Working to make government more effective


The GB–EU border  

This explainer sets out the checks that take place at the GB–EU border.

Belfast Ferry

Why have border formalities changed?

At the end of the Brexit transition period (11pm on 31 December 2020) the UK left the single market and customs union. Great Britain and the EU no longer apply the same customs rules, regulatory standards or enforcement mechanisms, meaning goods crossing the border between Great Britain and the EU are now subject to customs formalities.

Border checks are required to ensure that any applicable tariffs or duties are paid and that imported goods meet the relevant standards in areas such as food and product safety and disease control, to prevent smuggling and illicit activity, and to comply with international obligations.

The Northern Ireland protocol removes the need for border controls on the island of Ireland but sets out new rules for goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.  The protocol has not yet been fully implemented and there are still ongoing disagreements between the UK and the EU about how it should operate.

What checks take place at the border?

New checks and paperwork are necessary for GB–EU trade, with the exact requirements depending on the type of goods involved, where they cross the border and who is transporting them. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU does little to streamline border processes compared with no agreement, which means traders now face significantly more friction than they did under EU membership.

Comprehensive official guidance on how the Great Britain side of the border operates is outlined in the Cabinet Office’s Border Operating Model.[1] Separate guidance on the EU side of the border will work is available from the EU commission and individual member states.[2]

To ease the introduction of customs formalities, the UK government decided to phase in customs requirements for GB imports from the EU between January and July 2021. Since then, the UK government have announced multiple delays to border checks:

  • In March 2021, it announced delays to the introduction of full import checks, on average by six months, arguing that businesses needed more time to prepare after pandemic-related disruption.
  • In September 2021, it announced further delays to various border checks, due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic and disruption to global supply chains,.
  • In December 2021, it announced an extension to current border arrangements for imports from the island of Ireland for as long as discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol are ongoing, delaying new checks due to be introduced in January 2022. This was to avoid added uncertainty for the movement of goods from the island of Ireland.
  • In April 2022, the government announced in it was halting its plans to introduce  further border checks this year (i.e. those due from July to November 2022) citing continued supply chain disruption – including as a result of the Ukraine crisis – and pressures on the cost of living.[3] The government has said that the move is ‘not just kicking the can down the road’ and it intends to reassess the regime and improve border technology and data in the meantime. It plans for any new checks to be in place before 2024, following a consultation with business and a new set of principles for UK border operations to be published in Autumn 2022.

The EU did not phase in checks, and full customs requirements were introduced for GB exports to the EU on 1 January 2021.

Customs formalities

When will checks apply

For nearly all goods Imports from the EU to GB Exports from GB to the EU

Customs declarations

Customs declarations provide government authorities with information about goods being imported and exported. These typically include information about the type of goods, transport, customs value and any applicable tariffs or duties. HMRC anticipate approximately 270 million additional customs declarations each year from UK companies for the import of EU goods (with a similar number expected on the EU side of the border). 

Most customs declarations are completed by customs agents (private companies specialising in customs procedures) on behalf of traders. They are usually submitted electronically using the Customs Handling Import and Export Freight (CHIEF) system in the UK.

Typical customs processes can involve goods waiting at the border for weeks and often require large storage facilities at ports.  But most GB–EU trade currently arrives by lorry at the Port of Dover or Channel Tunnel and leaves within minutes of arrival. To avoid long delays and new infrastructure at space-constrained ports, a new ‘pre-lodgement’ customs model has been created, which will rely on the Goods Vehicle Management System (GVMS). This system only opened for registrations on 8 December 2020, but will not now need to be fully in place until 1 January 2022.

GVMS allows multiple customs documents to be linked together and quickly presented to border authorities to determine whether a lorry needs to be subject to additional customs checks or can drive straight out of the port. A similar system – ‘SI Brexit’ – is in use on the French side of the channel.

January 2021: Full declarations are required for controlled goods (e.g. excise goods like tobacco and alcohol).

For standard goods (most goods), simplified customs requirements are required. Traders will have to keep sufficient records of their imports, but can to defer full customs declarations until 1 January 2022 (although they may submit customs declarations before if they wish).

January 2022: Full customs declarations need to be made at the time of import for all goods (excluding those from Ireland). Some traders may be eligible for simplified declaration procedures.

