Steps to follow
Where do you want to trade? Is it within the EU or outside? You will need to do thorough research to ensure you are complying with all relevant laws and regulations.
As soon as your goods enter another country, you are subject to that country’s laws. The UK Trade and Investment website has a set of useful reports on the law in specific countries. View the link in online services below.
Do you need a licence to export or import? You do if your trade involves fine art, chemicals or firearms. Technology, food, textiles, plants and animals and various other goods may also require a licence. Failure to obtain one is a criminal offence. You can find out about licences through the UK Integrated Tariff. Phone the HMRC helpline on 0845 010 9000 for further information, and view useful links in the online services section below.
The EU has a number of schemes that allow you to import or export at low or nil rates of duty. To take part, you must ‘claim a preference’. More information is available on the HMRC website. See the link below.
You may want to use ‘Incoterms’, or International Commercial Terms, for sales and delivery contracts overseas. These use standard trade terms to avoid misunderstandings.
Are you familiar with the VAT rules? Some exports will be zero-rated for VAT, but you should check with the HMRC VAT helpline on 0845 010 9000.
Are your ideas protected? If your trademark, copyright and other intellectual property (IP) protection is registered in the UK, then you will not be protected abroad. IP rights are territorial. This means you have no comeback if foreign companies copy your products and steal your ideas.
You can register for IP protection abroad. You may have to do this in each of the countries involved, and should seek specialist help from a trade mark attorney as it is a complex matter. A Community Trade Mark protects your trade mark in any EU country. An International Trade Mark can offer protection beyond this, but can be complex to arrange. There is a similar process for patents. Copyright is protected automatically in most countries.
How are you going to sell your products? You will need to decide if you are going to use a distributor, use a sales agent or enter into a joint venture. You could also opt for the most expensive option and open up your own office overseas. You will need to research the regulations applicable to each in the country in which you want to sell.
Is your contract with your agent or distributor clearly set out? Use expert advice to make sure it is watertight.
Are you protected against damage during transit? Freight forwarders and carriers usually have limited liability therefore it is vital that you have adequate cargo insurance to guard against losses, breakage, delays and liability to third parties.
You may need to be aware of additional health and safety requirements for your employees. There are a number of health and safety organisations across Europe. The Health and Safety Executive may be able to help you with this.
What to watch out for
Organised crime, fraud, theft and money laundering are all risks you may face when trading overseas. Keep your IT secure, and take full advantage of any vetting or membership schemes. For example, check whether your freight forwarder is registered with the British International Freight Association. Look for ISO certification or membership of trade associations. Use air shippers that are registered with the Department of Transport (see link below).
Solicitor’s top tip
When agreeing contracts with an overseas agent, it is a good idea to set weekly and monthly targets. You should be clear in the agreement about what will happen if these targets are not met. The contract should state which jurisdiction will apply in the event of a contractual dispute. You could also stipulate that you want disputes to be resolved through the International Chamber of Commerce, International Court of Arbitration or a similar body.
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