Trading under WTO rules
Last updated 2 September 2021
If no trade agreement exists between the UK and another country, trade with that country takes place under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.
Find out which trade agreements the UK has signed. This page will be kept updated.
Some developing countries are eligible to get trade preferences through the UK Generalised Scheme of Preferences.
WTO and the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) rule
WTO rules state that the same trading terms must be applied to all WTO members unless there is a trade agreement between 2 or more countries. This is known as Most Favoured Nation (MFN) treatment.
MFN means that the UK cannot offer better trading terms to one country and not another, unless through a trade agreement.
The UK currently trades with many countries on WTO terms, including:
- Saudi Arabia
Your trade with these countries will remain on an MFN basis.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The Northern Ireland Protocol came into effect on 1 January 2021.
What to do differently when trading under WTO rules
You may need to act on some of the information below. This list is not exhaustive but outlines the major issues. It is for information only.
Customs procedures and declarations
You must complete customs procedures and declarations for imports to the UK.
Find out more about:
When goods are being transported, they will pay the tariff at the rate on the day that they are imported into the UK.
The UK Global Tariff applies to imports into the UK unless an exception applies (for example, a preferential trade agreement).
The MFN tariff of the country of destination applies to exports from the UK. It does not apply if the UK has preferential trading arrangements in place with that country.
Establish the UK origin of your goods for tariff purposes
The UK and the EU are separate territories for rules of origin purposes.
If you are trading with countries the UK has a trade agreement with, you must prove preferential origin. Learn more about preferential rules of origin.
Trade under WTO rules does not require you to prove preferential origin.
Non-preferential rules of origin
If you are trading with countries the UK does not have a trade agreement with, non-preferential rules of origin apply.
Find out about the statutory guidance for product-specific rules, to determine the origin of imports outside of a preferential agreement.
You need to declare the origin of your goods on the customs declaration when importing.
This means that when you are importing a good you will need to declare the origin of your goods on the customs declaration.
If you are exporting, you will need to apply the non-preferential rules of origin as set by the destination country.
If required by the destination country, you will be able to apply for a non-preferential certificate of origin from the British Chambers of Commerce.
Paying tariffs on imports into the UK
The UK Global Tariff policy applies to MFN imports into the UK.
Paying tariffs on exports from the UK
Overseas importers may need to pay different tariff rates on exports from the UK. The tariffs will vary by country and product. Many are duty free under WTO terms.
Continue to comply with regulations
If you import goods into Great Britain or Northern Ireland, find out about:
- placing manufactured goods on the market in Great Britain
- placing manufactured goods on the market in Northern Ireland
If you are selling goods to another country, you will need to continue to meet the regulatory requirements as set out in the law of that country.
Protect your intellectual property
Intellectual property standards are usually set out through a country’s domestic systems. If that country is a member of the WTO, it will incorporate the baseline standards in the WTO’s IP agreement.
Whilst a free trade agreement may require protection for intellectual property above that baseline level, this would have to be reflected in each parties’ domestic system. An exception is Geographical Indications (GIs) which may be given protection directly through a trade agreement.
If there is no longer a trade agreement between the UK and another country that included GIs, protection for those GIs may end.
Find out about:
- exporting your intellectual property
- changes to particular intellectual property rights from 1 January 2021 in relation to the EU
- geographical indications (protection for geographical names of food, drink and agricultural products)
Changes to trade in services
To provide services in other countries, you will need to continue to follow the terms set out in the legislation of the host country.
If there is no trade agreement between the UK and host country, you will trade under terms set out in the host country’s WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The specific terms are set out in the schedule of specific commitments and list of Article II (MFN) exemptions. This page includes guidance on interpreting services schedules.
Where there is no longer a trade agreement, trading on baseline WTO terms may result in market access restrictions. You may no longer have the right to provide some services, or to provide some services in particular ways, to that country. If in doubt, you should contact the relevant regulatory body in the host country and consult the GATS schedule of specific commitments for the relevant country.
Get business visas
UK nationals intending to provide services in another country must check if they require a:
- work permit
- residence permit
You must comply with the immigration controls for the country in which you are providing services.
You can read foreign travel advice, including travel entry requirements and how to stay safe while you’re there.
Working in the UK
If you are an overseas service supplier, find out more about visas and immigration.
Make sure your professional qualification is recognised
Your professional qualification will need to be recognised by the relevant regulator in each country where you intend to work. You need to do this even if you’re providing temporary or occasional professional services.
Government procurement contracts
The World Trade Organization Agreement on Procurement Agreement (GPA) opens up government procurement markets among its parties.
For the UK, as a party to the GPA, this means that:
- UK businesses can continue to bid for procurement opportunities in the other parties’ territories
- businesses from those parties can continue to bid for certain procurement opportunities in the UK
The WTO sets out which markets are covered by the GPA and what types of procurement opportunities are covered in each market. Learn more about coverage schedules on the WTO website.
GPA parties use their own online platforms for publishing procurement opportunities. The WTO website provides party-specific procurement-related information.
Freight forwarding may save you time and money if you’re exporting large volumes of goods or high value items by sea or air freight. Find out more about how to use freight forwarding.
You should consult your legal advisers if you wish to ensure you understand the legal implications of trading on WTO terms for your business.
If you have queries about trading on WTO terms, contact the Department for International Trade (DIT).
Should you wish to speak to someone face to face, we have local trade offices based around the UK. Within each office you can contact an international trade advisor. Find your local trade office.
First published 27 November 2020