If you import goods into the UK or are planning to do so, it is important to understand how to correctly submit any import declarations using the right system.

From 30 March 2024, the Customs Declaration Service will be the sole customs platform for businesses to declare goods coming into the UK.

The following guide for traders and intermediaries looks at how this system works and how to stay customs compliant.


What is the Customs Declaration Service?

The Customs Declaration Service (CDS) is the online system for all import and export declarations when moving goods into and out of the UK. The CDS will be the permanent replacement for HMRC’s previous electronic platform — the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) — to record the movement of goods from 30 March 2024.

The imminent closure of CHIEF’s import functions means that, as either a trader or intermediary bringing goods into the UK, you will now need to sign up for the new Customs Declaration Service to complete the necessary customs formalities, including making import declarations.

An import declaration is the declaration made to the UK customs authority when bringing goods into the UK by land, air or sea. This sets out the nature, quantity and value of the goods being brought into the UK, allowing the customs authority to monitor and control the import of goods, and providing a basis upon which any customs charges can be calculated.

You will need to submit import declarations for most goods that you intend to sell, process or use in your business in the UK and, where applicable, pay any import VAT, customs duty and excise duty that falls due on those goods. Import declarations must be made by or on behalf of traders for all commercial goods brought into the UK from both inside and outside the EU.

Founded on the latest technology, the CDS promises to deliver a more user-friendly and streamlined system that offers greater functionality when compared with CHIEF, which is now nearly 30 years old. The new CDS offers a host of specialist functions and interfaces, where you and your business will be able to easily access real-time import data, and check tariffs and financial statements online, using dedicated digital dashboards.


What is the timeline for the Customs Declaration Service?

The CHIEF system was the primary means of making declarations for imported goods to clear the UK border for amongst 30 years. However, the Customs Declaration Service will soon become the UK’s single customs platform, with complete effect after 30 March 2024. This is when HMRC will formally close the CHIEF system, and all businesses will need to declare goods through the Customs Declaration Service from this date onwards.

The functionality of CHIEF is being withdrawn in the following two stages:

    • 30 September 2022: Import declarations have closed on CHIEF and CDS is now in use
    • 30 November 2023: Export declarations close on CHIEF / National Exports System (NES)


How do you sign up for the Customs Declaration Service?

If you are importing goods into the UK, you can make declarations as soon as you have signed up to use the new Customs Declaration Service. Any new importers will now need to register with the CDS, rather than with CHIEF, to make their import declarations. This is because the CHIEF system has stopped accepting new registration requests from importers and import declarations.

To sign up for CDS, you will need the Government Gateway user ID and password that you use for your business or, if you are applying as an individual, for yourself. Most business and sole traders will already have a Government Gateway account to access their business and personal tax accounts. You should use these account details to sign up to the Customs Declaration Service. You can register online for a Government Gateway account if you do not already have one.

To sign up for the Customs Declaration Service you will also need the following information:

  • your Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) number, which starts with GB, where most businesses bringing goods into the UK already have one. For those without an EORI number, it is quick and free to apply, taking around one week to be processed
  • your Unique Taxpayer Reference (UTR) number
  • the address for your business that HMRC holds on its customs records
  • if you are an individual or sole trader, your National Insurance number
  • the date your business started.

After you have signed up, you may be granted access to the Customs Declaration Service within just 2 hours, although if HMRC needs to make more checks this could take up to 5 working days.

To use the CDS to make import declarations, you will first need to obtain compatible software to be able to interact with HMRC’s online system. You will also need to authorise your software provider once you have registered with the CDS, linking your software to your Government Gateway account.

If you already have a software provider to access CHIEF, they should be in the process of updating their applications and letting you know when your business is ready to start using the new platform.


How do you use the Customs Declaration Service?

The Customs Declaration Service, similar to the CHIEF system, records the movement of goods into the UK by land, air and sea, and allows importers and intermediaries to complete and submit customs formalities electronically. The CDS also offers several new services, alongside those there were already available. There are also some distinct differences between how you will need to make import declarations compared to the CHIEF system.

If you previously used CHIEF for your import declarations, you will find that the Customs Declaration Service captures some information differently. Most of the detail that you included in your previous declarations remain the same, although you will need to input it in a different way. This is because ‘Boxes’ in CHIEF are being replaced with ‘Data Elements’ under the CDS. You should take the time to understand the different data elements and what needs to be completed for each one so as to avoid any errors moving forward.

There is plenty of guidance available for both new and existing importers who are signing up for the Customs Declarations Service, including a ‘Trader checklist’ and a ‘Customs Declaration Service toolkit’ that can be found online at GOV.UK. These provide an overview of the Customs Declaration Service, the CHIEF closure timescales, steps you will need to follow to prepare for the new service and changes to your payment methods.

