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A Guide to Trade Digitalisation and the Single Trade Window.

The growth of trade digitalisation including the proposed introduction of a Single Trade Window brings significant opportunities for businesses operating in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Find out more and discover what actions to consider now.

Using device with digitalisation apps

What is digital trade and how can it benefit business? 

The WTO defines digital trade as "All Trade that is digitally ordered and/or digitally delivered".

There are several benefits to businesses in engaging with digital trade:

  1. By adopting digital processes, the need to fill in large volumes of paper customs and transport documentation is reduced. This can allow businesses to make significant time and financial savings.
  2. The introduction of digital trade documents along with other new technologies can help businesses to make substantial reductions in their carbon footprint.
  3. Increased digitalisation also opens opportunities for businesses to avail themselves of economies of scale. This can be achieved through targeting a global customer base that uses digital platforms. It can also be achieved by using the latest technology that increases supply chain coordination, visibility, and speed.
  4. The use of new technology such as cloud-based systems allows businesses involved in cross border trade to reduce their dependence on fixed assets and enables greater coordination between all aspects of a supply chain. This can therefore reduce the barriers to entry within a market and make cross-border trade more achievable.
  5. With greater levels of supply chain visibility and traceability, the risk of possible disruption is mitigated. The length of time required to complete many transactions is also decreased. This reduces the risk for providers of finance or insurance services, thereby making it easier for small businesses involved in cross-border trade to obtain finance and insurance.

What is the UK Government Border Strategy?

In 2020 the UK Government launched their 2025 Border Strategy. This document sets out the vision for how the UK border will operate and includes six key ambitions to help facilitate trade in the UK:

  1. Develop a coordinated, user-centric government approach to border design and delivery, which works in partnership with industry and supports innovation.
  2. Bring together government’s collection, assurance and use of border data to provide a comprehensive and holistic view of data at the border.
  3. Establish resilient 'ports of the future' at border crossing points to make the experience smoother and more secure for passengers and traders, while better protecting the public and environment.
  4. Use upstream compliance to move processes away from the actual frontier where appropriate, both for passengers and traders.
  5. Build the capability of staff and the border industry responsible for delivering border processes, particularly in an environment of greater automation; and simplify communication with border users to improve their experience.
  6. Shape the future development of borders worldwide, to promote the UK’s interests and facilitate end-to-end trade and travel.

What is the Electronic Trade Documents Act?

In July 2023 the UK government passed the Electronic Trade Documents Act. This bill grants digital documents the same legal status as paper trade documents and is anticipated to substantially reduce processing time and increase sustainability for businesses engaged in international trade. More information about this bill can be found in this press release on GOV.UK The Electronic Trade Documents Act is an essential step towards digitalisation and is necessary for the implementation of the UK Government Border Strategy and the Single Trade Window. 

What is the UK Single Trade Window?

To help support businesses with international trade, a key aspect of the UK’s border strategy is the adoption of a Single Trade Window.

The UK Single Trade Window (STW) is a single digital gateway at the UK border for traders to complete their import, export and transit obligations. This includes not only customs, but also any non-customs requirements such as security or health requirements as well.

When establishing guidelines for importing goods from another country governments often set requirements based on the following areas:

  • Customs.
  • National security.
  • Health and safety.
  • Agricultural impact.
  • Impact on cultural heritage.
  • Market surveillance.

As a result, businesses who import goods can often be faced with a large level of compliance, involving a multitude of different systems and government departments, before they are able to successfully import goods into a country. This can often be a very time-consuming and expensive process with a high chance of possible delays.

For businesses either located in or trading with the UK, the UK Single Trade Window will have several advantages. It will result in substantial financial and time savings as it will reduce the level of duplication required when trading with the UK. It will also provide traders with a detailed breakdown of all their customs activity and this increase in visibility should help streamline audit and record keeping requirements.

When will the UK Single Trade Window be introduced?

At present this is not confirmed but the UK government is currently targeting a start date in 2025.

Will Ireland adopt a Single Trade Window?

Like the UK, the EU is currently in the process of developing a Single Trade Window that will be adopted by all member states including Ireland. Due to the level of complexity involved this Single Trade Window will be implemented in phases. At present there is no confirmed timeline for this.

How will the UK’s Single Trade Window impact businesses based in Ireland?

Even if a business is not based in the UK the introduction of a Single Trade Window will still have an impact. The increased use of digital platforms to facilitate international trade may open significant new export opportunities for Irish businesses within the cross border and UK market.

To help prepare for its introduction businesses in Ireland should familiarise themselves with the guidance contained in our Cross-Border Trade Hub and engage with our Trade Export Pathway to ensure that their business is ready to take advantage of new export opportunities as they arise.

Are there any examples of other countries who have introduced a Single Trade Window?

Several countries have introduced a similar system to streamline import processes. These include the US Single Window and the New Zealand Trade Single Window.

What actions should businesses take now?

With the Single Trade Window still in development it is important that businesses who are engaging in cross-border trade continue to monitor future developments regarding its introduction. In addition, there are several steps which businesses should consider now to help prepare for an increase in digitalisation. These include:

  • Placing a strong emphasis on security and data protection. With increased digitalisation comes a greater reliance on data. As a result, it is imperative that businesses have processes in place to securely protect all business data. Failure to securely manage all data can have serious adverse impacts, risking not only the privacy of both customers and employees but also jeopardizing business reputation. Find out more information about data protection requirements and steps you can take to ensure data protection in our article about GDPR and Data Protection.
  • In addition to ensuring data protection, it is imperative that cross-border traders continue to invest in staff training. By investing in training, it will ensure that staff are aware of the latest developments in trade requirements and have the necessary skills to overcome any challenges associated with trade digitalisation.
  • Business should engage regularly with the Cross Border Trade hub to receive updates on all the latest developments in trade requirements along with practical advice on how to maintain compliance.
  • In addition, they should also consider engaging with industry bodies to help remain informed and when appropriate give feedback on changes being proposed.

GOV.UK has more information in this downloadable policy paper about the 2025 UK Border Strategy and the Single Trade Window.


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Article reviewed: August 2023