Technically named the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the UK shipped US$401.9 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2020. That dollar amount reflects a -2.3% decrease since 2016 and a -14.2% drop from one year earlier in 2019.
Based on the average exchange rate for 2020, the British pound depreciated by -5.3% against the US dollar since 2016 and increased by 0.4% from 2019 to 2020. The UK’s stronger local currency in 2020 make British exports paid for in slightly weaker US dollars relatively less expensive for international buyers.
The latest available country-specific data shows that 68.4% of products exported from UK were bought by importers in: the United States (14.8% of the global total), Germany (10.5%), Ireland (7.1%), Netherlands (6.4%), France (6.1%), Switzerland (5%), China (4.8%), Belgium (3.5%), Spain (2.8%), Italy (2.8%), Hong Kong (2.7%) and Canada (1.9%).
From a continental perspective, 54.1% of exports by value from the United Kingdom were delivered to fellow European countries compared to 46.1% for European Union members. In addition, 21.2% were sold to Asian importers. United Kingdom shipped another 16.5% worth of goods to North America. Smaller percentages went to Africa (2.1%), Oceania led by Australia and New Zealand (1.5%) then Latin America excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean (1.3%).
Given United Kingdom’s population of 67.3 million people, its total $401.9 billion in 2020 exported products translates to roughly $6,000 for every resident in the western European economic powerhouse.
United Kingdom’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups categorize the highest dollar value in UK global shipments during 2020. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from Great Britain.
- Machinery including computers: US$60.4 billion (15% of total exports)
- Gems, precious metals: $43.3 billion (10.8%)
- Vehicles: $36.4 billion (9.1%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $26.4 billion (6.6%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $25 billion (6.2%)
- Pharmaceuticals: $24.8 billion (6.2%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $17.6 billion (4.4%)
- Aircraft, spacecraft: $13.2 billion (3.3%)
- Organic chemicals: $12.1 billion (3%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $10.6 billion (2.6%)
The United Kingdom’s top 10 exports accounted for roughly two-thirds (67.1%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Gems and precious metals was the lone grower among the top 10 export categories, up by 1.7% since 2019.
The leading decliner among United Kingdom’s top 10 export categories were mineral fuels including oil which fell -35.5% year over year, weighed down by lower international sales from both crude and processed petroleum oils. Other major decreases belong to aircraft and spacecraft (down -28.2%) and vehicles (down -27.9%) exported from the UK.
Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of UK’s Most Valuable Export Products further down near the bottom of this article.
The following types of UK product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.
In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
- Aircraft, spacecraft: US$5.2 billion (Down by -31.1% since 2019)
- Collector items, art, antiques: $4.6 billion (Down by -50.2%)
- Organic chemicals: $2.5 billion (Down by -0.7%)
- Ships, boats: $1.6 billion (Up by 137.1%)
- Iron, steel: $1.4 billion (Up by 106.1%)
- Tanning, dyes, paints, varnishes, ink: $1.1 billion (Up by 12.2%)
- Books, newspapers, pictures: $1 billion (Down by -13.1%)
- Other chemical goods: $361.8 million (Down by -45.6%)
- Beverages, spirits, vinegar: $296.1 million (Down by -85%)
- Arms, ammunition: $249.1 million (Up by 19.8%)
United Kingdom has highly positive net exports in the international trade of aircraft and spacecraft including parts. In turn, these cashflows indicate United Kingdom’s strong competitive advantages under the aircraft and spacecraft category.
Overall, the United Kingdom incurred a -$229.9 billion trade deficit during 2020. That percentage represents a 2.6% rise from -$224.2 billion in red ink one year earlier.
Below are exports from United Kingdom that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country United Kingdom’s goods trail UK importer spending on foreign products.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: -US$30.8 billion (Down by -7.6% since 2019)
- Vehicles: -$21.6 billion (Down by -11.3%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: -$7.6 billion (Down by -50.8%)
- Machinery including computers: -$9.8 billion (Down by -11.3%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$7.2 billion (Down by -21.1%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting , signs, prefab buildings: -$7.2 billion (Down by -5.8%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$7.9 billion (Up by 6.7%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$7.6 billion (Up by 8.6%)
- Wood: -$6.5 billion (Down by -4.4%)
- Fruits, nuts: -$6 billion (Up by 0.5%)
Notably, the United Kingdom has highly negative net exports under the electrical machinery and equipment category and therefore deep international trade deficits notably caused by UK’s spending on imported electronics.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate United Kingdom’s competitive disadvantages in the international electronics market, but also represent key opportunities for United Kingdom to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
UK Export Companies
Here are UK export companies ranking among the largest international trade players for the United Kingdom.
- Anglo American PLC (diversified metals, mining)
- AstraZeneca (pharmaceuticals)
- BP (oil, gas)
- British American Tobacco (tobacco)
- GlaxoSmithKline (pharmaceuticals)
- Johnson Matthey (chemicals)
- Mondi Group (paper, paper products)
- Rio Tinto Group (diversified metals, mining)
- SABMiller (beverages)
- Smith & Nephew (medical equipment, supplies)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of UK exporters.
