Custom Clearance for Importing Goods in the UK – Everything You Need to Know

December 6, 2023
14 min read


We'll be frank – initiating the process of importing goods into the UK can sometimes feel like steering a ship through a stormy sea. With numerous steps to take, legal obligations to fulfil, and paperwork to organise, the process can appear daunting.

However, with the correct knowledge and comprehension, you can transform this challenging voyage into a smooth sail. This guide aims to be your lighthouse, illuminating the path through the complexities of UK customs clearance.

And remember that you don’t have to go it alone! By partnering with an expert fulfilment company like Bezos, you can optimise your importing processes and ultimately increase profits. 

Importing Goods in the UK – Deciphering the Import Declaration Process

At the heart of the customs clearance process lies the import declaration. You can think of it as a passport for your goods, allowing them to cross borders. This crucial document serves as a detailed inventory of your imported goods, providing comprehensive information about their nature, value, and ultimate destination. 

But the import declaration is more than just a document; it's a key step in the importation process. It's your formal announcement to the customs authorities about your intention to bring goods into the country. This declaration allows customs to enforce import and export laws and regulations, ensuring that all goods entering the country comply with UK legislation.

Understanding the import declaration process is the first step towards successful importation. By ensuring that your declaration is accurate and complete, you pave the way for a smooth and hassle-free customs clearance process.

Your Responsibilities as an Importer

In the grand theatre of importation, two roles take centre stage: the exporter and the importer. Understanding the responsibilities of each party is crucial for a successful business transaction. 

As an importer, you are not just a passive receiver of goods. You are an active participant in the importation process, responsible for ensuring that all legal requirements are met and that the import declaration is accurately completed. 

The table outlines some of the key responsibilities of an importer in the UK: 

Classification of GoodsCorrectly classifying the goods according to the UK's commodity code. This is essential for determining duty rates, licences, and any restrictions that might apply.
Payment of Duties and TaxesEnsuring that all applicable duties, taxes (including VAT), and other fees are paid to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
Compliance with RegulationsAdhering to all relevant UK and international regulations, including those related to safety, quality, and environmental standards.
Record KeepingMaintaining accurate records of all imports for at least six years, including invoices, shipping documents, and payment records, to comply with HMRC requirements.
Obtaining Necessary LicencesAcquiring the required licences and permits for certain types of goods (e.g., firearms, certain chemicals, etc.).
Customs DeclarationsSubmitting accurate customs declarations (usually via the Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system) for each shipment.
Ensuring Product ComplianceEnsuring that the imported goods meet the UK's standards and regulations, including labelling, safety, and quality requirements.
Dealing with Customs InspectionsCooperating with customs authorities during inspections and providing any necessary documentation or information.
Managing RisksImplementing risk management strategies to comply with customs compliance and international trade laws.
Adhering to International AgreementsComplying with any international agreements or treaties that may apply to the imported goods, such as Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) or other preferential arrangements.

Customs Clearance in a Nutshell

We use the term customs clearance to refer to the set of requirements and procedures that goods must navigate to enter or exit a country. Like a gatekeeper, customs clearance controls and approves the movement of goods across borders, ensuring that all imports and exports comply with national laws and regulations.

The customs clearance process can seem daunting, with its complex procedures and stringent requirements. However, with a clear understanding of the process, you can navigate this hurdle with ease. The key is to be prepared, have all the necessary documentation ready, and understand the regulations in place. Simply, when preparing to clear customs for your imported goods, you need to take two aspects into account – documentation and taxes. 

The Paper Trail: Essential Documentation for Importing Goods

In the shipping world, documentation is king. Every international shipment requires a specific set of documents, serving as a paper trail for your goods. This trail includes an air waybill, a commercial invoice, and depending on the nature of the goods, additional items such as licences or certificates.

Ensuring that all your documentation is in order is like laying the foundation for a building. It sets the stage for a smooth customs clearance process and helps avoid unnecessary delays. Remember, incomplete or missing paperwork can lead to your goods being held at customs, disrupting your importation process.

These are some of the most important documents you will need during the customs clearance process:

Bill of Lading or Air Waybill

This document is issued by the carrier (either a shipping line or an airline) and serves as a contract of carriage. It provides details about the goods, the shipper, the consignee, and the port of loading and discharge.

Importing goods by air? You’ll need an air waybill to clear customs.

Commercial Invoice

This is provided by the seller and contains detailed information about the transaction, including a description of the goods, prices, terms of sale (Incoterms), the seller and buyer, and other relevant information. Customs authorities use this document to assess duties and taxes.

Packing List

This document details the specific contents of the shipment, including the number and description of items, their individual weights and dimensions, and any identifying marks or numbers. It helps customs authorities check whether the contents match the description provided in other documents.

A packing list template.

Import Declaration (Customs Entry)

This is a document that the importer or a customs broker submits to the customs authorities. It provides details about the goods being imported and is used by customs to control the flow of goods into the country, enforce regulations, and calculate duties and taxes.

Certificate of Origin

This document certifies the country in which the goods were produced or manufactured. It is used by customs to determine duty rates and check whether the goods are eligible for import.

Import Licence

Some types of goods require an import licence to be brought into a country. This is a document issued by the government granting permission to import certain goods.

