Guide to Becoming an Importer & Exporter in the UK

Billions of dollars of exports and imports leave and enter the UK each month. International trade allows people everywhere to access more choices of goods they need or want, ideally at more competitive prices. In becoming an importer and exporter, you can facilitate this process while potentially building a profitable, rewarding career for yourself. Whether you’re eventually employed within a business as an import-export specialist or decide to work for yourself as an import-export agent, you’ll need to familiarise yourself with the industry before getting started. Here, we’ve outlined everything you need to know, including the skills you’ll need and the training and qualifications that could help you succeed.

What’s involved in becoming an importer & exporter?

So what do importers and exporters do? These roles involve organising and managing the shipment of products into the UK and outwards to international locations. This will include preparing and processing documents and permits for shipping, along with recordkeeping for transactions. It also includes checking shipments for quality and ensuring items arrive on time, and in compliance with quality and regulatory requirements. Testing markets, appointing local agents or distributors, and building stronger customer bases overseas can also be part of your role.

A business might import products that are otherwise not available from UK suppliers or that are cheaper even when freight costs are included. This can mean better quality products, more sales to happy customers, and bigger profit margins. Exporting could let you supply more goods made by local producers to more people in different markets, which leads to higher sales volumes and profits.

Six skills you’ll need to succeed

Export and import agents need to be able to work effectively under stress and be responsible, accountable, and adaptable. The following are some of the key skills that could see you succeeding as an importer and exporter.

1. Analytical and research skills

An exporter and importer should have excellent analytical, problem-solving, and research skills, allowing them to understand the complexities of international trade regulations. These skills also help you with putting together a viable business plan, understanding different destination and source markets and the risks in dealing with these, and assessing products and services for import and export. You should be competent at analysing customer data, sales statistics, trade data, and demand and supply trends. You’ll also need strategic thinking skills that allow you to formulate the right strategy for different markets. These could include using agents, distributors, eCommerce channels, franchises, joint ventures, subsidiaries, or other means to enter markets.

2. Financial and budgeting competencies 

You’ll be managing invoices and overseeing payments, so you’ll need a level of financial management skills. You should be able to manage cash flow, choose the best payment methods, consider transportation costs, account for tariffs and taxes, and price goods appropriately. Additionally, using accounting systems, setting up spending and budgeting plans to support business goals, and creating expenditure reports might be part of your role.

3. Risk management

Exporters and importers deal with a range of risks, including late payments and nonpayment, insolvency of partner companies, and contract disputes. Others include reputational damage, country and political risks like inflation and currency volatility. You should be able to understand these risks and react quickly to manage them effectively.

4. Legal and compliance skills

International trade is subject to complex regulations and legal requirements, so you need to be able to understand both contract terms and trading regulations affecting your exports and imports. These can change from time to time, so importers and exporters need to stay up to date with their knowledge. For example, you’ll need a licence for certain types of goods, such as plants and medicines, and you’ll need to make declarations on the Customs Declaration Service for all imports and imports. Noncompliance with laws and contract disputes can lead to penalties, audits, and costly delays for inspections of shipments.

5. Technology savvy

You will need to utilise platforms like inventory management software and project management apps, so technology competencies are a must. You’ll be able to track your stock and sales and manage multiple projects with easy planning, scheduling, and compliance documentation.

6. Networking and communication skills

Export and import specialists liaise with partners, customers, vendors, transport providers, customs officials, government agencies, and more. The ability to build relationships and networks and communicate effectively, including with those from different cultures, is essential. Relatedly, strong negotiation skills can also prove to be invaluable.

How to get into the import/export industry

If you think a career in importing and exporting sounds right for you, you’ll want to start with obtaining a suitable qualification. Although it’s not a requirement to work in the field, a formal qualification in the area could make you more competitive in the job market. It can also give you the necessary foundational knowledge about importing and exporting to help you succeed. A diploma or advanced diploma could be completed in just 24 to 31 weeks.

Once you’ve completed your qualification, you could work for an international trade company as an agent. Alternatively, you could start your own export and import business. In this case, you’ll need to have a solid business plan detailing your chosen products or services, target markets, finances and budgeting matters.

A career in importing and exporting gives you exposure to the exciting world of international trade. Import and export professionals need to be competent in risk management, along with financial management and budgeting. You’ll also need to be good at using tech tools like accounting, inventory management, and project management software. If you enjoy building strong relationships and have excellent analytical and problem-solving skills, it could be a wonderful career pathway to consider.

To start your journey in the import and export field, our ICI professionals can assist you with learning the skills and topics you’ll need to succeed. Find out more about our Import and Export (International Trade) course here.

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Gladys Mae


Gladys Mae serves as the General Manager and Head of Student Services at the International Career Institute. Gladys holds a degree in Mass Communication - Broadcast Media from the University of San Jose-Recoletos. She joined ICI in 2010 and has over the past 12 years been instrumental in providing leadership and guidance to staff and students alike. Prior to joining ICI Gladys led a multifaceted career with key roles in the banking and business process outsourcing industries.