UK Customs Regulations - What Can You Bring Into the UK?

EU and UK Passport Control Signage

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The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (a move known as "Brexit") formally occurred on January 31, 2020. Following that departure is a transition period lasting until December 31, 2020, during which the U.K. and E.U. will negotiate the terms of their future relationship. This article has been updated as of the January 31st withdrawal, and you can find up-to-date information about details of the transition on the U.K.'s government website.

The last hurdle before entering the United Kingdom is passing through HM Customs & Excise. It's really not very complicated as long as you obey a few simple rules.

Going through customs can be faster than you might expect. European Union (EU) countries use three "channels" for customs processing. If you arrive from another EU country, whatever passport you hold, choose the Blue Channel once you've collected your luggage. Arriving from outside the EU, choose either the Green Channel - if you have nothing to declare based on the allowances outlined below - or the Red Channel, if you have goods over the duty free allowance.

The whole thing is based on an honor system. But keep in mind that, though it doesn't happen often, you can be stopped for a spot check in the Green or Blue Channels, and the penalties for breaking the law are pretty stiff. If you are careful about following the rules, passing through customs should not take very long. Since passport and immigration checks for non-UK citizens (and at the moment non-EU citizens) can be a time consuming ordeal during busy vacation seasons, you'll be grateful for a quick passage through Customs.

What You Can Bring Duty Free From Outside the EU

Hennessey suitcase
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Here are the latest Duty Free Allowances that apply if you arrive in the UK on a transatlantic flight or from anywhere outside the EU:

  • tobacco products for personal use - 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigarillos, or 50 cigars, or 250g of loose tobacco. As of December 1, while allowances remain the same, you can make up your duty free allowance from a mixture of tobacco products. For example, 100 cigarettes, and 25 cigars would meet the tobacco limits.
  • 4 litres of still table wine
  • 1 litre of spirits or strong liqueurs over 22 per cent alcohol by volume, or 2 litres of fortified wine(such as port or sherry), sparkling wine or other liqueurs.( As with the change in tobacco allowances, you can now make up your alcohol allowance from a mix and match of alcohol products.
  • 16 liters (or 28 imperial pints) of beer
  • £390 worth of all other goods including gifts and souvenirs.
  • If you arrive by private plane or boat, your duty free allowance for "all other goods" is reduced to £270.

The tobacco and alcohol allowances only apply if you are over 17 years old. You can bring more than the allowance for these in for your own personal use but you have to pay duty on anything above the allowance.

You can also bring in personal effects reasonably required for your journey, including clothing, toiletries, personal jewelry and other clearly personal articles.

How Much Duty?

If you have to pay duty, the rate on goods up to £630 is 2.5% of the value - and if any single item is worth more than your entire duty free allowance, you will pay that percentage on the entire value, not just the amount over your allowance. For goods worth more than £630, the amount of duty will depend on what the goods are. You can find out more about this by calling the VAT, Customs and Excise Helpline on +44 2920 501 261 from outside the UK. You may also have to pay VAT Import tax on amounts over your duty free allowance. The VAT rate is currently 20% for most VAT-able goods. 

What You Can Bring From Within the EU

wine bottles
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Customs and Excise staff exercise a certain amount of judgement over what you can bring to the UK from within the EU. There is no limit to the amount of taxable goods you can bring from most EU states. But you may be stopped if you bring back large quantities of alcohol and tobacco so that officers can determine whether the goods are for personal use. Expect to attract their attention if you arrive from an EU country with more than:

  • 3200 cigarettes
  • 400 cigarillos
  • 200 cigars
  • 3kg smoking tobacco
  • 10 litres of spirits
  • 20 litres of fortified wine
  • 90 litres of wine
  • 110 litres of beer.

For customs purposes, some countries that would otherwise be considered as part of the EU are excluded from these rules. If you are bringing in goods from the Canary Islands, the north of Cyprus, Gibraltar and the Channel Islands, you need to follow the rules for non-EU countries (see the previous page).

Banned Goods - What You Can't Bring, Ever

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As an arriving visitor, it's important for you to know about Customs and Excise regulations that apply to banned and special license goods. Banned goods are always confiscated and you could also face fines for trying to bring them into the UK.

These goods are banned outright:

  • unlicensed drugs
  • offensive weapons
  • child pornography
  • pornographic material
  • counterfeit and pirated goods
  • meat, milk and other animal products (If you arrive from within the EU you can bring these products with you but only if they are legally offered for sale in the EU country you have arrived from. You cannot, for example, bring bush meat into the UK no matter where you obtained it.).
  • self-defence sprays, such as pepper spray or CS gas
  • rough diamonds

And some goods are restricted and require special licenses:

  • firearms
  • explosives and ammunition
  • live animals
  • endangered species
  • certain plants and their produce
  • radio transmitters.

Bringing Food From the USA

Fruits and vegetables
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What you can bring into the UK from the USA may surprise you. For example, I always believed that the restriction against meat, milk and some plants meant visitors couldn't bring any food, flowers or plant materials into the UK. That's not always the case. Here are a few surprising things you can bring along into the UK:

  • 1 kg of food not containing meat or milk derivatives
  • 2 kg of fruit and raw vegetables (but not potatoes)
  • a bouquet of cut flowers
  • 5 retail packets of seeds (but not seeds for potatoes).
  • Fish (dead and gutted), cooked lobsters and live shellfish including clams and oysters.

Check here about how to find a comprehensive list of food and drink items you can bring to the UK, including different regulations for different countries.