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The European Union Import Regulations

All Members of the EU have adopted a common trade policy towards imports from third countries. The EU has a relatively liberal import regime. In general, import licensing is not required for products entering an EU country, except for certain sensitive products like agricultural goods, tobacco, weapons, etc., and products governed by quantitative restrictions (i.e. quotas) and surveillance.

Import Licensing

The EU import licensing system is based on the premise that no import licenses are required unless specific products are subject to import surveillance, quantitative restrictions or safeguard measures.

As regards import surveillance, specific products may be monitored by the EU in order to increase transparency in trade, but without the purpose of imposing limits on access to the EU market. As a result of this surveillance, statistical controls and further controls on the origin of the products are established. In such cases, the objective is to avoid eventual diversion of trade and customs fraud. EU surveillance measures apply to certain iron and steel imports from countries other than the countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), countries which are parties to the Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), and Turkey. Surveillance measures also apply to certain agricultural and textiles products.

Import licenses authorize the import of products which are subject to certain restrictions in the EU. Licenses are issued immediately by the competent authorities in all the Member States when the "first come, first served" basis is used. In other cases, they are issued within 10 days of notification of the EU decision indicating the quantities to be distributed. They are valid throughout the EU, except in situations where a quota is limited to one or more countries of the EU, where these licenses are only valid in the Member State's) or the region's) in question. The licenses are valid for four months.

Regulation 738/94 lays down common rules concerning the formalities for lodging applications for licenses and also the use of licenses. It also establishes an EU license and a common form for licenses. Finally, it provides a list of the competent administrative authorities in each Member State dealing with the issuance of import licences.

Applications for import licenses must be submitted to the relevant department of the Member States, on a prescribed application form and, in most cases, be accompanied by an original export document provided by the supplier and a copy of an invoice. The licensing authorities have to issue an import authorization within a maximum of five working days of the presentation by the importer of the original of the corresponding export license. Import licenses are valid for a period of six months from the date of their issue. The validity of a license may only be extended in case of "force majeure". Member States have to send all applications to the European Commission and will only issue a license after the application has been approved by the European Commission.

Special attention should be paid to the importation of some categories of textiles from mainland China. Because the EU has established quotas on certain categories of textiles from mainland China, Hong Kong traders are required to apply for an import license if they want to import those products from mainland China.1 Textile import quota licenses are processed on a "first come, first served basis". The status of utilization of the quotas can be checked on-line.2


The EU has quantitative restrictions in place with respect to certain products coming from various countries. In particular, Hong Kong traders should be aware of the quotas established on certain categories of textiles from mainland China. Some quantities of those categories may benefit from the general Outward Processing procedure. In addition, the importation of other products (e.g., many agricultural products) may also be subject to tariff quotas.

a) Outward Processing for Textiles (OPT) Quota

In certain circumstances a trader may benefit from the outward processing scheme for textiles. Under this scheme, raw materials for the manufacturing of textile products may be exported from the EU to a country for further processing. After the processing of the goods has taken place, they may be imported back into the EU without being subject to any quota or import licensing requirement.3

In order to apply for outward processing for textiles, a company must be a manufacturer within the EU and must have EU production of the items covered by the OPT in the previous calendar year. The amount applied for cannot exceed 50% of this total.

b) Tariff Quotas

For a number of products, a reduction of the customs duty payable is only allowed for limited quantities of imports. This limitation takes the form of tariff quotas or of tariff ceilings. Tariff quotas may apply to imports of a specified origin, normally within the framework of preferential tariff arrangements, or to imports of all origins. Recourse to tariff ceilings is normally confined to preferential tariff arrangements.

The EU maintains around 90 tariff quotas for protection of around 38% of its agricultural production. Import licenses are required, for quota management purposes, on all agricultural products (subject to tariff quotas), such as cereals and cereal products, rice, sugar, oils and fats, milk products, beef and veal, sheep and goat meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and processed fruit and vegetables.

The EU has made available on-line, through its data dissemination system (DDS), information on current levels of quota utilization for each of the tariff quotas.4 This information is subject to constant change as a result of the daily operations which take place.

Restrictions and Prohibitions

The EU also has restrictions and prohibitions in place as regards the importation of some products. In particular, Hong Kong traders should be aware of the following restrictions:

a) Pirated or Counterfeit Goods

Counterfeit and pirated goods cannot be imported into the EU. The customs authorities of the EU Member States may intervene where goods are suspected of infringing intellectual property rights. The intervention may lead to the destruction of the imported goods as well as the imposition of fines on the importer.

b) Restrictions on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

The EU has set up a strict import regime for GMOs. According to Council Regulation 1946/2003 on Tran boundary movements of GMOs, any GMO placed on the market must include a full risk review that identifies and evaluates any potential negative effects of the GMO, direct or indirect, immediate or belated and the cumulative and long-term effects on human health and the environment. The marketing of several GMOs have been permitted in the EU. The Regulation is further discussed below.

c) Restrictions on Import of Live Animals and Animal Products

Imports of live animals and animal products from third countries must comply with certain health and monitoring standards. In addition, some restrictions are in force against bird flu. The details are discussed further below.

Furthermore, prohibitions apply to the importation of pelts of certain wild species (e.g., beavers and others) from countries that permit leg-hold traps or trapping methods that do not meet international humane trapping standards.

d) Chemical Products

An import ban is in force on goods containing mercury, PCB and PCT5 products, and CFC and HCFC.6 Restrictions on other hazardous substances are discussed at the relevant section of this guide concerning the environment and human health.