All member states of the European Union (EU), including Germany, form a customs territory - the European Customs Union - in which unified customs arrangements apply.
Goods imported into the EU are subject to EU-wide import regulations, customs tariffs and customs procedures. This means that customs duties are only levied when the goods are imported into the EU. No further customs duties must be paid within the customs territory once goods have been imported into the EU - even in cases where the goods cross internal borders of member states.
The legal basis is the European Union Customs Code (UCC). It is complemented by implementing and delegated acts. Transitional provisions (e.g. regarding IT procedures) exist in some instances - these will be effective until 2025. The EU has also concluded trade agreements allowing the duty-free import of certain goods or preferential tariffs with many countries.
Common Customs Tariff in the EU
Import duty is stipulated by the Common Customs Tariff (CCT) and import duty tariffs are the same for all member states.
The applicable tariff rate can be found online at the EU's TARIC (Integrated Tariff of the European Union) database.
The nomenclature of the EU customs tariff is based on the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) of the World Customs Organisation (WCO). Through the regulations defined in the system, every single commodity can be classified according to the nomenclature and allocated a commodity number ("goods code").
The vast majority of tariff rates are stated as ad valorem values. The basis for their calculation is the customs value of the goods. Its primary basis is the transaction value, i.e. the price actually paid or payable for the goods, adjusted where necessary, when sold for export to the customs territory of the EU. This price can be supplemented by certain factors, e.g. cost of packaging or cost of transportation and insurance prior to entering the EU territory. The European Commission offers basic information on customs valuation as well as in-depth guidance on this topic online.
Depending on the reason why goods are to be brought to the EU, different customs procedures may be applicable. The standard import case is called "release for free circulation."
Goods in the customs territory of the EU either have the status of "Union" goods (i.e. goods manufactured or obtained in the EU or "goods released for free circulation") or "non-Union" goods (i.e. all goods which do not comply with the criteria of Union goods). The importer may not dispose of non-Union goods or only to the extent permitted by the customs administration.
Different customs procedures apply subject to the reasons why goods are imported. The European Union Customs Code stipulates three major groups of customs procedures:
- release for free circulation,
- export, and
- special procedures.
The special customs procedures particularly comprise of:
- transit (external and internal transit), specific use (temporary admission and end-use),
- processing (inward processing and outward processing), and
- storage in customs warehouses and free zones.
In Germany, free zones exist in the free ports of Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven. The German customs authority provides comprehensive information on the different customs procedures online.
Presentation of Goods to Customs
There are uniform regulations for the registration of trade in goods. In order to be able to be placed in a customs procedure, the non-Union goods must be presented to customs.
"Presentation of goods to customs" refers to the notification of the customs authorities of the arrival of goods at the customs office or at any other place designated by the customs authorities and the availability of those goods for customs controls. An entry summary declaration usually has to be lodged - within specific time-limits - prior to the entry of goods into the EU territory and the presentation of goods to the customs. The purpose of this is to enable the customs authorities to carry out pre-arrival risk analysis.
The presented goods are then declared for a customs procedure. A customs declaration must be submitted in order for this to take place. This is regularly submitted electronically using the ATLAS system for electronic customs clearance (and will remain so until such time as a uniform IT system for the whole of the European Union is in place). Declaration formalities must be carried out by a company registered in the EU. Submission of the customs declaration by a representative, such as a forwarding agent, is permitted. Companies from non-EU countries are allowed to submit a customs declaration only in very limited cases. The European Commission’s website answers many questions regarding customs declarations.
EORI Number and AEO
In order to participate in customs procedures, an EORI number - amongst other things - is required. Easements in customs procedures may derive from obtaining an AEO status.
The EORI number (“Economic Operators Registration and Identification” number) is a number unique throughout the EU that is assigned by the designated authority in the European Union in order to identify economic operators and, where applicable, other persons to the customs authority. An EORI number is generally granted to economic operators established in the EU. An EORI number can only be granted to economic operators from other countries for very limited activities, e.g. lodging an entry summary declaration. More information on how to apply for an EORI number is available on the German customs authority’s website.
Companies registered in the EU can apply for certification as an Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) from the respective Head Customs Office. Certified companies are considered as being particularly trustworthy within the member states of the European Union and are able to take advantage of certain easements in customs clearance. Their risk assessment is also looked upon more favorably; meaning that they are not as frequently affected by customs controls. The European Commission informs in more detail about AEO status. Germany has its own online portal for AEO applications.
Actual import bans only apply to a miniscule number of goods. In some cases, licenses are necessary.
Some goods may only be marketed in Germany if they comply with certain conditions regarding ingredients, materials or technical specifications. In some instances, a specific license may be required. To cite just one example, the import of medicinal products or certain chemicals is subject to specific licensing requirements.
For goods imported from a few countries or by certain individuals, there may also be restrictions imposed by the European Union.
The German customs authority informs in detail about various import restrictions online.