Customs Clearance UK: A Complete Guide

February 21, 2024
15 min read

In today's ever-evolving global marketplace, understanding the intricate nuances of customs clearance in the UK is no longer an option – it's a necessity. Here, recent shifts in trade regulations and the reverberations of Brexit have dramatically reshaped the landscape.

This blog article aims to provide you with the knowledge and resources you need to guarantee your goods transit smoothly across borders. Whether they are destined for the UK's bustling ports, busy airports, or other vital entry points, we've got you covered. Join us as we navigate through the roles and responsibilities of HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), outline the various duties and taxes applicable, and provide an illuminating overview of post-Brexit tariffs and rules of origin.

UK Customs Clearance Process

In the past year, Britain engaged in trade amounting to over £1,768.6 billion, with key sectors such as medicines, crude oil, beverages, and tobacco leading the way. [1] All of these resources were able to enter or leave the country only after undergoing customs procedures. 

The customs clearance process in the UK can appear daunting, particularly when you consider the vast array of goods in transit. However, by breaking it down into its fundamental stages, we can gain a clearer understanding of what it entails. Hence, this overview will address the key stages, and in the subsequent sections, we'll delve deeper into each one, providing insights and guidance to enhance your customs experience.

  • Document Preparation and Submission: Accuracy in documentation is paramount. Ensuring all paperwork is correctly completed and goods are appropriately packaged is essential to meet customs requirements and facilitate smooth transit.
  • Customs Assessment and Verification: The customs officer then assesses your shipment for compliance with UK regulations. This includes a thorough review of the goods' classification and valuation, which are pivotal in determining how your shipment will be processed and what tariffs may apply.
  • Payment of Duties and Taxes: Post-assessment, the focus shifts to the financial aspect of customs clearance. Here, terms like Delivered Duty Paid (DDP) and DAP (Delivery at Place) come into play, determining who is accountable for paying duties and taxes. (Visit our discussion on DDP vs DAP shipping to gain an in-depth understanding).
  • Inspection and Clearance: Some shipments may be selected for a physical inspection. This is a standard procedure and, if required, can add some time to the clearance process.
  • Release of Goods: Post-clearance, shipments are typically handed over to a courier service for delivery. Efficient paperwork is key to avoiding delays at this stage, as most customs hold-ups are due to documentation errors.

EORI Number

Before you load your goods and set off on your trading expedition, there's a foundational step to cover: securing your Economic Operators Registration and Identification (EORI) number. This isn't just a procedural tick-box; it's the bedrock of your customs clearance journey, crucial for a smooth trading experience between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, and other countries. To acquire an EORI number, a business must have a physical presence in the country of import or export, such as a registered office or a headquarters where customs activities are managed.

However, it is important to note that following Brexit, EORI numbers issued by the UK are not recognised in the EU. Hence, for goods entering the EU from Great Britain, an EORI number from an EU member state is necessary to complete the Entry Summary Declaration (ENS).

Understanding HMRC’s Role in Customs Clearance

As the guardian of the UK's borders, HMRC's responsibilities and operations are multifaceted and have evolved, especially in light of recent geopolitical changes. 


The primary role of HMRC includes assessing and collecting customs duties and taxes on imported items. Besides that, it vigorously combats illicit acts such as smuggling and fraud, which are harmful to Britain's economic health. Through stringent enforcement of regulations, this department ensures that only legitimate goods cross borders, maintaining the integrity of the nation's trade system.

For a deeper dive into the topic, explore our detailed article on UK import requirements.

Impact of Brexit on Operations

Brexit necessitated the establishment of new customs procedures and rules, particularly for trade with EU countries. This transition posed unique challenges for HMRC, requiring the development and implementation of new systems to manage the changed dynamics of UK-EU trade. Adapting to these changes, HMRC has been instrumental in guiding businesses through the complexities of post-Brexit trade.

Collaboration With Other Agencies

Working in tandem with entities like the Border Force and the National Crime Agency, HMRC forms a formidable front against illicit trade activities. These partnerships enable a more comprehensive approach to customs enforcement, combining intelligence, resources, and expertise to create a more secure and efficient trade environment.

Documents Required for Clearing UK Customs

The UK government indicates that customs clearance for air and road freights typically takes up to two hours, while cargo arriving via sea routes can be processed within three hours, provided the necessary documents reach the National Clearance Hub (NCH) between 8 am and 3 pm. [2] However, if there's an issue with your paperwork, the processing time could extend up to 24 hours or, in some cases, even days or weeks. 

