Making customs declarations, paying customs charges and complying with the red tape under the UK’s revised customs’ rules will undoubtedly feel daunting for both traders and tourists alike.

Following Brexit, with the end of free movement of both goods and people, the new procedures now encompass EU and non-EU citizens visiting the UK, with goods for personal use in accompanied baggage, as well as those bringing goods into the UK to use or sell in a business.

This guide provides an overview of the UK customs rules.


What are UK customs?

UK customs is the authority responsible for controlling the flow of goods into and out of the country, and for the collection of tariffs and other taxes on those goods, otherwise known as customs charges. UK customs therefore has a number of key functions, including:

  • security: the import of some goods, such as hazardous items, may be banned or restricted, where UK customs will identify those goods which require documentary or physical examination using its’ highly sophisticated online risk-profiling system. In this way, customs procedures help to effectively detect the smuggling of prohibited goods;
  • taxation: UK customs is responsible for recording, monitoring and accounting for taxes and duties incurred by those bringing goods into the UK, either for private or commercial use, and collects £billions of revenue each year to be re-invested into the UK economy;
  • trade facilitation: it facilitates international trade on imports and exports, giving legitimate goods, and those deemed to be low-level risk, faster passage when they’re directly imported from, or exported to, third countries. The UK customs procedures, including import and export declarations, are also essential for collecting data for international trade statistics.

Given the importance of UK customs, and the functions that it fulfils, there is a wide range of sanctions — from financial penalties to the seizure of goods, and even criminal prosecution — for any failure to comply with the relevant rules. It’s therefore vital that those visiting the UK, or bringing goods into the UK, understand customs procedures to avoid falling foul of the law.


What are customs declarations?

Customs declarations are the declarations made to the UK customs authority when bringing or receiving goods into the UK. This could be goods being brought in for personal use, for example, in accompanied baggage. It also covers commercial goods being imported into the UK through various different means, including by international courier, freight forwarder or merchandise in baggage, for example, in a trader’s own luggage or vehicle.

A customs declaration is essentially the official document in which a tourist or trader must specify the nature and value of the goods being brought into the UK and, where applicable, pay any import VAT, customs duty and excise duty due. There’s a useful online tool at GOV.UK to check in advance if you need to declare your goods for private use, for example, if you exceed your personal allowance for excise goods, such as alcohol and tobacco, together with the amount of customs charges that will need to be paid on that category of goods.


Customs declarations for commercial importers

A separate tool, known as the Trade Tariff tool, also exists for those importing commercial goods into the UK.

The UK trade tariff tool is a free online service that allows businesses and individuals to find out about the tariffs and other trade duties that apply to goods imported into or exported from the UK.

The tool can be used to:

  • Find the tariff code for a good
  • Check the duty rate for a good
  • Find out about any other trade duties that may apply, such as anti-dumping duties or safeguard measures
  • Find out about any preferential duty rates that may be available, such as those under trade agreements

You would use the UK trade tariff tool as follows:

  • Go to the UK trade tariff tool website.
  • Enter the name of the good you are interested in in the search bar.
  • Click on the search results to find the tariff code for the good.
  • Click on the tariff code to find the duty rate and other trade duties that apply to the good.

You can also use the UK trade tariff tool to find out about preferential duty rates. To do this, select the country you are importing or exporting from the “Country” drop-down menu. The tool will then show you the preferential duty rates that are available for that country.

As there are no personal allowances for imported commercial goods, you must declare to customs any goods being brought into the UK that you plan to use or sell in a business. However, the online tool can be used to identify the correct commodity code to classify your goods when submitting an import declaration, together with the import VAT rates, and any import and excise duty that may become payable.


What do you have to declare at UK customs?

There are certain goods that you’ll need to declare to UK customs, although the rules differ for tourists bringing in items for personal use, and for traders bringing or receiving commercial goods into the UK to use or sell in a business. Below we look at both:


Personal goods

Certain items are banned or restricted. If entirely prohibited, these will be seized by UK customs, for example, controlled drugs, offensive weapons, rough diamonds, indecent and obscene materials, and personal imports of meat and dairy products from most non-EU countries. If you also bring goods suspected of infringing any intellectual property rights, for example, pirate copies of music or movies, they may be seized and you could be prosecuted.

For restricted goods, such as firearms and ammunition, you’ll need a special licence to bring them into the UK. Other restricted items include certain food and plant products if they’re not free from pests and diseases, are not for your own use and were not grown in the EU.

