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Sri Lanka

Importing to the UK from Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka is among the most liberal economies in South Asia and in 2005, the UK was the largest European investor in Sri Lanka and second overall in terms of projects. UK imports from Sri Lanka have consistently exceeded UK exports to Sri Lanka. If thinking of supplying to the rest of the India Sub-Continent or South East Asia, Sri Lanka makes an ideal location with it's geographical location on the main shipping routes, especially following the Indo-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement in 1998.

This guide highlights some of the key features of the Sri Lankan market, and explains how you can start to win import business there. It also identifies sources of support to help you.



Comparisons have shown that Sri Lanka offers one of the most liberal business environments in Asia. The Sri Lankan government is business-friendly and actively pursuing a policy of economic liberalization with emphasis on private sector investment.



Sinhalese, English and Tamil are the official languages. English is widely spoken and is the main language used in business. Most business people you deal with, when importing, are likely to speak good English.

Regionalism, religion, language and caste are all factors that need to be taken into account when doing business in Sri Lanka. Behaviour, etiquette and approach are all modified depending on whom you are addressing and the context in which they are being addressed. Of all the cultural influences that most impact Sri Lanka business culture, hierarchy plays a key role. With its roots in Hinduism and the caste system, Sri Lankan society operates within a framework of strict hierarchy that defines people's roles, status and social order.



If your business dealings in Sri Lanka involve negotiations, always bear in mind that they can be slow. If trust has not yet been established then concentrate efforts on building a rapport. Decisions are always made at the highest level.

Winning new business can take longer than you would like. You should be prepared to invest time and effort in building a long-term relationship.



Successfully importing from Sri Lanka depends on building relationships, and often requires several face-to-face meetings. Trade visits can help you identify potential customers and key contacts, and find out what they think of your product. You can also use them to build relationships with local advisers and other key contacts.

Find out about trade visits and business opportunities on the events section of the website.

To make the most of trade visits, plan well in advance. Make sure you have a clear objective and organise all the support material you need. Try to make appointments with target contacts in advance, and reconfirm them shortly before you travel. Make sure you're speaking to people who make exporting decisions. If you have local agents, use their expertise. In an organised trade visit, the organisers should help you find contacts.




When an importing ship or aircraft arrives at the UK location where goods are to be unloaded, the goods must be 'presented' to Customs (Her Majesty's Customs & Excise or HMCE) by the person who brought them into the EC or the person who assumes responsibility for their onward carriage (this includes freight haulage companies, shipping and aircraft lines). Goods may be presented by:

  • Using an approved computerised trade inventory system linked to customs; or
  • Lodging Form C1600A at the designated Customs office

All goods must be presented within 3 hours of their arrival at the place of unloading.

Summary Declaration

After presentation the goods must be covered by a summary declaration containing the information needed to identify the goods. The summary declaration should normally be made at the same customs office as presentation. The summary declaration must be made by:

  • The person who conveyed the goods into the EC; or
  • The person who assumes responsibility for their onward carriage
  • The shipping, airline or haulage company; or
  • The representative of any of the above

In the UK the prescribed form of summary declaration is Form C1600. Customs may also accept commercial documents or computer records, if they contain the necessary details. Acceptable commercial documents include:

  • Bills of lading
  • Air way-bills
  • Container manifests
  • Load lists
  • Manifests
  • Consignment records (on computerised inventory systems)

Import Declaration

An import declaration is required for goods from third countries. When goods are imported into the UK it is the responsibility of the importer or his authorised agent to declare them to Customs. In most cases a Single Administrative Document (SAD) is used for this purpose. Further information on the SAD can be obtained from H.M. Customs & Excise web site:

In addition to the above paperwork, some products may require import licenses or health certificates, as outlined in Other Regulations and Requirements.

All imported goods are liable to be examined by Customs. If goods are selected for examination, the opening, unpacking and re-packing must normally be done by employees of the dock company or an agent of the importer. The examination of goods normally occurs at the place where they are being declared for importation.

Customs Duties

Customs duties and other charges that are due must be paid, deferred or secured before the goods are cleared by Customs. It is advisable to show invoices with no freight costs incorporated, only the value of the imported goods, as import duty will be charged on the total amount presented for that shipment. Charges payable on imported goods may include:

  • Import duties
  • 'Additional duties' on flour and sugar
  • 'Countervailing charges' on fruit and vegetables
  • 'Variable charges' on processed goods
  • 'Compensatory charges' on oils and fats
  • 'Extra charges' on eggs, poultry or pig meat
  • 'Sugar levies' on processed goods with sugar in them
  • Value Added Tax (VAT)
  • Excise duty on alcoholic beverages

Commodity Code

The charges payable are linked to the Commodity Code (similar to an HS code, but more detailed) for a particular product. Exporters will need to find out what the Commodity Code for their product, and the associated import duty, is likely to be. This will be necessary in determining a pricing strategy for the product.

To obtain the Commodity Code for your product, contact H.M. Customs & Excise, Tariff Classification Helpline on Tel: 011 44 1702 366077 This service gives a verbal reading on the appropriate code and respective import duty for a particular product. It is also possible to obtain a written ruling on the product's Commodity Code known as Binding Tariff Information (BTI). This service is advisable for more complex food products, as it involves closer consideration of the product's composite ingredients and is legally binding. This is available directly from Customs & Excise on the telephone number given above.

It is also possible to look up the Commodity Code and relevant import duty for your product on the Internet at: However, as stated above, rather than making your own estimation of Commodity Code it is advisable to do a BTI for more complex food products.

Value Added Tax

The UK standard rate of Value Added Tax (VAT) is 17.5%. While UK foodservice outlets must charge the standard rate of VAT on everything they serve, retail food products, in general, do not have VAT on them. However, some exceptions, which do incur VAT, are:

  • Ice Cream and similar products and mixes for using them
  • Confectionery
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Other beverages, and preparations for making them
  • Potato chips (crisps), roasted or salted nuts and some other savoury snack products
  • Products for home brewing and wine making

VAT can also be a value located somewhere between the Standard (S = 17.5%) and the Zero (Z = 0%) rates. For assistance when a case is less straightforward, contact: the VAT Helpline Tel: 011 44 20 7865 4419, Her Majesty's Customs & Excise web site: or write using the address in Useful Contacts.


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