If you plan to import goods or supplies into the UK from overseas, you’ll need to make sure that you comply with the most up-to-date rules and procedures relating to the UK’s import controls. This can include the requirement for either an import licence or import certificate.
Below we look at the UK’s licensing requirements for imported goods, and how businesses bringing controlled goods into the UK from both the EU and around the world can apply in advance for permission from the appropriate UK authority for a licence or certificate.
What is a UK import licence?
UK import controls can take the form of an outright prohibition or licensing control. Some goods are therefore strictly prohibited from being imported into the UK, whilst others are controlled, meaning these can be imported, albeit only under the authority of a licence.
Import licensing controls can apply against specific goods or imports from specific countries. An import licence is designed to regulate and control certain types of goods crossing the UK’s borders, where these fall under the collective heading known as ‘controlled goods’.
The list of ‘controlled goods’ covers a wide range of imported items, including all goods subject to excise duty, like tobacco and alcohol, for which import duty is payable but no licence is needed. However, controlled goods also include those that need a UK import licence, such as livestock, chemicals and firearms. In these cases, you’ll need to ensure the controlled goods are accompanied by the right supporting documents, including any licence needed.
In contrast, ‘prohibited goods’ refer to goods that cannot be imported into the UK, although in some cases there may be exceptions, known as derogations. For example, the import into the UK of goods that could be used for capital punishment, torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments are banned, but with the limited exception of items to be displayed in a museum for their historic significance — and for which an import licence would be required.
Similarly, offensive weapons which are designed to kill or inflict serious injury on someone and do not have a legitimate use, such as knives, swords and other blades, are currently banned or restricted from being imported into the UK, but again with limited exceptions.
What is a UK import certificate?
The terms ‘import licence’ and ‘import certificate’ are often used interchangeably under the overall umbrella of import controls although, strictly speaking, certain controlled goods require a licence to be imported into the UK, whereas others require a certificate.
For example, when importing certain veterinary medicines into the UK, there are three different types of import certificate depending on the reason for the import: a special import certificate, a wholesale dealers import certificate and a research import certificate. This broadly mirrors the licensing process for importing human medicines, with the choice of a wholesale dealer, manufacturer and marketing authorisation licence.
Similarly, you don’t need a licence to import plants and fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables, into the UK. However, you will need to register as an importer on PEACH (the Procedure for Electronic Application for Certificates from the Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate), and you may need to obtain a phytosanitary certificate (PC). To import regulated plants or plant products, you must get a PC from the plant health authority of the country where your supplier is based to confirm each consignment is bio-secure.
There are also scenarios in which both a UK import licence, together with some form of additional certification, may be needed. For example, when importing live animals and animal products, you may need both a licence in place, plus a valid health certificate.
Most imports of animals or animal products are covered by UK legislation, meaning that there are already general import licences or authorisations in place for certain livestock, as well as products for human consumption and not for human consumption. Where applicable, this means you don’t need to apply for one of these general licences, although you must follow its’ conditions. However, if you cannot find a general licence or authorisation for what you want to import, you must apply for a licence and ensure a health certificate is available.
When is an import licence or import certificate needed?
An import licence or import certificate will not be needed to bring most industrial goods into the UK, although certain goods need one, or both, as a result of controls imposed at either a national or UN level. Import controls are generally required for public health and security reasons, where certain goods coming into the UK need to be capped or closely monitored.
At a national level, most categories of goods may be imported under the authority of what’s known as the Open General Import Licence (OGIL). The OGIL is a national trade control measure, granted by the Secretary of State and run by the Department for International Trade (DIT), that allows the import of all goods into the UK, subject to specific exceptions.
Under the OGIL, any goods set out within Annex 1 which are described as ‘prohibited’ may not be imported into the UK, whereas goods described as ‘controlled’ may only be imported into the UK under the authority of a specific licence issued by a relevant government body. Goods subject to import controls under the OGIL include firearms, anti-personnel mines, and certain nuclear and chemical goods. Where applicable, licences for controlled goods are issued by DIT’s Import Licensing Branch (ILB), the UK’s main import licensing authority. The ILB also publicise the OGIL — and other prohibitions and controls not restricted under the OGIL but otherwise subject to import licensing requirements — by way of a Notice to Importers (NTI).
Which imported goods need a licence or certificate?
