Trading under WTO rules

How to trade with other countries from 1 January 2021, if there is no UK trade agreement.

New rules for January 2021

The UK has left the EU, and the transition period after Brexit comes to an end this year.

This page tells you what you’ll need to do from 1 January 2021. It will be updated if anything changes.

You can also read about the transition period.

From 1 January 2021, if no trade agreement exists between the UK and another country, trade with that country will take 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 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.

Most Favoured Nation (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, for example China, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Your trade with these countries will remain on an MFN basis.

What you’ll have to do differently when you are trading under WTO rules

From 1 January 2021, the way you trade with some countries will change. Where the UK had been covered by an EU trade agreement but a replacement agreement has not been negotiated, trade will take place 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.

Find out more about preparing your business for the end of the transition period.

Customs procedures and declarations

From 1 January 2021, you will still be required to complete customs procedures and declarations for imports to the UK.

Find out more about using customs procedures.

Goods in transit

When goods are being transported, they will pay the tariff at the rate on the day that they are imported into the UK. From 1 January 2021, the UK Global Tariff will apply to imports into the UK unless a preferential agreement like an FTA applies. The MFN tariff of the country of destination will apply to exports from the UK, unless the UK has preferential trading arrangements in place with that country.

At the end of 2020, the UK will transition to WTO terms with all those nations it doesn’t have a preferential trade agreement with.

Establish the UK origin of your goods for tariff purposes

From 1 January 2021, how you establish the origin of your goods for tariff purposes may change. The UK and the EU will be separate territories for rules of origin purposes.

Trade under WTO rules does not require you to prove preferential origin.

Non-preferential rules of origin

When trading with countries with whom the UK does not have a trade agreement, non-preferential rules of origin will apply from 1 January 2021.

This means that when you are importing a good you will need to declare the origin of your goods. If you are exporting, you will need to apply the non-preferential rules of origin as set by the destination country.

If required, 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

From 1 January 2021, the tariffs you pay may be different. We have introduced the UK Global Tariff policy on MFN imports into the UK, which will enter in force from 1 January 2021.

Find out what tariff rates apply to specific goods imported into the UK from 1 January 2021.

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.

Find out what tariff rates apply in every country.

Continue to comply with regulations

If you import goods into the UK, find out how to get your goods on the UK market.

The UK will accept most goods that meet EU requirements on product safety for a time limited period from 1 January 2021.

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

Some trade agreements give extra protection for intellectual property above a ‘baseline’ level required of all WTO members. If there is no longer a trade agreement between the UK and another country, that country’s protection for your intellectual property may go down to that baseline level. This is most relevant to UK Geographical Indications, which may no longer be protected in the other country when we are trading under WTO rules.

Find out about:

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 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, the host country may impose new restrictions on trade. You may no longer have the right to provide some services, or to provide some services in particular ways, to that country from 1 January 2021. If in doubt, you should contact the relevant regulatory body in the host country.

Get business visas

If you are a UK national, you will need to check what type of visa, work, or residence permit is required in the country in which you are intending to provide services. You should comply with the immigration controls for the country in which you are providing services.

You can read advice about travelling to specific countries, 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

From 1 January 2021, you’ll need to have your UK professional qualification officially recognised if you want to work in a profession that is regulated in the country in which you are selling services.

Your professional qualification will need to be recognised by the relevant regulator in each country where you intend to work. You’ll 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. From 1 January 2021, the UK will become an independent member of 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 website sets out which markets are covered by the GPA and what types of procurement opportunities are covered in each market.

GPA parties use their own online platforms for publishing procurement opportunities. The WTO website provides party specific procurement-related information.

Further information

From 1 January 2021, the Northern Ireland Protocol will come into effect. Find out how this could affect your business.

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 freight forwarders.

You should consult your legal advisers if you wish to ensure you understand the legal implications of trading on WTO terms from 1 January 2021 for your business.


If you have queries about trading on WTO terms from 1 January 2021 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.

Published 15 August 2019
Last updated 25 November 2020 
Share this article