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Researching Tariffs

Last modified Feb. 12, 2014
Prepared by Mary Whisner for Law E545, International Trade Law

A tariff (or customs duty) is a fee charged by a country on imported goods.

Some countries are part of customs unions, such as the European Union, so they have common tariffs. For example, Belgium and France don't have separate tariff schedules, because they are part of the EU. Other customs unions include Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay) and the Southern African Customs Union (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland).


International Trade Research Guides

This guide focuses on tariffs. For international trade generally, see

Don Ford, Private International Law (last updated Aug. 2, 2013) (American Society of International Law Electronic Resource Guide). See also ASIL's links for Private International Law (part of EISIL, Electronic Information System for International Law).

Jean M. Wenger, International Economic Law (last updated Nov. 19, 2013) (American Society of International Law Electronic Resource Guide). See also ASIL's links for International Economic Law (part of EISIL, Electronic Information System for International Law).

UW Libraries, Trade Data.

 


 

Tariff vocabulary graphic

Terminology

This complex field has its own specialized vocabulary. The following glossaries can help you with it:

World Integrated Trade Solution (World Bank) Glossary

World Trade Organization

  • Glossary: "a guide to 'WTO speak'"
  • Glossary: "an informal press guide to 'WTO speak.'" Glossary has all the terms on one screen: no need to click to see definition.
  • WTOTERM: WTO Terminology Database. Includes hundreds of terms. Gives equivalents in English, French, and Spanish.

World Health Organization Glossary of globalization, trade and health terms. Less technical than the World Bank and WTO glossaries.

Deardorff's Glossary of International Economics (compiled by Alan Deardorff, a professor of international economics at the University of Michigan)

Terms of Trade from export.gov.

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Harmonized System

World Customs Organization logo In order to determine the tariff on goods, the goods have to be fit into some category: are they tableware? toys? tree fruit? tractors? To make the categories consistent (or at least compatible) around the world, almost all countries use the Harmonized System (HS). Here's a summary from the World Customs Organization:

The Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System generally referred to as "Harmonized System" or simply "HS" is a multipurpose international product nomenclature developed by the World Customs Organization (WCO).
It comprises about 5,000 commodity groups; each identified by a six digit code, arranged in a legal and logical structure and is supported by well-defined rules to achieve uniform classification.
The system is used by more than 200 countries and economies as a basis for their Customs tariffs and for the collection of international trade statistics. Over 98 % of the merchandise in international trade is classified in terms of the HS.
The HS contributes to the harmonization of Customs and trade procedures, and the non-documentary trade data interchange in connection with such procedures, thus reducing the costs related to international trade.
It is also extensively used by governments, international organizations and the private sector for many other purposes such as internal taxes, trade policies, monitoring of controlled goods, rules of origin, freight tariffs, transport statistics, price monitoring, quota controls, compilation of national accounts, and economic research and analysis. The HS is thus a universal economic language and code for goods, and an indispensable tool for international trade.

The HS Nomenclature 2012 Edition is a big outline, dividing goods into broad categories (e.g., animals and animal products, mineral products, and textiles and textile articles) and then dividing and subdividing. For example, Section XI, "Textiles and Textile Articles," includes Chapter 54, "Man-made filaments; strip and the like of man-made textile materials". Chapter 54 includes Heading 54.03, "Artificial filament yarn (other than sewing thread), not put up for retail sale, including artificial monofilament of less than 67 decitex." And under that heading is found the code 5403.10, "High tenacity yarn of viscose rayon."

The Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States, based on the Harmonized Schedule, uses 8 digits instead of the 6 digits of the HS. So, for example, 5403.10, "High tenacity yarn of viscose rayon," is subdivided to 5403.10.30 (single yarn),which has suffix 20 ("Monofilament; multifilament, untwisted or with twist of less than 5 turns per meter") or 40 ("Multifilament, with twist of 5 turns or more per meter").

The Law Library also has current and past editions of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States in print (1987- , with some missing editions): Classified Stacks KF6654 .599 U56.

The World Customs Organization offers to subscribers a searchable database of the Harmonized Schedule. You can look up codes free using the U.S. Census Bureau’s Schedule B Search Engine.

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Finding Tariffs

International Customs Tariff Bureau (BITD)

The International Customs Tariff Bureau (BITD) (the initials are from its French name, Bureau International des Tarifs Douaniers) translates and publishes tariffs. This body was established by treaty in 1890.

A simple database enables you to search for tariffs by country. The result is a PDF (often hundreds of pages) listing the country's tariffs, arranged according to the Harmonized Schedule. By leaving the search box at "All," you can browse the list of countries available.

Note: you will not find separate reports for countries that are part of customs unions. For example, to find Belgium's tariff, look up the European Union; to find Chile's, look up Mercosur's.

