Based on the average exchange rate for 2021, the British pound appreciated by 6.4% against the US dollar since 2017 and increased by the same 6.4% from 2020 to 2021. The UK’s stronger local currency makes British exports paid for in comparatively weaker US dollars relatively more expensive for international buyers.
Britain’s biggest export products by value in 2021 were gold, cars, turbo-jets, medication mixes in dosage and crude oil. In aggregate, those major exports account for 27.8% of overall exports sales from the United Kingdom compared to 25.5% in 2020. The UK’s top commodities suggest a diversified range of exported goods.
The United Kingdom ranks among world-leading nations for exporting aircraft parts, platinum and gold.
The latest available country-specific data shows that 69.5% of products exported from the UK were bought by importers in: United States of America (13.8% of the global total), Switzerland (9.1%), Germany (8.9%), Netherlands (7.9%), France (5.9%), Ireland (5.1%), China (4.8%), Belgium (4.5%), Italy (2.8%), Spain (2.4%), Hong Kong (2.3%) and United Arab Emirates (1.8%).
From a continental perspective, 57% of exports by value from the United Kingdom were delivered to fellow European countries compared to 45% for European Union members (down from 46.1% in 2020). In addition, 21.8% were sold to Asian importers. United Kingdom shipped another 15.8% worth of goods to North America.
Smaller percentages went to Africa (2.4%), Oceania (1.6%) led by Australia and New Zealand then Latin America (1.4%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean.
Given United Kingdom’s population of 67.3 million people, its total $459.4 billion in 2021 exported products translates to roughly $6,800 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 2021. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from Great Britain.
- Machinery including computers: US$67.6 billion (14.7% of total exports)
- Gems, precious metals: $65.7 billion (14.3%)
- Vehicles: $40.1 billion (8.7%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $33.7 billion (7.3%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $26.4 billion (5.7%)
- Pharmaceuticals: $23.3 billion (5.1%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $20.4 billion (4.4%)
- Aircraft, spacecraft: $13.9 billion (3%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $12.3 billion (2.7%)
- Organic chemicals: $11 billion (2.4%)
The United Kingdom’s top 10 exports accounted for over two-thirds (68.4%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Gems and precious metals represents the fastest-growing among the top 10 export categories, up by 53.2% year over year since 2020 propelled by higher international sales of gold and platinum.
In second place for improving export sales was mineral fuels including oil which was up by 27.8%.
United Kingdom’s shipments of optical, technical and medical apparatus posted the third-fastest gain in value up by 15.8% year over year.
The leading decliner among United Kingdom’s top 10 export categories was organic chemicals thanks to a -16% reduction.
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.
Britain’s Major Food Exports
Calculated based on the overall $459.4 billion worth of products shipped from the United Kingdom in 2021, food exports amounted to a subtotal $15.5 billion or a relatively modest 3.4% of the UK’s exported goods. In comparison, Canada’s international food shipments represent 12% of total products exported in 2021.
The value of Britain’s international food shipments shrank by -12.2% compared to 2017. From 2020 to 2021, the UK posted a -15.9% downtick in food-related revenues.
The UK’s two most valuable exported product categories are processed foods.
The most valuable food category for British shippers was miscellaneous edible preparations, representing 17.2% of the UK’s international food sales. The miscellaneous edible preparations product category includes exports of sauces, ice cream and soups.
In second place were exports of cereal or milk preparations equaling 13.8% of UK food exports by value. The most valuable cereal or milk preparations products exported from Britain are bakery goods including bread, pastry, cakes, biscuits and cookies.
The other leading product categories are fish (12.8% of Britain’s total exports), meat (11.8%) led by sheep or goat meat ahead of pork or beef, then dairy, eggs and honey (8.1%).
Products Creating Trade Surpluses for Britain
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$7.6 billion (Up by 52.4% since 2020)
- Collector items, art, antiques: $3 billion (Up by 122.2%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $1.9 billion (Reversing a -$1.4 billion deficit)
- Books, newspapers, pictures: $1.04 billion (Up by 4.4%)
- Tanning, dyes, paints, varnishes, ink: $1.03 billion (Down by -0.4%)
- Iron, steel: $877.9 million (Down by -31.4%)
- Ships, boats: $786.6 million (Down by -49.8%)
- Inorganic chemicals: $717.5 million (Up by 47.6%)
- Arms, ammunition: $661.3 million (Up by 195.2%)
- Woodpulp: $416.6 million (Reversing a -$106.5 million deficit)
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.
Products Causing Trade Deficits for Britain
The United Kingdom incurred an overall -$231.2 billion trade deficit during 2021. That dollar amount represents a -3.1% drop from -$238.5 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$34.5 billion (Up by 10.7% since 2020)
- Vehicles: -$23.6 billion (Up by 8.3%)
- Gems, precious metals: -$16.9 billion (Down by -74.2%)
- Machinery including computers: -$11.7 billion (Up by 11.9%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefabricated buildings: -$11.1 billion (Up by 51.6%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$9.7 billion (Up by 30.3%)
- Wood: -$9.6 billion (Up by 44.7%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$8.7 billion (Up by 13.6%)
- Toys, games: -$6.3 billion (Up by 42.9%)
- Fruits, nuts: -$6.3 billion (Up by 3.1%)
Notably, the United Kingdom has highly negative net exports under the electrical machinery and equipment category and therefore deep international trade deficits notably caused by UK’s spending on imported electronics.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate United Kingdom’s competitive disadvantages in the international electronics market, but also represent key opportunities for United Kingdom to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
Major UK Export Companies
Here are UK export companies ranking among the largest international trade players for the United Kingdom.