Insurance Certificate

This document provides proof of insurance coverage for the shipped goods. It may be required for certain types of shipments.

Other Specific Documents

Depending on the type of goods and specific import regulations, other documents may be required. These could include health certificates for food items, technical standards certificates for machinery, or CITES permits for wildlife products.

The Financial Aspect: Understanding Duties and Taxes

Importing goods is not just about moving items from one country to another; it's also a financial transaction. Duties and taxes are additional costs that you may incur when importing goods. 

The calculation of taxes and duties depends on various factors, including the type of goods, the country of origin, shipping costs and more. Before calculating the VAT and duties, you will need to know the tariff or HS code for your goods. This will determine how your import tax is calculated.

Some of the taxes you might need to pay in order to clear customs are as follows:

Value Added Tax (VAT)

VAT is a tax on the consumption of goods and services. When you import goods into the UK, you'll generally need to pay VAT at the same rate that applies to the sale of similar goods within the UK. 

VAT is charged on all goods except gifts worth less than £39 imported to the UK. The VAT paid to a delivery company is based on the total package value, including the value of the goods, any duty that you owe and postage, packaging and insurance.

VAT always needs to be paid when a business imports goods into the UK.‍

Excise Goods Tax

Excise goods encompass alcohol and tobacco. If you are importing these, ensure that excise goods tax is included in the price, or your goods will be seized by the UK customs department.

Customs Import Duty

You will be charged customs duty on all goods sent from outside the UK if they are worth more than £135 or considered an excise good. You will need to pay customs duty on the value of the goods and the postage, packaging and insurance.

7 Simple Steps to Clear Customs for Importing Goods in the UK 

Now that we’ve defined all the key concepts related to customs clearance for importing goods in the UK, it’s time to break down the process step by step.

But before we start, remember: importing goods can be complex, and the requirements can vary depending on the type of goods you're importing. It's always a good idea to seek professional advice if you're unsure about anything.

Step 1: Obtain an EORI Number

Before you can start importing goods into the UK, you'll need to obtain an Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) number. This number is used by customs authorities to identify you and your shipments. You can apply for an EORI number on the UK Government website.

Step 2: Classify Your Goods

Next, you'll need to classify your goods using the UK Trade Tariff. This is a comprehensive system used to classify and describe goods for import and export. 

UK Trade Tariff is used to determine the rate of duty that applies to a particular item, and it is structured based on the Harmonized System (HS), an international nomenclature developed by the World Customs Organization (WCO). 

The HS is a six-digit code system, with the first two digits identifying the chapter the goods are classified in, the next two identifying the group, and the last two identifying the sub-group. For instance, the HS code for umbrellas is 660390.

HS codes are of paramount importance when importing goods.

Step 3: Value Your Goods

You'll need to determine the value of your goods for customs purposes. This is used to calculate the customs duty and import VAT you'll need to pay.

Step 4: Check Whether You Need a Licence

Some types of goods require a licence to import into the UK – for instance, environmentally hazardous goods or explosives. Check whether this applies to your goods and, if necessary, apply for a licence.

Step 5: Declare Your Imports to Customs

Once you’ve got your documentation sorted, you'll need to declare your imports to UK customs. This is usually done by completing a C88 form and sending it to the National Clearance Hub. You can do this yourself, or you can hire a courier, freight forwarder or customs agent to do it for you.

Step 6: Pay Any Duty and VAT Due

After your items have been cleared by customs, you will be required to pay any applicable customs duty and import VAT. The amount you'll need to pay will depend on the classification and value of your goods.

Step 7: Keep Records

Finally, you'll need to keep records of your imports for six years. This includes copies of your C88 forms, proof of origin of the goods, and evidence of payment of duty and VAT. Keeping records is extremely important, as it simplifies a potential claim process.

Bezos: Your Trusted Fulfilment Partner

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In that case, you'll require a steadfast, flexible, and comprehensive logistics service provider to streamline your order fulfilment process, including handling imports. This is where Bezos comes into the picture.

With a wide-ranging network of distribution centres throughout the UK and fulfilment hubs in 16 additional countries, we're primed to elevate your eCommerce business, including your import operations, to unprecedented levels.

Our distinguishing factor lies in our comprehensive, flexible, and automated services, designed to enhance your order fulfilment process, including the management of imports, like never before. 

As professionals in order fulfilment, we recognise that unexpected hurdles, especially in the realm of imports, can occur. That's why, at Bezos, we place a high value on openness and clarity. We provide detailed order tracking and ensure a response to all inquiries within two hours. 

The icing on the cake? We don't tie you down with long-term agreements! If this sounds like the ideal solution for your business, especially for your import needs, don't delay. Get in touch with us today to converse with one of our savings specialists.


How long does import customs clearance take?

Typically, customs clearance takes less than 24 hours. However, there are times when it can take several days or weeks for goods to be inspected. 

Can I do my own customs clearance?

Yes, you can make a declaration yourself. However, it is a recommended practice for trading businesses to appoint a customs broker to deal with customs clearance on their behalf.

What documents do I need to clear customs for importing goods?

The essential documents you’ll need are a bill of lading or air waybill, a commercial invoice, a packing list, an import declaration, a certificate of origin, an import licence, and an insurance certificate.

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