January 2021: Full customs declarations (UK export declarations and EU import declarations) are required.

Custom duties (tariffs) and VAT

Tariffs (a tax on imports and exports) may be payable on goods traded between GB and the EU. Even though the Trade and Cooperation Agreement provides for zero tariffs, some goods are still subject to tariffs because importers choose not to, or are unable to, comply with preferential rules of origin requirements. The tariffs applicable to GB imports are outlined in the UK Global Tariff, while those payable on EU imports from GB are outlined in the Union Customs Code.

Import VAT is also payable on relevant goods.

January 2021: If applicable, tariffs are payable, but it is possible to defer payment until customs declarations are made (no later than six months after import). If applicable, import VAT is also payable, although many traders will be able to defer payment.

January 2022: Any applicable tariffs are payable at the time of import (excluding those from Ireland), although many traders are eligible to defer payments.

January 2021: If applicable, tariffs and import VAT are payable at the time of import, unless traders are eligible to defer payments.

Safety and security declarations

Safety and security declarations summarise the goods contained in a consignment and are part of a World Customs Organization framework designed to reduce the risk of terrorism and trade in illicit goods. Safety and security declarations have to be submitted in advance of import or export and are used to inform risk-based checks by national authorities. In Great Britain, they are submitted using the S&S GB system.

January 2021: An EU exit summary declaration is needed for goods moving from the EU to GB.

Before 2024: Initial plans to require ‘UK entry summary declarations’ on imports after July 2022 will be reassessed. Revised checks may be introduced, but details are to be confirmed.  

January 2021: A UK exit summary declaration (or combined fiscal and safety and security declaration) and EU entry summary declaration is needed.  

Additional checks only applicable to some goods

Checks required by international conventions

Some goods are more likely to be associated with smuggling or organised crime and so are subject to additional border requirements, outlined in international agreements. For instance, special rules apply to the import and export of endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild fauna and Flora (CITES) and rough diamonds (the Kimberley Process).
January 2021: Checks are in place. January 2021: Checks are in place.

Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks

The import and export of live animals, products of animal origin and some plants and other agri-food products are subject to additional checks at the border to ensure they comply with food safety and biosecurity regulations. This is because these products could pose a risk to public, animal or plant health.

SPS measures include pre-notification to national authorities before goods are imported (via the Import of Products Animals, Food and Feed Systems (IPAFFS) system in the UK and the Trade Control and Export System (TRACES) in the EU), and need to move through a Border Control Post equipped to handle the specific goods imported (which may not be available at every port).

At a Border Control Post, goods may be subject to:

  • Documentary checks (to ensure the goods have the correct paperwork, such as an Export Health Certificate for animals and animal products, a phytosanitary certificate for some plants and plant products and a catch certificate for some fish)
  • Identity checks (to ensure the goods present match those on the documentation)
  • Physical checks (to ensure the goods comply with SPS rules). The rates of physical inspections vary by product.
New border control posts and additional Border Force and other staff are needed before SPS checks can be implemented in full. The latest Border Operating Model – published in December 2021 – shows that some infrastructure needed at the border by January 2022 is still at the planning stage and yet to be built.

January 2021: Imports of high-risk live animal and plants (and animal and plant products) must be pre-notified to the UK authorities via IPAFFS, have correct health documentation and may be subject to checks. Physical checks are carried out at the point of destination or other approved premises.

January 2022: Imports of products of animal origin and high-risk food not of animal origin (excluding those from Ireland) require pre-notification to the UK authorities via IPAFFS.

Before 2024: Initial plans to phase in requirements for SPS goods from July to November 2022 will be reassessed. The government was proposing a staged approach with full paperwork required on all goods from July, and physical checks required first on live animals, then dairy products, then all SPS goods. Revised checks may be introduced, but details are to be confirmed.   

January 2021: Full SPS checks are in place, including a requirement for UK Export Health Certificates.

Excise duties

Excise duties are taxes levied on products that can damage consumer health or pollute the environment – such as alcohol and tobacco. They are payable at the time of import unless goods are subject to ‘duty suspension’, which allows duties to be paid at a later date – such as when goods are released for consumption.
January 2021: Businesses importing excise goods must pay GB excise duties using the CHIEF or CDS systems (although excise duties are already payable on excisable imports from the EU). January 2021: Excise goods are subject to the rules applied by the importing EU member state.

