If you are a UK business that is importing goods from another country, or exporting goods to another country, then you will need to be familiar with UK customs declarations.
Failure to comply with customs declaration rules can result in delays, damaged relationships with buyers or suppliers, and even civil penalty fines.
In the UK, traders can be fined up to £2,500 for each contravention of customs law.
It is therefore essential that every trading business knows how, when, and where to submit a customs declaration for each of the goods it trades in.
What is a customs declaration?
Put simply, a customs declaration is an official document that states what goods a trader is importing or exporting.
It can also include further details about the goods that can be used for tax, duty, and classification purposes.
In legal terms, a customs declaration is the act by which a trader agrees to place his goods under a given customs regime.
In the UK, custom regulations are enforced by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
For example, HMRC collects value-added tax (VAT), a duty which is chargeable on the supply of most goods and services made in the UK or imported to the UK by ‘taxable persons’.
Who should lodge a customs declaration?
In the UK, a taxable person can be any individual, company, partnership, association, club, or charity that imports or exports goods.
In general, it is the owner of the goods – or the person or entity acting on the owner’s behalf (a ‘representative’) – that should lodge a customs declaration.
Likewise, a representative of a taxable person can be an individual, company, association, partnership, etc. who is legally permitted to act on the owner’s behalf.
UK customs declarations after Brexit
On January 1, 2022, the rules on what taxes a UK trader has to pay when importing goods from abroad changed, as did the required customs declarations.
There are now three types of tax that are charged on goods imported to the UK, including goods from the European Union (EU).
These are VAT, customs duties (or tariffs), and excise duties (for the domestic sale of imports of alcohol and tobacco).
Previously, when the UK was part of the EU Customs Union, UK traders did not have to pay customs duty on imports from or exports to other EU countries.
Likewise, prior to Brexit, the UK was part of the EU’s Single VAT Area.
This meant that VAT-registered businesses in the UK applied VAT through the EU reverse charge system on intra-EU transactions.
In contrast, UK businesses that imported goods from anywhere else in the world had to manually account for import VAT.
What changed on January 1, 2022 for EU-to-GB imports?
During the Brexit transition period (from January 31, 2020 to December 30, 2020), UK import declaration rules were relaxed to help businesses cope with the transition.
During that time, UK businesses were allowed to defer import declarations for up to six months, and could also defer customs payments during that same period.
This concession – which continued until June 30, 2021 – meant that UK businesses did not need to make immediate import declarations for goods at the UK border, or get authorisation for imports in advance.
As of January 1, 2022, however, that concession is now over, and a new customs declaration regime is in place for imports from the EU to Great Britain.
For customs purposes, it is important to distinguish between Great Britain – i.e. England, Scotland, and Wales – and Northern Ireland.
This is because Great Britain now follows different customs rules than Northern Ireland, which has special arrangements with its EU neighbour to the south, the Republic of Ireland.
For EU goods entering Great Britain, import declarations are now required and can no longer be deferred (except for goods coming from the Republic of Ireland, where 2021 rules continue to apply until further notice).
Customs checks are also now in place for all imports from the EU, with specific rules for certain types of products.
All sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) movements into Great Britain, for example, must be pre-notified via the UK Import of products, animals, food and feed system (IPAFFS).
What is the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS)?
In January 2021, the UK government introduced a new IT platform known as the Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS).
The GVMS is designed to enable faster clearance of vehicles at ports that adopt the pre-lodgement model of customs declarations.
GVMS enables hauliers and port operators to use a single Goods Movement Reference (GMR) for a vehicle or trailer, which is then processed on arrival and departure at the port.
GVMS links the Movement Reference Numbers (MRNs) in a shipment to a single GMR that specifies the truck or trailer’s licence plate.
This is important, as a haulier must have a GMR to board any ship heading to Great Britain from the EU.
To check which ports have adopted the GVMS, please visit the gov.uk guidance.
Assisting UK importers: The temporary storage and pre-lodgement models
As noted above, the GVMS is now live at UK ports that have adopted the pre-lodgement model for imports. At some UK ports, the GVMS can also be used for exports.
Under the pre-lodgement model, importers complete all declarations before the goods leave the EU, and customs clearance takes place while the goods are in transit (i.e. on the ship).
This helps traders move goods quickly, and is suitable for perishable or high-priority items like food and medicines.
There is also a temporary storage model, under which importers provide safety and security information that is required in both the EU and the UK before their goods board the ship.
After arriving at a port in Great Britain, the goods are then temporarily placed in storage, while customs formalities such as completing an import declaration and receiving clearance take place.
Import rules subject to change
Before, during, and after Brexit, UK traders have had to stay alert to adapt to new customs rules.
The good news is that most of the changes are now in place, but the bad news is that there may be more changes to come, depending on what goods you trade.
On July 1, 2022, for example, entry summary declarations will be required for all goods entering Great Britain from the EU.
Certification and physical identity checks will also be introduced for:
- High-risk regulated animal by-products
- All regulated plants and plant products
- All meat and meat products
- High-risk food not of animal origin
Once again, please see the gov.uk guidance to see if there are specific rules for your goods or the country you are importing them from.
Furthermore, on 1 September, 2022, certification and physical checks for all dairy products will be introduced.
And on 1 November, 2022, certification and physical checks will be introduced for all remaining regulated products of animal origin, including composite and fish products.