How to Start an Import/Export Business in the UK

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Interested in starting an import and export business? Venturing into import and export business in the UK can be a complex process that requires careful consideration of legal requirements and trade regulations. In this article, you will find out all the nitty gritty you need to start an import and export business.

What is an Import/Export Business?

Import refers to the purchase of foreign products and bringing them into one's home country whereas export refers to the selling of goods and services from the home country to a foreign nation. It mainly consists of distribution, sale, and delivery of goods from one country to another. 

What are the main Imports and Exports in the UK?

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), these are the latest figures for import and export for 2023.


Commodity Value
Cars £2.61B
Gas Turbines £2.58B
Packaged Medicaments £1.3B
Crude Petroleum £1.21B


Commodity Value
Gold £5.91B
Cars £3.78B
Crude Petroleum £1.94B
Gas Turbines £1.91B






How to Start an Import/Export Business in the UK?

To start an import and export business in the UK, one needs to do intensive research to understand what goods are imported and exported, licences that are needed, and legal requirements. Understand the process for importing or exporting in the UK, the demand, competition level, regulatory requirements needed, and market trends in the UK.

It is also important to familiarise yourself with international trade processes such as sourcing, negotiating, and buying goods, before planning for international shipping and customs clearance.

Once you find a niche, familiarise yourself with the import and export regulations in the particular industry of choice including taxes, customs procedures, tariffs, and any restrictions. 

Additionally, decide on the appropriate legal structure for your import and export business such as sole trader, partnership, or limited company. Each structure has different financial, legal, and tax implications. 

After you decide on the structure of a business, you can register your company with Companies House in the UK and obtain a company registration number (CRN). Provide all necessary documentation, such as proof of physical address, and proof of identity, and pay registration fees to comply with all legal requirements for incorporation.

After your company is incorporated you may need an Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number issued by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). An EORI number is mandatory for customs clearance if you are moving goods between Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) or the Isle of Man and any other country (including the EU). However, if you are moving personal or not controlled goods, you do not need an EORI number.

An EORI number is a combination of a country code which shows where the business is registered, plus a unique code or number.

You should check and understand the UK tax system, i.e., custom duties, Value Added Tax (VAT), and corporate tax. You should also check if you need to register for VAT. VAT registration is only mandatory if your VAT taxable turnover is more than £90000 ( VAT threshold ). You can also choose to register for VAT voluntarily even if your turnover is less than the VAT threshold. For goods over £1,500 threshold,  restricted and excised goods, and goods over 1,000kg you will need to make a full customs declaration.

Get to know the import and export licences required by either doing research or communicating with suppliers, and manufacturers who supply goods you are interested in. Licences are issued by the Department for International Trade, however, others are issued by other bodies e.g Department of Health issues licences to import medicines.

Import and export licences are designed to regulate and control certain types of goods entering and exiting the UK’s borders. Although not all businesses require licences to import goods, in some cases you may only need an EORI number.

You can protect your property rights by registering patents, trademarks, or copyrights for your products. Ensure compliance with intellectual property laws in the UK to safeguard your business. You should also learn rules around labeling and regulations for UKCA marking.

Before you start the business, organise transportation, shipping, and warehouse in both the UK and the country you are importing from or exporting to. Have an inventory management system that will manage your invoices and other essential documentation.

How do I get an import and export license in the UK?

Import and export licenses are issued by the UK Government’s Department of International Trade, though there are some which are issued by other bodies. Goods such as certain medicines or chemicals will be issued by other bodies, such as the Animal & Plant Health Agency or the Home Drug Licencing and Compliance Unit.

You can get an import/export or a Certificate of Free Sale (CFS) at the DIT’s Import Licensing Branch portal which is also known as Case Management System. Importers and exporters can register with the system and apply for the licences and CFS documents they need.

Before applying for an import or export licence, make sure you have the necessary documents such as a commercial invoice, certificate of origin, and packing list. However, the documents needed may differ depending on the goods you are importing. 

To know the exact documents needed when applying for a licence, you can check the commodity code of your goods online.

Once you get your import and export licence, make sure suppliers, vendors, and manufacturers have the right licence to legally export or import goods to the UK. Suppliers can obtain CFS if they are from a country with lower product safety standards.

The registration fees depend on what you are importing or exporting. Some goods may need multiple licences or checks to make sure they meet the required standards.

Some of the products that need an import licence include;

  • Plants
  • Pets and animals (including tropical fish and pet birds)
  • Alcohol
  • Art
  • Military and paramilitary goods
  • Certain high-risk food products
  • Medicine (veterinary or human)

Whether or not you need to apply for a UK import or export licence, you will have to identify the commodity code of your goods to confirm which category the goods you’re importing fall under. You can find out the commodity code of the goods you’re importing on the Government’s website.

Before you start an import and export business, make sure you do intensive research and understand exactly what documents are needed. You will also need an EORI number if your company imports goods into or exports goods from the UK which we offer at a low cost to clients from all around the world. We can help you get an EORI number quickly, whether you are UK or Non-UK resident with minimum documentation requirements.

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