In addition to any banned or restricted items, you’ll also need to declare any excise goods which exceed your personal allowance. For example, if you’re travelling from either an EU or non-EU country to Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland), you would need to declare to UK customs 5 litres of spirits, 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars and a new electronic device that cost £400. This is because you’d be exceeding your personal allowance for both alcohol and tobacco, as well as for other types of goods exceeding £390.


Commercial goods

As with items for personal use, certain items being imported into the UK to use or sell in a business are either banned or restricted. For restricted items, such as livestock, chemicals and firearms, you’ll need an import licence. Depending on the nature of the imported goods, you may also need other documentation, such as a valid health certificate.

Customs declarations must then be made for all commercial goods being brought into the UK from outside the EU and, from 1 January 2022, any goods being brought into Great Britain from EU countries. The way in which commercial goods are declared to UK customs can vary, depending on how those goods are being imported.

When bringing commercial goods into the UK in accompanied baggage or in a vehicle, otherwise known as merchandise in baggage, the way in which those goods need to be declared will all depend on things like their classification, value and weight. In some cases, and when using a freight forwarder, you will need to submit an import declaration through the Customs Declaration Service (CDS), which is replacing the CHIEF system as the UK’s single customs platform from 30 March 2024.


How much are UK customs charges?

Customs charges comprise import VAT, import duty and excise duty:


Import VAT

This is charged on all goods imported into Great Britain from outside the UK, or into Northern Ireland from outside the EU, except for gifts worth £39 or less. Import VAT is charged at the same rate as if the goods were supplied in the UK, typically at 20%. However, consignments of goods with a value of £135 or less that are from outside the UK will usually have UK supply VAT charged at the point of sale.

Import duty is payable on any goods sent from outside the UK, or the EU for Northern Ireland, if these are worth more than £135 or excise goods, such as alcohol or tobacco. For gifts between £135 and £630, customs duty is charged at 2.5%, and for gifts valued at over £630 and other goods above £135, the rate will depend on the type of goods and where they’re from, using the relevant commodity code. You’ll pay import duty on excise goods of any value.


Excise duty

This is payable on products such as alcohol and tobacco. If you’re sent alcohol or tobacco from outside the UK, regardless of whether you buy the goods or they’re sent as a gift, you’ll be charged excise duty at variable rates depending on the nature of those goods. If you receive large quantities of alcohol or tobacco for your business, you can use the online Trade Tariff tool to check duty rates.

You can bring certain goods from abroad on your person without having to pay customs charges, if they’re either for your own use or you want to give them as a gift. The amount of goods that you can bring into the UK is known as your personal allowance. However, if you exceed that allowance, you’ll have to pay customs charges on the total value of all the goods.


What are the customs procedures for declaring goods?

If you need to declare goods that you’re bringing into the UK for your own use because you’ve exceeded your personal allowance, you can declare these using the online tool at GOV.UK. You can do this from 5 days before your scheduled arrival. However, customs charges will be calculated using simplified rather than custom tariff rates.

If using the online service doesn’t provide the best outcome economically, or you’ve exceeded the upper threshold for alcohol and tobacco and, as such, are prohibited from using this service, you can instead make an oral declaration on arrival in the UK.

If you’re bringing in goods to use or sell in your business, either you, or someone on your behalf, will need to submit an import declaration. This could be a simple online declaration prior to your arrival in the UK for low value or low weight merchandise in baggage, not exceeding £1,500 and weighing less than 1000 kilograms. For higher value or heavier items, or for restricted and excise goods, you may need to make a full customs declaration. As a trader, you may then have the option of deferring payment of customs charges to a later date.


Using a customs agent

When bringing or receiving goods into the UK to use or sell in a business, using a customs agent, or other intermediary, can provide a number of benefits including:

  • Dealing with customs declarations on your behalf: a customs agent, freight forwarder or fast parcel operator can file the necessary online “custom declaration form through the CDS system. An agent can also ensure that you have the correct licence or certificate. Customs agents essentially make sure your goods clear through customs. To use the CDS yourself, you’ll need to register with HMRC and have access to compatible commercial software.
  • Minimising the risk of error: given the importance of making correct customs declarations, where errors can result in the seizure of goods and imposition of penalties, instructing a third party to deal with this on your behalf can help to ensure that all customs procedures are followed correctly and that you remain legally compliant at all times.
  • Providing additional services: many customs agents offer additional services, such as tracking your delivery as it moves from the point of origin through to point of destination.




Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing & Content Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

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.

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