In most cases you won’t need a licence to import goods into the UK, but if you import goods falling into any of the following categories, licensing and/or other requirements may apply:
- live animals and animal products, including certain livestock, products for human consumption and products not for human consumption, such as pet food
- plants and plant products, including fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables
- high risk food, including food products containing salmonella, pesticides or contaminants
- veterinary and human medicines
- controlled drugs, referring to prescription drugs named in the misuse of drugs legislation
- tissues and cells for human application
- waste, including a wide definition of waste products
- products containing F gas, an environmentally harmful man-made gas
- precursor chemicals or hazardous chemicals
- nuclear material, such as uranium or plutonium
- guns, knives, swords and other weapons
- weapons and goods that could be used for torture or capital punishment.
The NTI and all import controls relating to goods can be found online at GOV.UK, with guidance notices for importers where there’s an import licensing control regime in place. These explain the UK’s current import prohibitions and controls in detail.
The UK Integrated Online Tariff on GOV.UK can also help importers to identify which licences and certificates apply to the import of their goods, as well as any import duty and VAT payable, based on specific commodity codes. For additional inquiries, advice can be sought via email from the DTI’s ILB for any import controls that the licensing branch is responsible for.
All other inquiries will need to be directed to the authority listed in the relevant guidance. Some of the main UK licensing authorities include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); the Rural Payments Agency (RPA); the Health and Safety Executive (HSE); the Home Office Drugs Licensing and Compliance Unit; the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); and the Animal & Plant Health Agency.
How to apply for an import licence or import certificate
The way in which you apply for an import licence or import certificate will depend on the goods to be imported, and therefore the nature of the licence or certificate needed. For applications dealt with by the DTI’s import licensing branch, you should visit their online portal where you can register to gain access to their import case management system (ICMS).
Having registered for the ICMS, you will then be able to apply for any licence for which the DTI is authorised to issue. There’s also contact information and extensive guidance for importers. If you import goods into the UK, it’s your responsibility to know what import restrictions and controls are in place, and to remain legally compliant at all times.
What is a Certificate of Free Sale?
A Certificate of Free Sale (CFS) is a certificate issued by UK government agencies to exporters outside the UK. CFS are mainly required for goods that will come into contact with humans or animals from countries with lower product safety standards than those in the UK.
The CFS declaration is designed to confirm that the goods are already sold on the UK market which has high product safety standards, and therefore meet the UK’s stringent product safety legislative requirements. In this way, a CFS avoids an exporter having their product range retested for product safety in every applicable export market.
A number of UK authorities issue CFS for different products, for example, the:
- HSE issue certificates for biocides
- Defra issue CFS for products ingested by humans or animals, such as food, drink and feed
- MHRA issue CFS for medical devices.
DIT’s import licensing branch, the ILB, is responsible for the issue of CFS for all other products coming into contact with humans or animals. To apply for a DTI CFS, you’ll need to open an online account, and from your account make an exporter access request. Once approved you, or an agent on your behalf, will be able to request a certificate.
Will I need to register to import goods into the UK?
Many businesses won’t need a licence or certificate to import goods into the UK, although you’ll still need to register for an Economic Operators Registration and Identification number (EORI number), unless you’re moving goods for personal use only.
You’ll need to register for a number if you move goods in a commercial context between, for example, Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) or the Isle of Man and any other country, including the EU, or between Northern Ireland and countries outside the EU.
To obtain an EORI number, your business will usually need to have premises based in the country you want to import to or export from. This is referred to as ‘being established’. Your premises also need to be either a registered office, a central headquarters or a permanent business establishment, ie; premises where some of your customs-related activities take place and your HR and technical resources are permanently located.
If your business is not based in the country you’re moving goods to or from, you should still obtain an EORI number. If you’re not eligible to apply for an EORI number yourself, you’ll need to appoint someone to apply for a number and deal with customs on your behalf.
UK import licence FAQs
Do I need a licence to import?
A licence isn’t needed to import most industrial goods into the UK, although certain goods need a licence as a result of controls imposed at a national or UN level, such as firearms or certain nuclear and chemical goods.
What is import certification?
Import certification is where a certificate must be issued by a relevant authority for certain goods to be imported into the UK, for example, for veterinary medicines. It can also refer to health certificates required in addition to import licences.
Can I import without import licence?
Certain goods are subject to import controls and so, where applicable, can only be imported into the UK with a relevant licence or certificate, for example, firearms or chemical goods.
What documents do I need to import goods?
What documents do I need to import goods?
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.