- Allied Pickfords UK (forage products, corn, t-shirts)
- Cadbury UK (chocolate bars, other chocolate preparations)
- GKN Timet UK (titanium)
- Optivite International (formic acid, proprionic acid, animal feeds not for dog or cat)
- Rothenberger UK (pipe/bolt cutters, propylene, miscellaneous tubes/pipes/hoses)
Searchable List of UK’s Most Valuable Export Products
At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, the following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from the United Kingdom during 2020. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2019.
|Rank||UK Export Product||2020 Value (US$)||Change|
|4||Medication mixes in dosage||$18,325,549,000||+1.6%|
|8||Processed petroleum oils||$7,390,870,000||-37.6%|
|9||Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)||$6,264,768,000||-20.5%|
|10||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$5,065,623,000||-31.6%|
|12||Heterocyclics, nucleic acids||$4,951,146,000||+21.6%|
|13||Phone system devices including smartphones||$4,692,965,000||-47.2%|
|14||Computers, optical readers||$4,392,101,000||-9.6%|
|15||Phone system devices||$4,270,934,000||-16.6%|
|19||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$2,922,656,000||-3.9%|
|20||Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)||$2,862,358,000||+8.9%|
|21||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$2,851,054,000||-11.5%|
|22||Other diagnostic/lab reagents||$2,777,363,000||+40%|
|23||Printed books, brochures||$2,252,702,000||-12.6%|
|24||Physical/chemical analysis tools||$2,233,672,000||-6.8%|
|25||Iron or steel scrap||$2,107,801,000||-18.6%|
|26||Precious metal waste, scrap||$2,058,220,000||+49.6%|
|27||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$2,045,333,000||-9.5%|
|29||Liquid pumps and elevators||$1,874,183,000||-15.3%|
|30||Other food preparations||$1,815,731,000||+2.6%|
|31||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$1,787,543,000||-26.9%|
|32||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$1,772,971,000||-17.6%|
|39||Women's clothing (not knit or crochet)||$1,489,343,000||-11.3%|
|44||Air or vacuum pumps||$1,398,073,000||-13.6%|
|45||Seats (excluding barber/dentist chairs)||$1,381,876,000||-32.2%|
|46||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$1,355,610,000||-4.4%|
|47||Miscellaneous plastic items||$1,337,428,000||-13.1%|
|48||Other measuring/testing machines||$1,336,895,000||-13.1%|
|49||Light vessels, fire boats, floating docks||$1,327,484,000||+2,708%|
|53||Electrical converters/power units||$1,289,690,000||+2.6%|
|54||Piston engine parts||$1,283,151,000||-22.5%|
|55||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$1,279,753,000||-7.1%|
|56||Other organic cleaning preparations||$1,270,075,000||+5.3%|
|57||Precious metal compounds||$1,229,513,000||+101.6%|
|59||Miscellaneous animal feed preparations||$1,226,057,000||+6.1%|
|60||Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels||$1,199,547,000||-16.9%|
|62||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$1,185,247,000||-15.5%|
|63||Bread, biscuits, cakes, pastries||$1,166,314,000||-3.9%|
|64||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$1,117,903,000||-1.2%|
|65||Unrecorded sound media||$1,112,454,000||-13.1%|
|66||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$1,077,920,000||+37.8%|
|67||Chemical industry products/residuals||$1,074,255,000||-9.4%|
|68||Liquid/gas checking instruments||$1,064,313,000||-19.7%|
|70||Cases, handbags, wallets||$1,050,352,000||+2.3%|
|71||Jerseys, pullovers (knit or crochet)||$1,027,355,000||+5.6%|
|72||Chocolate, other cocoa preparations||$1,010,083,000||+2.7%|
|74||Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates||$987,520,000||-17.6%|
|75||Computer parts, accessories||$978,368,000||-8.7%|
|77||Personal toilet/shaving preparations, deodorants||$943,883,000||-1.1%|
|78||Models, puzzles, miscellaneous toys||$916,692,000||+4.8%|
|79||Copper waste, scrap||$892,715,000||-11.6%|
|80||Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers||$890,836,000||-9.9%|
|81||Hormones, miscellaneous steroids||$883,300,000||-30.4%|
|82||Miscellaneous engines, motors||$881,999,000||-7.2%|
|83||Radar, radio communication items||$880,657,000||+41.4%|
|85||Plastic tubes, pipes, fittings||$860,734,000||+3.3%|
|87||Electric generating sets, converters||$849,236,000||-5.9%|
|89||Whole fish (fresh)||$824,934,000||-23.8%|
|90||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$824,772,000||-3%|
|91||Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels||$817,981,000||-54.9%|
|93||T-shirts, vests (knit or crochet)||$808,905,000||-1.1%|
|95||Scents used for beverage or industrial manufacturing||$798,054,000||-10.6%|
|96||Navigational aids, compasses||$797,452,000||-20.7%|
|98||Other coloring matter, luminophores||$787,783,000||-3.2%|
|100||Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers||$762,288,000||-17%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$281.8 billion or 70.1% by value for all products exported from the UK during 2020.
In macroeconomic terms, the United Kingdom’s total exported goods represent 13.5% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2020 ($2.979 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 13.5% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2020 compares to 15% one year earlier. This seems to indicate a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for the UK’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a geographical entity’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. Britain’s unemployment rate was 5% in November 2020, up from an average 3.814% for 2020 according to the International Monetary Fund.
See also United Kingdom’s Top 10 Imports, United Kingdom’s Top Trading Partners, UK’s Major EU Exports, United Kingdom’s Top 10 Major Export Companies and United Kingdom’s Exported Services
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International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on February 21, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Wikipedia, List of Companies based in London. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on February 21, 2021