Number of UK firms trading internationally on the rise, HMRC reports

Wed 22 Apr 2020
Posted by: Ana Pintor
Trade News

The volume of UK businesses engaged in international trade in 2019 rose by 11,000, with a marked swing away from the EU towards trading with countries outside the bloc, new data from HM Revenue & Customs revealed today.

A total of 317,000 firms traded internationally last year, HMRC said, against 306,000 in 2018, a rise of some 3%.

Non-EU growth

The figures show many more businesses are now expanding beyond the EU.

Those trading with non-EU countries only in 2019 saw the biggest rise in HMRC’s data.

The non-EU only trading population grew by 12% from 83,000 to 93,000 between 2018 and 2019, compared to an 8% increase between 2017 and 2018.

The Institute of Export & International Trade said it welcomed the evidence of increased trade overseas and beyond the EU.


“It is these businesses which will be central to rebuilding the UK’s economy,” IOE&IT director general Marco Forgione said.


EU decline

At the same time, there was a small decline in the number of firms whose international trade is with EU countries only, by 1% year on year, from 150,000 in 2018 to 149,000 in 2019.

This is a reversal of growth experienced between 2017 and 2018, when the population of firms trading only with EU countries grew by 4%.

‘Skills barrier’

Forgione said there was a “simple step” the government could take to help UK businesses for a post-COVID-19 lockdown world.


“One of the most significant barriers to more businesses trading internationally is a lack of export knowledge and skills,” Forgione said. “This could easily be addressed by the government making its current grant scheme available to individuals so they can spend time now, possibly whilst on furlough or having been made redundant, to upskill and take new qualifications.”


Forgione added that such a move would not require “additional Treasury funds, just a simple, practical adjustment to the eligibility criteria”.


Government figures show a 50,000 shortfall in customs professionals ahead of the UK’s full exit from the EU, still scheduled for the end of this year.


“It would be an historic achievement, if during this period of furlough and job uncertainty individuals were able to train and prepare for a career which has growing demand and is of national importance,” Forgione said.


Further HMRC findings

  • The importing-only trading population grew by 6% from 148,000 to 157,000 between 2018 and 2019. This was consistent with 2017 to 2018 which also saw a 6% increase.
  • Importing and exporting trading population grew by 1% from 99,000 to 100,000 between 2018 and 2019, which was smaller than the 3% increase seen between 2017 and 2018.
  • Exporting-only trading population remained constant between 2018 and 2019, a change in trend from its 3% growth between 2017 and 2018.

Methodology notes:

HMRC compiles these figures using data from Intrastat and customs declaration system CHIEF. It excludes trade that enters a customs warehouse but does not enter free circulation in the UK.

EU trade data is only collected from VAT registered businesses. In contrast, non-EU trade data is  collected from both VAT and Non-VAT registered businesses.