What Legal Considerations Should UK Businesses Be Aware of When Exporting to Non-EU Countries?

11 June 2024

Understanding the rules and regulations around international trade is essential for any UK business looking to export goods to non-EU countries. From customs procedures to VAT implications, data protection to product safety, there is a host of legal considerations that can have a significant impact on your company. This guide provides an overview of key areas you need to be aware of to ensure that your company operates within the law and minimises risk in the global market.

Understanding Export Controls

Before you can begin exporting your goods, it's necessary to understand if any export controls apply to your products. These regulations are designed to control the transfer of certain goods or technology for reasons such as national security, foreign policy, or anti-terrorism.

For instance, if your products have a military use or could be used in the production of weapons, they're likely to be subject to export controls. But it's not only military goods that are regulated. Certain "dual-use" items, which can have both military and civilian uses, are also subject to controls.

You should familiarise yourself with the UK Strategic Export Control Lists to see if your goods are listed. If they are, you'll need to apply for an export license from the Export Control Joint Unit.

Navigating Customs Procedures

Successfully navigating customs procedures is fundamental to your export operations. You will need to ensure your goods are correctly classified under the Harmonised System (HS) – an international system used to classify traded products. The HS code determines the rate of customs duties that apply, so it's vital to get this right.

You should also be aware of any potential tariff barriers in the target country. You can usually find this information in the country's customs tariff database or by contacting their customs authority.

Remember to prepare an accurate and detailed customs declaration for your goods. This document provides customs authorities with essential information about your export, such as the product's value, quantity, and origin.

Understanding VAT and Tax Implications

When exporting goods to non-EU countries, UK businesses are typically able to zero-rate the sale for VAT purposes. However, to qualify for this, you must meet specific conditions, including having evidence to prove the goods were exported, and the export must occur within three months from the time of supply.

It's also worth noting that you may still be liable for taxes in the country you're exporting to. Each country has different tax rules, so you should seek local tax advice to understand your obligations.

Complying with Data Protection Standards

If your business involves the transfer of personal data to non-EU countries, you must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). GDPR is a law that applies to all UK businesses, regardless of where they send data.

Under GDPR, "personal data" refers to any information relating to an identifiable individual and it can include names, email addresses, and location data. If you have to transfer personal data to countries outside the EU, ensure you have appropriate safeguards in place to protect the data and that you fulfil all GDPR requirements.

Meeting Product Safety and Standards

Lastly, your products must meet the requisite safety and standards regulations of the country you're exporting to. These standards can vary greatly and cover everything from labelling requirements to safety specifications.

You should seek local guidance on these requirements to ensure you're in full compliance. If your goods are found to be non-compliant, they could be seized at the border, resulting in significant delays and costs.

In summary, exporting can be a complex process, but by familiarising yourself with the relevant legal considerations and seeking appropriate advice, you can mitigate risk and successfully operate in the global market.

Understanding Restricted Transfer Rules

Understanding the rules around restricted transfers is an essential aspect of exporting to non-EU countries. Restricted transfers refer to the movement of goods or technologies that are considered sensitive due to their potential use in military activities or other restricted activities.

The United Kingdom has specific regulations surrounding the transfer of such items, which are overseen by the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU). The ECJU is responsible for the UK's system of export controls and licensing for military and dual-use items. Businesses must apply to the ECJU for licenses to export these items, and it's crucial to understand the application process and the criteria that the ECJU uses to evaluate applications.

The ECJU uses the UK Strategic Export Control Lists to determine what items are subject to export controls. These lists provide information on all goods, software, and technology that can be controlled for export. It's crucial that businesses familiarise themselves with these lists to understand if their products are regulated.

Understanding the process of applying for an export license is also crucial. The ECJU provides comprehensive guidance on how to apply for an export license and the information that businesses need to provide.

Managing Risk and Compliance

Managing risk and compliance is a crucial aspect of exporting to non-EU countries. Carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment can help businesses identify potential risks and develop strategies to mitigate them.

Risk assessments should cover various areas, including export controls, customs procedures, VAT and tax implications, data protection standards, and product safety and standards. For instance, businesses should consider the risks associated with non-compliance with export controls, such as potential criminal liability and reputational damage.

To manage compliance, businesses should establish effective internal systems and processes. This could include implementing policies and procedures to ensure compliance with export controls and data protection standards, training staff on these requirements, and regularly reviewing and updating these systems.

Businesses should also maintain up-to-date knowledge of the rules and regulations in the countries they are exporting to. This includes staying informed about changes in legislation and understanding how these changes could affect their operations.


Exporting to non-EU countries offers UK businesses numerous opportunities, but it's crucial to understand and comply with the legal considerations involved. From understanding export controls and navigating customs procedures to managing VAT and tax implications, complying with data protection standards, and meeting product safety and standards, businesses must ensure they operate within the law and minimise risk.

By familiarising themselves with the relevant information and seeking appropriate advice, businesses can effectively navigate these challenges. Whether it's understanding the rules around restricted transfers, conducting a comprehensive risk assessment, or managing compliance effectively, each step plays a crucial role in ensuring successful operations in the global market.

Businesses that take the time to understand these considerations and implement appropriate measures can mitigate risk, safeguard their reputation, and maximise their chances of success in the global market. After all, knowledge and compliance are the cornerstones of successful international trade.