- Anglo American PLC (diversified metals, mining)
- AstraZeneca (pharmaceuticals)
- BP (oil, gas)
- British American Tobacco (tobacco)
- GlaxoSmithKline (pharmaceuticals)
- Johnson Matthey (chemicals)
- Mondi Group (paper, paper products)
- Rio Tinto Group (diversified metals, mining)
- SABMiller (beverages)
- Smith & Nephew (medical equipment, supplies)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of UK exporters.
- Allied Pickfords UK (forage products, corn, t-shirts)
- Cadbury UK (chocolate bars, other chocolate preparations)
- GKN Timet UK (titanium)
- Optivite International (formic acid, proprionic acid, animal feeds not for dog or cat)
- Rothenberger UK (pipe/bolt cutters, propylene, miscellaneous tubes/pipes/hoses)
Searchable List of UK’s Most Valuable Export Products
At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, the following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from the United Kingdom during 2021. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2020.
|Rank||UK Export Product||2021 Value (US$)||Change|
|4||Medication mixes in dosage||$16,581,522,000||-9.9%|
|8||Processed petroleum oils||$10,266,108,000||+42.4%|
|9||Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)||$7,510,048,000||+20.1%|
|10||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$5,542,109,000||+9.1%|
|12||Computers, optical readers||$4,635,326,000||+5.4%|
|14||Phone system devices||$4,191,473,000||-2.3%|
|15||Heterocyclics, nucleic acids||$4,162,358,000||-21.5%|
|16||Iron or steel scrap||$3,878,758,000||+84.4%|
|19||Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)||$3,240,499,000||+12.4%|
|20||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$3,169,245,000||+8.3%|
|22||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$2,870,333,000||+0.9%|
|24||Precious metal waste, scrap||$2,771,800,000||+34.8%|
|25||Hand-drawn paintings, drawings||$2,759,474,000||+19.8%|
|26||Other diagnostic/lab reagents||$2,706,071,000||-3%|
|27||Physical/chemical analysis tools||$2,574,204,000||+15.1%|
|28||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$2,390,492,000||+26.1%|
|29||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$2,290,078,000||+11.8%|
|30||Liquid pumps and elevators||$2,207,317,000||+17.7%|
|32||Precious metal compounds||$2,057,306,000||+67.2%|
|33||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$1,982,424,000||+11.3%|
|34||Printed books, brochures||$1,973,182,000||-12.3%|
|36||Other measuring/testing machines||$1,821,394,000||+36.2%|
|37||Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels||$1,716,718,000||+43%|
|40||Copper waste, scrap||$1,654,887,000||+85.5%|
|41||Air or vacuum pumps||$1,634,770,000||+16.6%|
|42||Other food preparations||$1,630,336,000||-9.6%|
|45||Miscellaneous plastic items||$1,532,899,000||+13.2%|
|46||Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)||$1,525,999,000||+115.6%|
|48||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$1,463,731,000||+14.7%|
|51||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$1,440,192,000||+9%|
|52||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$1,416,374,000||+29.4%|
|54||Hormones, miscellaneous steroids||$1,384,955,000||+56.4%|
|55||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$1,353,127,000||+14.7%|
|56||Electrical converters/power units||$1,320,291,000||+2.3%|
|57||Piston engine parts||$1,318,752,000||+3.7%|
|58||Chemical industry products/residuals||$1,303,307,000||+21.1%|
|59||Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers||$1,299,898,000||+45.6%|
|61||Other organic cleaning preparations||$1,244,706,000||-2.7%|
|63||Navigational aids including compasses||$1,170,168,000||+47.1%|
|64||Liquid/gas checking instruments||$1,166,885,000||+9.1%|
|66||Bombs, grenades, ammunition||$1,109,739,000||+1326.6%|
|68||Whole fish (fresh)||$1,054,130,000||+27.3%|
|69||Seats (excluding barber/dentist chairs)||$1,052,448,000||-24.1%|
|70||Bread, biscuits, cakes, pastries||$1,031,374,000||-12%|
|71||Paper/paperboard waste, scrap||$1,004,641,000||+97.7%|
|73||Miscellaneous animal feed preparations||$995,287,000||-19.1%|
|74||Chocolate, other cocoa preparations||$988,464,000||-2.2%|
|76||Radar, radio communication items||$972,291,000||+79.4%|
|77||Plastic tubes, pipes, fittings||$966,371,000||+11.6%|
|78||Cases, handbags, wallets||$965,141,000||-9%|
|79||Aluminum waste, scrap||$950,145,000||+94.5%|
|80||Computer parts, accessories||$949,432,000||-3%|
|81||Personal toilet/shaving preparations, deodorants||$945,929,000||-0.02%|
|82||Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels||$945,454,000||+15.6%|
|83||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$940,892,000||+13.3%|
|84||Women's clothing (not knit or crochet)||$934,899,000||-34.2%|
|87||Miscellaneous engines, motors||$884,714,000||+1%|
|88||Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers||$872,103,000||+15%|
|89||Other coloring matter, luminophores||$871,319,000||+10.3%|
|90||Scents used for beverage or industrial manufacturing||$867,811,000||+8.9%|
|92||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$861,952,000||-19.7%|
|96||Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates||$800,951,000||-19%|
|97||Electric motors, generators||$788,330,000||+22.1%|
|98||Self-adhesive plastic in rolls||$783,386,000||+64.3%|
|99||Electric generating sets, converters||$768,348,000||-9.6%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$323.8 billion or 70.5% by value for all products exported from the UK during 2021.
In macroeconomic terms, the United Kingdom’s total exported goods represent 14% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2021 ($3.276 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 14% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2021 compares to 13.5% one year earlier. Those percentages suggest relatively increasing 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 4.975% at October 2021, up from an average 4.525% for 2021 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 World’s Top Food Exports Special Data Report
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