Other available HMRC resources to support your move to the Customs Declaration Service include the following titles:

  • CDS Declaration Completion Instructions for Imports: this guide provides detailed completion instructions for data elements when making an import declaration to the Customs Declaration Service
  • Navigate the CDS Declaration Instructions for Imports: this guide provides instructions on how to complete an import customs declaration on the Customs Declaration Service
  • Using commodity codes and related additional codes in the Customs Declaration Service: this guide provides instructions on how a commodity code and related additional code affects what is needed on an import declaration or customs clearance request
  • Customs Declaration Service error codes: this guide lists Customs Declaration Service error codes and their descriptions, providing information on what the errors are and why they may be showing on your declaration
  • Upload documents and get messages for the Customs Declaration Service: this guide provides instructions on what you need to do if you have submitted a declaration using the CDS and need to send supporting documents or respond to queries from HMRC.


How can you prepare for the Customs Declaration Service?

There are a number of steps that you can take to prepare in advance for using the Customs Declaration Service. This should include, where you have not done so already, obtaining an EORI number and registering your Government Gateway account details with the CDS.

You can also practice submitting import declarations using the Customs Declaration Service by subscribing to the Trader Dress Rehearsal service. This is a free-to-use service provided by HMRC to help traders to prepare for the live Customs Declaration Service by letting you submit different declaration scenarios in a supported CDS-simulated environment. The Trader Dress Rehearsal service is designed to support the successful migration to the Customs Declaration Service, allowing traders to submit import declarations in partnership with all their supply chain partners using real data and involving realistic business scenarios. No financial payments will be taken from you, and your licenses or quotas will not be affected.

To access the Trader Dress Rehearsal service, you will again need third party software from a software provider. You must also have an EORI number, and have obtained any necessary authorisations, licences and duty deferment accounts for importing goods into the UK.

Using this service to practice making import declarations may seem like an unnecessary step in an already complex process, but to ensure customs compliance and to make sure that your goods are not prevented from crossing the UK border, getting this right can pay dividends. The importance of declaring the correct information should not be underestimated, as errors can lead to delayed clearance, the imposition of penalties and even the seizure of your goods.


How do you get help using the Customs Declaration Service?

To report any issues with subscribing to the Customs Declaration Service, you should email: isbc.eoricontact@hmrc.gov.uk. For all other general questions about the Customs Declaration Service, you should contact imports and exports: general enquiries at GOV.UK. There are a number of different ways in which enquiries can be made, including:

  • using the online ‘Customs General Enquiry Form’ to ask HMRC, for example, about imports from outside the EU or movements within the EU
  • using HMRC’s digital assistant to find information, for example, on importing and import duty rates, how to look up commodity codes and how to get an EORI number
  • using Webchat, to speak to an adviser online about general import queries, open Monday to Friday 8am-6pm, Saturday and Sunday 8am-4pm, and bank holidays 8am-4pm
  • by telephone, where you can call HMRC for help with general importing questions or question on customs reliefs on 0300 322 9434 (textphone: 0300 200 3719), open Monday to Friday 8am-10pm, and Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays 8am-4pm
  • by writing to HMRC for help with questions about importing and customs reliefs at HM Revenue and Customs – CITEX Written Enquiry Team, Local Compliance S0000, Newcastle NE98 1ZZ, UK, including your VAT number, plus the name and address of your business.


What are the benefits of using a customs intermediary?

With practice and preparation, and compatible software, most traders bringing goods into the UK should be able to use the Customs Declaration Service themselves. However, using a customs agent or other intermediary to deal with the customs process on your behalf can provide a range of benefits when importing goods to use in your business, including:

  • Dealing with import declarations on your behalf: a customs agent or other intermediary will be able to file your electronic import declarations through the CDS system for you. They can also make sure that you have the correct licence or certification. Customs agents essentially ensure that your imported goods clear through customs, in most cases without any delays.
  • Minimising the risk of errors: given the importance of making correct import declarations, where errors can lead to delayed clearance, the imposition of penalties and even the seizure of goods, instructing a third party to deal with this on your behalf can help to ensure that all customs procedures are completed correctly and that you remain customs compliant.
  • Providing additional services: many customs agents or other intermediaries offer additional services, such as tracking your imported goods throughout their journey into the UK.


Customs Declaration Service FAQs

What is the Customs Declaration Service?

The Customs Declaration Service is the UK’s new online declaration system for all import and export declarations, and from 30 March 2024 will be the permanent replacement for the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system used by HMRC.

How do I get access to the Customs Declaration Service?

You will need your Government Gateway user ID and password to subscribe to the Customs Declaration Service, as well as your EORI number, your Unique Taxpayer Reference and, if you are an individual or sole trader, your National Insurance number.

What should be included in a customs declaration?

Under the Customs Declaration Service, a customs declaration must include information from eight data element groups: message information, references, parties, value, shipping details, goods identification, transport information, and any other miscellaneous information about the declaration not captured elsewhere.

Why are customs declarations required?

Customs declarations are designed to help the UK customs authority monitor, control and place a levy on the goods that enter the UK, especially where any goods being imported into the country can impact the economy, security or environment.


Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.


As editor of Xpats.io, Gill is passionate about helping individuals and organisations overseas explore and pursue opportunities in the UK. She is a content specialist in the fields of immigration, law and business.