Comprised of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the United Kingdom is a sovereign state situated across from continental Europe’s north-western coast.
The United Kingdom sent 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.
Applying a continental lens, 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%).
United Kingdom’s Top Trading Partners
Below is a list showcasing 15 of United Kingdom’s top trading partners in terms of export sales. That is, these are countries that imported the most UK shipments by dollar value during 2020. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total UK exports.
- United States: US$57.5 billion (14.3% of total UK exports)
- Germany: $41.1 billion (10.2%)
- Ireland: $27.5 billion (6.8%)
- Netherlands: $24.9 billion (6.2%)
- France: $23.7 billion (5.9%)
- Switzerland: $19.4 billion (4.8%)
- China: $18.6 billion (4.6%)
- Belgium: $13.5 billion (3.4%)
- Spain: $11.1 billion (2.8%)
- Italy: $11 billion (2.7%)
- Hong Kong: $10.6 billion (2.6%)
- Canada: $7.5 billion (1.9%)
- Japan: $7.3 billion (1.8%)
- Turkey: $6.4 billion (1.6%)
- United Arab Emirates: $6.3 billion (1.6%)
Approaching three-quarters (71.2%) of UK exports in 2020 were delivered to the above 15 trade partners.
Two among the top 15 importers increased the value of their deliveries from the UK from 2019 to 2020, namely the Switzerland (up 24.2%) and Canada (up 12.2%).
Leading the decliners were the United Arab Emirates (down -36.8%) and France (down -24.5%).
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.
As defined by Investopedia, a country whose total value of all imported goods is higher than its value of all exports is said to have a negative trade balance or deficit.
It would be unrealistic for any exporting nation to expect across-the-board positive trade balances with all its importing partners. Similarly, that export country doesn’t necessarily post a negative trade balance with each individual partner with which it exchanges exports and imports.
United Kingdom incurred the highest trade deficits with the following countries.
- China: -US$57 billion (country-specific trade deficit in 2020)
- Germany: -$32.4 billion
- Russia: -$21.6 billion
- Netherlands: -$20.7 billion
- Belgium: -$15 billion
- Italy: -$12.1 billion
- Poland: -$7.8 billion
- Canada: -$7.6 billion
- Spain: -$7.2 billion
- South Africa: -$6 billion
Among United Kingdom’s trading partners that cause the greatest negative trade balances, UK deficits with Russia (up 101.2%), China (up 61.1%) and Poland (up 4.8%) grew from 2019 to 2020.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate United Kingdom’s competitive disadvantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for United Kingdom to develop country-specific strategies to strengthen its overall position in international trade.
Based on Investopedia’s definition of net importer, a country whose total value of all imported goods is lower than its value of all exports is said to have a positive trade balance or surplus.
United Kingdom earned the highest trade surpluses with the following countries.
- Ireland: US$10.4 billion (country-specific trade surplus in 2020)
- Switzerland: $8 billion
- United Arab Emirates: $4.7 billion
- Singapore: $3.1 billion
- Saudi Arabia: $2.4 billion
- Norway: $2.4 billion
- Qatar: $2.1 billion
- North Macedonia: $1.2 billion
- Belarus: $1.1 billion
- Israel: $879.1 million
Among United Kingdom’s trading partners that generate the greatest positive trade balances, UK surpluses with Belarus (up 1249.2%), Israel (up 70.8%) and Qatar (up 68.2%) grew from 2019 to 2020.
In addition, Britain reversed deficits in 2019 to post surpluses in 2020: Norway (overcoming a -$15.1 billion deficit for 2019) and Switzerland flipping from a -$8 billion negative balance one year earlier.
These positive cashflow streams clearly indicate United Kingdom’s competitive advantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for United Kingdom to develop country-specific strategies to optimize its overall position in international trade.
Companies Servicing UK Trading Partners
Roughly 90 UK corporations rank among Forbes Global 2000. Below is a sample of the major companies headquartered in the UK that appear on the Forbes lists.
- Anglo American (diversified metals, mining)
- Associated British Foods (food processing)
- AstraZeneca (pharmaceuticals)
- BG Group (oil, gas)
- BP (oil, gas)
- British American Tobacco (tobacco)
- Diageo (beverages)
- GlaxoSmithKline (pharmaceuticals)
- Imperial Tobacco Group (tobacco)
- Rio Tinto (diversified metals, mining)
- Rolls-Royce Holdings (aerospace & defense)
- SABMiller (beverages)
According to the UK Export Directory, the following are examples of established companies that ship products from the United Kingdom to its trading partners around the globe. Shown within parenthesis is the product category that the UK-based business specializes in.
- Absolute Battery (UK) Ltd (power supplies, batteries)
- Advanced Technology Laboratories (UK) Ltd (electronics)
- Antech UK Hydraulics (hydraulic motors, other machinery)
- Diamond Offshore (UK) Ltd (drilling equipment)
- Global Communications UK Ltd (broadcast equipment, satellites)
- Gold Major Group (jewelry)
- Johnson Pump (UK) Limited (rotary lobe pumps)
- Knight Plastics Ltd (plastic injection mouldings)
- Nippon Oil Exploration UK Ltd (oil, gas)
- Trumpler UK Ltd (chemicals)
See also United Kingdom’s Top 10 Imports, United Kingdom’s Top 10 Exports, UK’s Major EU Exports, United Kingdom’s Top 10 Major Export Companies and European Union’s Top 10 Exports
British Exporters, Database of British Products & Verified British Exporters. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook Country Profiles, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Forbes Global 2000, The World’s Largest Public Companies. Accessed on February 21, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on February 21, 2021
Investopedia, Net Importer Definition. Accessed on February 21, 2021