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Making sure you have the right documentation is a vital part of international trade. Thorough, accurate paperwork minimises the risk of problems and delays.

  • There should be a clear written contract between buyer and seller, including details of exactly where goods will be delivered

  • Specific documents may be needed to get the goods through customs and to work out the right duty and tax charges. There may be requirements both for the country the goods are being exported from and the country they are being imported into

  • Documentation is needed to cover the transport of the goods and insurance during the journey

  • The right paperwork can be an important part of the payment mechanism

It’s important to co-operate with your counterpart on getting the paperwork right. For example, if you’re shipping goods to a customer overseas, they should tell you what paperwork they require at their end. If you are dealing with a non-English speaking country, it can be a good idea to provide one set of commercial documents in the local language.

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Import documentation

You may need an import licence to import goods into the UK. There are import controls on a range of different goods including firearms, food and textiles. Whether you need a licence may also depend on where the goods are from. See the guide: Export and import licences for controlled goods.

Goods from EU countries can generally be brought into the UK with minimal paperwork, though it’s good practice to ask your supplier to send a copy of the invoice with the goods.

In very rare cases, where you have supplied no import or export declarations, you must complete an Entry Summary Declaration or an Exit Summary Declaration.

If you are importing from outside the EU, you generally need an invoice and a copy of the transport documentation, such as a Bill of Lading, for customs clearance. For goods worth over £6,500, a valuation statement is also normally required.

Goods from some countries can be imported with a reduced or zero rate of import duty. If you want to claim this, you need documentary proof of origin showing that the goods were manufactured or produced in the preference country in accordance with preferential rules of origin.


You pay VAT on imports from outside the EU to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) at the same rates as UK goods. If you are registered for VAT you can reclaim this VAT in the same way as for goods purchased within the UK. Instead of having a VAT invoice from your supplier, HMRC provides a form C79 showing the VAT paid. See the page VAT on goods from EU countries in the guide on VAT: imports, acquisitions and purchases from abroad.

If you buy goods from a supplier within the EU, you account for VAT on your VAT return. See our section on international trade, international visits and VAT.

Export documentation

You may need an export licence to export goods. For example, there are controls on exports of chemicals and military technology. Licence requirements may also depend on which country you are exporting to. See the guide: import and export licences for controlled goods

Export declarations

If you are selling goods within the EU, most goods are in free circulation and can be freely moved from the UK to other EU countries without customs controls or charges. It’s good practice to accompany shipments with a commercial invoice and a packing list if appropriate.

If you are selling to customers outside the EU, you need to declare your exports to HMRC. This is generally done electronically, using the National Export System. The declaration includes details of the classification of the goods being exported and which country they are going to. See the guide on export declarations and the National Export System. Alternatively, an authorised agent or freight forwarder can handle the customs declaration for you.

Export VAT

The services you provide to other businesses are charged VAT where your customer is based, not where your business is established. If you are supplying services to private customers, VAT is charged where the customer is based.

In most cases, you and your customers can use the current VAT reverse charge procedure to get your VAT back.

If you aren’t sure if your customer is in business, ask them for a VAT number. If the customer is not VAT registered, then you can use other evidence, such as letters from their tax authority.

For VAT purposes, exports of goods are generally zero-rated. You need to keep copies of your VAT invoices and proof of export. This helps you prove that the goods left the country and that you do not have to pay any output VAT on them.

If your sales to EU countries exceed an annual threshold you must also complete an Intrastat dispatches (EU exports) declaration. Exports to countries outside the EU do not count towards the Intrastat threshold and do not need to be included. Intrastat thresholds are reviewed annually. The threshold for Dispatches is £250,000.

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DFS Worldwide is an independent privately owned freight forwarding, logistics management and international shipping company, that provides exceptional services to commercial clients, private individuals and agents worldwide.

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