Other controlled goods

Other potentially hazardous goods, such as chemicals, firearms, nuclear material and pharmaceuticals are also subject to additional formalities – including certification and physical inspections. Checks on nuclear material already take place.

January 2021: Import licenses and other requirements apply to the import of some high-risk goods.

January 2021: Additional requirements apply to the export of other controlled goods, in line with EU and member state rules.

Could some checks be streamlined?

Some customs formalities could also be streamlined using ‘facilitations’ (processes that reduce the time, cost and complexity of complying with border formalities). For instance, traders could be allowed faster and easier checks if they prove a strong record of compliance or become an Authorised Economic Operator (AEO), an internationally recognised status that demonstrates that a business’s customs control processes meet high standards.

Are traders ready for new border checks?

Firms trading between Great Britain and the EU have already had to adjust to the introduction of EU border controls, with many facing disruption, at least initially. Many businesses – buffeted by Covid-19 and supply chain disruptions – then welcomed the delays to controls in in March and September 2021, allowing them more time to prepare. Others were disappointed, having invested time and energy to meet the original deadlines. On both occasions, the government has said it was ready to introduce controls, but in practice the additional time has also helped government preparations.

The December decision to delay the introduction of full controls on imports from Ireland was welcomed by Ireland’s minister for enterprise, trade and employment for allowing businesses more time to prepare. Some others, however, expressed caution as Irish businesses would still face the checks at a later date.[4]

Following the announcement in April 2022 of longer-term delays and a reconsideration of the border strategy, businesses were generally supportive. Many – particularly in the agrifood industry –  agreed this was a bad time for more controls, pointing to pressures created by  the Ukraine crisis and a lack of readiness of UK border infrastructure.[5] But some raised concerns that having stricter controls on UK exports to the EU than EU imports into the UK would, if maintained for the long-term, put domestic suppliers at a disadvantage. The impact of new checks on traders has often not been fully clear as they have become mixed up various global supply chain problems, including from Covid-19 and the Ukraine crisis.

Who is responsible for administering border processes across Great Britain?

Ensuring the GB–EU border works effectively is a huge cross-government operation, with over 37 government organisations involved in border operations or policy. Some aspects of GB–EU border arrangements will be administered differently in different parts of Great Britain. For instance, checks on plants and plant products imported into the UK are the responsibility of Plant Health and Seed Inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Forestry Commission in England and Wales, but the Scottish government in Scotland. This means some traders using border crossing in different parts of GB may need to interact with different agencies for the same checks.

How will GB-EU border administration change over time?

In December 2020, the government published its UK border strategy for 2025, with various updates since to reflect the revised timetables. The strategy outlines a roadmap towards delivering ‘the world’s most effective border’ by 2025, including measures to move more checks away from the border, improve cross-government cooperation and data sharing and encourage greater automation.

Alongside its delay to further border checks in April 2022, the government promised to reassess and improve its use of technology and data in future border operations - also reiterating its commitment to a ‘UK Single Trade Window’ putting all border data in one place.[6] It assured businesses that the new approach would be designed in collaboration with them, with pilots, workshops and consultations to follow. A new Target Operating Model to be published in the Autumn will lay out a timetable for implementation.

In August 2021, the government confirmed that the much-delayed transition from the CHIEF customs system to the new CDS system will take place from next year. By 30 September 2022, all import declarations will transfer to CDS, with all export declarations to follow by 31 March 2023.

  1. Cabinet Office, The Border Operating Model, Policy Paper, 13 July 2020, retrieved 14 August 2020,
  2. European Commission, Withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU rules in the field of Customs, including preferential origin, 14 July 2020,  and, for example, Douanes and Droits Indirects, Franchissons le Brexit ensemble, retrieved 14 August 2020,
  3. Cabinet Office, New approach to import controls to help ease cost of living, press release, 28 April 2022,
  4. Leahy P, Taylor C and Carswell S, Irish exporters get reprieve as post-Brexit checks on goods delayed, The Irish Times, 15 December 2021,
  5. Parker G and Foster P, ‘Boris Johnson to order further delay to UK border checks on EU imports’, Financial Times, 21 April 2022,
  6. Cabinet Office, New approach to import controls to help ease cost of living, press release, 28 April 2022,
Institute for Government

Related content