Importantly, the efficiency of this process hinges significantly on the accuracy and completeness of your documentation. Recognising the importance of getting this right, we've compiled a comprehensive list of the essential papers required for UK customs clearance in the table below:

Commercial InvoiceThis document details the transaction between the seller and buyer. It includes descriptions of goods, their value, terms of sale, and other key transaction data.
Packing ListProvides detailed information about the packaging of the shipment. It lists the weight, dimensions, and number of items, along with the contents of each package.
Bill of Lading/Air WaybillActs as both a contract of carriage and a receipt of goods issued by the carrier. It contains crucial details such as the consignor, consignee, type, amount, and destination of the shipment.
Certificate of OriginDeclares the country where the products were manufactured. This report is key for determining tariff rates, especially under various trade agreements, as it affects duty calculations based on the origin of the goods.
Export LicenceRequired for exporting certain regulated commodities, such as military or dual-use items. It indicates that the exporter has official permission to export these articles, ensuring compliance with international trade regulations. 
C88 FormThe primary customs form for cargo movements between the EU and the UK. It serves as proof that merchandise can legally pass between the trading blocks and contains key details related to the shipment for customs officials. 
Goods Movement Reference (GMR)Necessary for road freight arrivals into the UK from the EU, particularly for ports using the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS). 
Dangerous Goods DeclarationRequired for hazardous material shipments. This statement guarantees that all hazardous material laws have been observed and that the shipment has been properly labelled and handled.
Import/Export LicenceNecessary for trading certain items, such as animals, plants, high-risk food, and medicines. The requirements for obtaining this licence vary based on the type of goods and may involve inspections and financial costs. 
IPAFFS Health CertificateRequired for certain imports from both EU and non-EU countries, replacing the EU's TRACES system. It is used to validate imports of live animals, animal by-products, high-risk food and feed, and other specified products. 
Company EORI NumberA unique identifier assigned to importers and exporters by HMRC, essential for customs declarations and clearance for shipments to or from the EU and non-EU countries.
Deferment Approval Number (DAN)An account number used to defer payment of import duties and VAT, allowing businesses to postpone these payments for up to one month.

Electronic Systems for Customs Declarations

At present, the UK has two electronic systems to streamline the customs declaration process:

Customs Handling of Import and Export Freight (CHIEF): CHIEF is the UK's established system for managing customs declarations and was initially implemented 30 years ago. It has been pivotal in processing trade documentation, calculating duties, and ensuring regulatory compliance. Extensively used by traders and freight forwarders, CHIEF is recognised for its robustness and comprehensive functionality. However, it is currently in a transition phase, being gradually replaced by the more modern Customs Declaration Service (CDS).

Customs Declaration Service (CDS): It offers a user-friendly interface for enhanced data handling and is tailored to accommodate modern trade needs, including post-Brexit changes. Set to be the UK’s sole customs platform from March 2024, CDS will streamline the customs declaration process, providing a more flexible and scalable solution for managing the increasing complexities of international trade. [3]

Preparing for a Smooth Declaration Process

To ensure a smooth customs declaration process, companies should:

  • Stay Informed: Keep updated on the latest regulations and requirements.
  • Accurate Record-Keeping: Maintain detailed records of all transactions and shipments.
  • Seek Expertise: Consider using a customs broker or agent, especially if dealing with complex goods or large volumes.

How Much Does Customs Clearance Cost in the UK?

In this section, we'll explore the financial obligations integral to the UK's customs clearance process. These taxes, levied by the British government, serve not only to regulate trade and maintain economic balance but also to generate vital revenue. Understanding these charges is pivotal because they directly impact the cost and pricing strategies of businesses importing goods into Great Britain.

Customs Duties

Customs duties are taxes levied on shipments as they enter the UK. These fees are variable and depend on several factors, including the category of the product, its value, and its country of origin. These charges can range broadly, typically from 0% to 25% of the goods' value, with the exception of gifts. For instance, luxury products might attract higher duties, while essential items could be taxed less or even exempt. 

Type and Value of GoodsRates
Goods valued under £135Exempt from customs duties
Gifts valued between £ 135 – £ 630Duties typically at a rate of 2.5% or less, depending on the item
Gifts valued over £ 630Duties based on specific commodity codes


This tax is applied to most goods and services, including those imported into the country. The standard VAT rate in the UK is 20%, but there are exceptions. Certain products, such as health-related items and fuel heating, are taxed at a reduced rate of 5%. Moreover, essential items like most food, books, and children's clothing are exempt from VAT. However, it's important to note that even exempt items must be reported in VAT returns, making accurate record-keeping essential.

Anti-Dumping and Excise Tax

In addition to the standard fixed duties and taxes, HMRC also enforces two distinct types of charges under certain conditions. The first is the anti-dumping duty, which is applied to products suspected of being sold in the UK below their typical value, particularly when this pricing practice negatively impacts or endangers local industries. The second is the excise tax, which primarily pertains to items such as alcohol and tobacco. The rates for this differ based on factors like the beverage's type and strength. 

