Export licences: What they are and how to apply

Export licences: What they are and how to apply

Posted: Thu 6th Jun 2024

Exporting goods and services can be lucrative for any small business looking to reach new markets and increase its revenue.

But there are regulations and requirements you must follow to legally export your products. One of the key steps in this process is applying for an export licence.

In this blog, we explain what an export licence is, why the government issues them, and the process you'll work through to apply for one. By following this guidance, you can make sure your exporting goes smoothly and legally.

What is an export licence?

An export licence is a document that authorises the exporting of goods from one country to another. Its main purpose is to control and monitor how sensitive goods and technology are being transferred between countries.

Export licences are issued by a licensing authority, which is typically the government of the country from which the goods are being sent, or an agency that specialises in this area.

The licensing authority reviews every application for an export licence. It uses set guidelines and criteria to make sure the export is within national and international regulations, and assesses:

  • what type of items or technology are being exported

  • the end-user details (who's receiving the goods and how they'll use them)

  • the country to which the goods are being sent

  • any potential risks associated with the export activities

Why are export licences issued?

The UK government issues export licences to control the export of certain goods and technology, making sure they're traded responsibly and in line with national and international regulations. It does this to:

  • protect national security

  • maintain public safety

  • protect human rights

  • prevent dangerous or harmful weapons or technology from being circulated

Export licenses are needed for goods that are considered controlled (meaning they have specific restrictions placed on them). These controlled goods can include:

  • military or dual-use items, such as weapons, military technology, cryptography or certain chemicals

  • cultural objects

  • endangered species

  • items with intellectual property (IP) rights

As a business in the UK, it's your responsibility to follow regulations around export licences. If you're exporting controlled goods (see below), you must get a licence and export the items legally and responsibly.

This means doing your own due diligence on the end-user, the destination country and how the goods will be used, as well as screening for potential risks or violations.

If you fail to keep to export regulations, you could be fined, be banned from exporting, suffer damage to your reputation or even face criminal charges. As such, it's really important that you understand and fulfil your obligations.


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What are controlled goods? Which goods need an export licence?

Certain goods need an export licence to be exported legally from one country to another. These include:

  • anything which has been designed or modified for military use, and its individual parts (this includes any technology and software used in or with the item)

  • dual-use items – goods that could be used for both commercial or military purposes, and some of their components (like parts, raw materials and processing machinery for manufacturing)

  • goods that could be used for torture

  • radioactive material

  • any commercial items which have trade restrictions or sanctions placed on them

An example of a dual-use item might be a chemical or material used to make industrial products. These could be diverted and used to produce chemical weapons or military items or hardware.

What are the main types of export licence in the UK?

The UK uses the following types of licence, all granted by the Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU).

  • Standard Individual Export Licence (SIEL): Allows you to export controlled goods over a long-term period. Typically for traders who frequently export similar goods to the same destinations.

  • Open General Export Licence (OGEL): Also lets you export controlled goods, but is more flexible in that you can use it for a number of different exports to various destinations. Specific conditions and restrictions do still apply, however.

  • Open Individual Export Licence (OIEL): Granted for exporting specified controlled goods to a number of end-users. This licence allows you to send pre-approved exports without needing individual licences for each transaction.

How do I know if I need an export licence?

Start by checking whether the goods you're exporting fall under the control of any export regulations. You can do this by checking the UK Strategic Export Control List (known as the "consolidated list").

This combines several lists from various international laws that set out what types of goods are controlled.

GOV.UK has a handy export licence checker tool you can use to:

  • find out if your items are considered controlled goods

  • get the appropriate control entry reference from the consolidated list

  • determine whether there's an appropriate open general export licence (OGEL) you can use

How do I apply for an export licence?

The Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU) has an online export licensing system known as SPIRE. You can register for an account on SPIRE, then use it to apply for an open general export licence (OGEL), a standard individual export licence (SIEL) or an open individual export licence.

Before you can apply for a licence on SPIRE, you must have a number of different pieces of information, including an EORI number.

Visit the government's guidance to learn more about using the SPIRE online licensing system to make an export licence application. 


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