Import licence UK - what it is, who needs one and how to apply

Remay Villaester (May)
28.04.21
4 minute read

If your business plans to import goods or supplies into the UK from abroad, you’ll need to make sure you meet the UK Government’s import control rules. One of the first things to check is whether or not you need an import licence.

In this handy guide, we’ll cover all the essential information you need to know about UK import licences. This includes the goods they cover, who needs to get an import licence and how to apply for one.

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What is a UK import licence?

Import licences are designed to regulate and control certain types of goods entering the UK’s borders.

They’re mainly issued by the UK Government’s Department for International Trade, at its Import Licensing Branch. However, some types of import licence are issued by other bodies. For example, the Department of Health for licences to import certain medicines, or the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) for importing biocides¹.

If you import goods into the UK, it’s your responsibility to keep yourself informed about import controls, restrictions and licences. Fail to get the right licence and you could face customs delays or goods seizures, fines or other penalties.

Do I need an import licence?

Many businesses won’t need a licence to import goods into the UK, although you will need to register for an Economic Operators Registration and Identification number (EORI number). You can find a full guide on how to do this on the Government’s website.

But if you import goods in any of the following categories, you’re likely to need to apply for a licence:²

  • Plants or plant products
  • High risk food products (we’ll look at this in more detail next)
  • Medicines for people or animals
  • Controlled drugs
  • Hazardous chemicals
  • Tissues and cells for human application
  • Animals or animal products
  • Nuclear material
  • Firearms, knives, swords or anything else that could potentially be used for torture or harm.

Food import licences for the UK

If your business is planning to import food products, you’ll need to first check that they don’t fall into the ‘high risk’ category.

This refers to products which could potentially cause harm and/or break the rules on contaminants if they don’t meet certain standards. For example, food products containing salmonella, pesticides or contaminants such as aflatoxins and mycotoxins³.

You’ll find more information on this at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) website.

Certificates of Free Sale (CFS)¹

There is another type of UK import licence you might need to know about, the Certificate of Free Sale (CFS).

This is mainly used for particular types of goods arriving from countries with lower product safety standards than the UK. For example, cosmetics, certain medicines, food supplements and other products which come into contact with humans.

Where to start your import licence application

Whether you need an import licence or a Certificate of Free Sale (CFS), the first place to go is the DIT’s Import Licensing Branch portal, also known as its Case Management System.

Here, importers and exporters can register with the system and apply for the licences and CFS documents they need. There’s also contact information and extensive guidance for importers - including this handbook on the process for applying for a CFS.

Import and export licence fees

Now, how much does an import licence cost? The short answer to this is, it depends what you’re importing and where from.

You may even need multiple licences or other checks to make sure that your goods meet the required standards. The same goes for exports, as you may need a different kind of licence for each type of controlled goods you plan to ship.

So, make sure you factor in the cost of application fees when shipping goods either to or from the UK.

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After reading this guide, you should have a better idea of whether or not your business needs a UK import licence. We’ve covered the categories of goods requiring a licence or CFS, how to apply and where to find more information. However this article provides general information about the topic and should not be taken as an advice. You should consult with an expert if anything is unclear to you.

Just remember to do your homework before giving your import plans the green light, as it could save you a lot of hassle later on. Good luck!


Sources used for this article:

  1. gov.uk - import controls
  2. gov.uk - importing goods into UK
  3. foodgov.uk - Importing high risk food and feed

Sources checked on 28th April 2021


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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