may find it easiest to use an import agent to handle customs clearance. Import duty and VAT may also be payable; customs duty rates depend on the product and country of origin.


When exporting, you must check any export restrictions, such as whether an export licence is required. You should also check the legal requirements in the destination country. These include whether an import licence is needed, local product standards, labelling requirements, restrictions on marketing and so on. You may also want to take steps to protect your intellectual property - for example, with an overseas patent or trade mark registration.

The export contract should make it clear what your responsibilities for delivery are, including who will handle overseas taxes and customs clearance. It is essential to confirm what customs tariffs are payable and who is responsible for paying them. You may find it easiest to use a freight forwarder to handle delivery and customs clearance on your behalf.

Negotiating the right payment method is vital. Enforcing contracts overseas can be difficult and expensive, particularly in countries outside the EU. Unless you know and trust the customer, you may want to insist on payment up front or a payment method such as a letter of credit.

Trading overseas

Most UK businesses manage their import and export activities from the UK or by working with a local partner. Relationships with agents and distributors should be covered by clear contractual agreements.

If you decide to establish a local presence, you are likely to become more exposed to local regulations. For example, you may become liable to local taxes, subject to local employment laws and so on. You should take professional advice on local legal requirements.

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