Prohibited and Restricted Items 

When shipping your cargo to the UK, it's crucial to be aware of certain goods that are either completely banned or subject to restrictions. Non-compliance with these regulations can lead to serious consequences. For instance, under Section 139 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, HMRC has the authority to seize cargo and vehicles involved in the breach of customs regulations. [4]

Banned Goods

These items are not allowed into the UK under any circumstances and will be seized by customs: [5]

Unlicensed DrugsIncludes heroin, morphine, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, LSD, and cannabis.
Offensive WeaponsSuch as flick knives, butterfly knives, push daggers, belt-buckle knives, death stars, swordsticks, knuckle dusters, blowpipes, truncheons, and some martial arts equipment.
Indecent and Obscene MaterialMaterial featuring children, extreme violence, and pornographic content is not permissible in the UK.
Counterfeit and Pirated GoodsGoods that infringe patents, like watches, clocks, CDs, and goods with false origin marks.
Rough DiamondsThe import of rough diamonds without the proper certification from the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme is banned to prevent conflict with diamond trading.

Restricted Goods

Some items are restricted, meaning they can only be brought into the UK under specific conditions or with a special licence:

Firearms and Related DevicesIncludes firearms, electric shock devices, and gas canisters. Import requires permission from the Customs National Advice Service.
Live AnimalsMust have a British import (rabies) licence and be quarantined, except for those meeting the pet passport scheme conditions.
Endangered SpeciesIncludes live or dead birds, plants, and products derived from them, such as fur, ivory, and leather. Imports require authority from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA ).
Plants and ProduceCertain fruit stones, bulbs, and seeds require authority from DEFRA.
Radio TransmittersFor example, CB radios and cordless phones are not approved for use in the UK. Import requires authority from Ofcom.

Common Pitfalls in UK Customs Clearance

Navigating the complexities of UK customs clearance involves more than just understanding the procedures; it's about avoiding common mistakes that can lead to delays, assessments, and penalties. Here are some key pitfalls to be aware of:

  • Accuracy in Declarations: A primary hurdle is ensuring the precision of data in customs declarations. Inaccuracies or omissions can cause significant delays. Hence, it's essential to double-check all entries.
  • Customs Classification: Misclassifying items is a common error. Utilising the correct customs codes is vital for appropriate duty assessments and avoiding compliance issues.
  • Valuation Errors: Appropriately valuing goods for customs can be tricky, especially with multiple sales or self-manufactured items. Ensuring the declared value reflects the true worth of goods is key to proper duty calculation.
  • Supply Chain Adjustments: Changes in suppliers or routes can alter the customs landscape significantly. Staying adaptable and informed about these changes is vital for maintaining compliance.

UK Customs Clearance Made Easy With Bezos

If the idea of keeping track of all the UK customs clearance details mentioned in this guide is overwhelming, rest assured that Bezos is here to help. As experts in this complex field, we're here to take the burden off your shoulders, ensuring your shipments sail through without delays or rejections.

Here’s why you should choose us:

  • Expertise in Complex Scenarios: Our team is adept at handling all the minor details that can make or break the customs clearance process. By partnering with us, you avoid the common pitfalls we mentioned earlier.
  • Tailored Solutions: We offer tailored fulfilment and logistics solutions to ensure that your specific requirements are addressed. Our services are designed to scale your business, whether it's small or large.
  • Global Reach, Local Expertise: Our presence in 16 countries, including the UK, equips us with the unique ability to manage international logistics while understanding local customs regulations. This global network ensures that your products are delivered efficiently, no matter the destination.
  • Technology-Driven Approach: Our state-of-the-art technology provides real-time visibility into your shipments, giving you peace of mind and control over your logistics operations.
  • Dedicated Support: With Bezos, you're not just getting a service provider; you're gaining a partner. Our dedicated account managers work closely with you, ensuring that every aspect of your logistics and customs clearance is handled with care.
  • Cost-Effective and Efficient: Our platform is designed to save you time and reduce costs, allowing you to focus on growing your business. Enjoy flexibility without long-term contracts or minimum volumes, making international expansion more accessible.

But don't just take our word for it. Our case studies, like the success of 'Enjoy The Drop,' showcase our ability to revolutionise logistics. This supplement brand saw a 50% reduction in fulfilment costs and a 12-fold growth since partnering with Bezos, alongside saving three hours daily in operational tasks.

Ready to take the hassle out of UK customs clearance? Speak to a Bezos expert today and discover how we can transform your eCommerce logistics and fulfilment strategy, paving the way for your business's success in the UK market.


Navigating UK customs clearance requires a blend of accurate documentation, compliance with regulations, and strategic planning. By understanding the essentials of customs duties, VAT, and the importance of accurate declarations, businesses can avoid common pitfalls and ensure smooth cross-border transactions. 

Also, partnering with a knowledgeable logistics provider like Bezos can further streamline this process, offering tailored solutions and expert guidance. Embrace these insights and take proactive steps to ensure your business thrives in the dynamic UK market, capitalising on opportunities for growth and expansion.

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