 

BITD search box

cover of BITD report for Iceland
BITD search box cover of BITD's report for Iceland (2006) (319-page PDF)

 

Bound Tariffs

Members of the World Trade Organization "bind" their tariffs by agreeing not to raise them. This WTO page on binding tariffs explains:

The market access schedules are not simply announcements of tariff rates. They represent commitments not to increase tariffs above the listed rates — the rates are “bound”. For developed countries, the bound rates are generally the rates actually charged. Most developing countries have bound the rates somewhat higher than the actual rates charged, so the bound rates serve as ceilings.
Countries can break a commitment (i.e. raise a tariff above the bound rate), but only with difficulty. To do so they have to negotiate with the countries most concerned and that could result in compensation for trading partners’ loss of trade.

World Tariff ProfilesWorld Tariff Profiles 2013 cover

An annual report of tariffs around the world is jointly prepared by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Trade Centre (ITC), and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). These World Tariff Profiles compile the tariffs imposed by each of the 159 WTO members as well as some other countries and customs territories when data is available.

Summary tables allow comparison between countries—e.g., percentage of duties that are bound, average duties, duties over 15%, the maximum duty.

Country tables provide more information for each country—e.g., summarizing tariffs and imports generally and by product group, then listing exports to major trading partners and the duties faced.

Schedules of Concessions

"Schedules of concessions" list the bound tariffs (or bindings). See WTO Members' Commitments. A table on the WTO website (Current Situation of Schedules of WTO Members) lists members and cites all of their bindings (with links to most). For example, if you look in the row for China, you can find "Bound tariffs at HS 6," which turns out to be a detailed spreadsheet listing tariffs under the Harmonized Schedule.

WTO Tariff Download Facility

WTO's Tariff Download Facility "contains comprehensive information on Most- Favoured-Nation (MFN) applied and bound tariffs at the standard codes of the Harmonized System (HS) for all WTO Members. When available, it also provides data at the HS subheading level on non-MFN applied tariff regimes which a country grants to its export partners." The information complements the statistics published in World Tariff Profiles. If you like sorting data in complex spreadsheets, this database is for you.

Tariff Analysis Online

In the Tariff Analysis Online facility the WTO provides access to its Integrated Data Base (IDB) and Consolidated Tariff Schedules (CTS) database. (Registration is required but is free.) The databases include applied customs duties, import statistics by country of origin, and WTO members' commitments on goods.

FTA Tariff Tool

Export.gov is a federal government website meant to make international trade easier for US business. Its FTA Tariff Tool helps you determine the tariff on particular imported or exported goods.

For example, if you want to find out what the tariff is on grapefruits imported from Chile, you can enter the basic HS code for citrus fruit (0805) and find a range of options, such as Oranges, fresh or dried.
screen snip from FTA Tariff Tool showing citrus items

Choosing "Grapefruit, fresh or dried, entered during the period August 1 through September" takes you to another screen that shows that the tariff was phased out over several years and there is now zero tariff on grapefruit imported from Chile. (The phase-out was different for different seasons, but there is now no duty no matter what season you import the grapefruit.)

screen snip from FTA Tariff Tool showing grapefruit from Chile

You can go through the same process to find another country's tariff on something that you want to export from the US.

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Generalized System of Preferences

In the late 1960s, UNCTAD participants developed the Generalized System of Preferences under which developed countries (e.g., United States and Japan) would give preferences to certain products exported by developing countries, charging them reduced tariffs or no tariffs at all. The tariff relief is greatest for least developed countries (LDCs).

Currently, the developed countries with GSP schemes are: Australia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, the European Union, Japan, New Zeland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United States. The different schemes are listed here. For the US scheme, see Handbook on the Scheme of the United States of America (2010).

UNCTAD, Generalized System of Preferences: List of Beneficiaries (2011) lists the nations that are beneficiaries of one or more GSP schemes. (Some countries can be both beneficiary and donor. For example, Belarus gives preferences to exports from Afghanistan and Angola, and receives preferences from the EU, Japan, and the Russian Federation.)

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WTO Analytical Index

The WTO Analytical Index "is a comprehensive guide to the interpretation and application of the WTO agreements by the Appellate Body, dispute settlement panels and other WTO bodies." (For U.S. researchers, this is like an annotated code: it has the text of the agreements with notes summarizing other material related to the agreements.)

For example, the index presents the text of GATT Article II, then a note about that article ("note ad Article II" -- "ad" is Latin for "at, by, for, near, concerning"), then other material, such as summaries of GATT panel decisions interpreting the article.

screen snip of GATT art II
text of Article II
screen snip GATT art II ad note
excerpt of Note Ad Article II
screen snip GATT art II panel summary
annotation summarizing GATT Appellate Body decision in EC—Bananas III

You can browse the documents (e.g., if you know the that you're interested in a particular article of the GATT, TRIPS, GATS, or whatever). Or you can you an index of terms to find the relevant sections.

screen snip of index to WTO Analytical Index
excerpt from index to WTO Analytical Index, showing entries for Harmonized System of Customs Classification, Havana Charter, Headquarters Agreement, historical preferences, and Honduras

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