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Exporters and importers in Great Britain, 2011

11% of registered businesses in GB were engaged in exporting in 2011, and 10% in importing

In 2011, 11% of registered businesses in the non-financial Business Economy engaged in the export of goods and/or services, according to the Annual Business Survey. The proportion of businesses engaging in importing goods and/or services was slightly lower at 10%. There was some overlap between the businesses that engaged in exporting and importing, with 6% of businesses carrying out both activities. Overall, 15% of businesses were involved in some form of international trade.


Large businesses more likely than smaller ones to export and import

Of large businesses in Great Britain (those with 250 or more people in employment), 41% were exporters, and almost half (48%) were importers. This is considerably higher than for small businesses (those with fewer than 50 people in employment), where just one in ten businesses were exporters (10%), with the proportion of importers being slightly lower (9%). Large businesses were therefore over four times more likely to export, and over five times more likely to import, than small businesses.

Large businesses were also seven times more likely than small businesses (37% compared with 5%) to carry out both exporting and importing activities. This is likely to be influenced by the availability of resources to focus on establishing and strengthening trade links with businesses abroad. Large businesses are also more likely to be part of a wider global structure, with inter-company transfers included in the data.

Foreign-owned businesses heavily engaged in exporting and importing

Over half (54%) of foreign-owned businesses were exporters, with slightly more (57%) being importers. This is in sharp contrast to UK-owned businesses where the proportions of exporters and importers were much lower (10% and 9% respectively). Foreign-owned businesses were therefore over five times more likely to export, and over six times more likely to import than UK-owned businesses.

Foreign-owned businesses were also around nine times more likely than UK-owned businesses to engage in both exporting and importing activities (46% compared with 5%).

Older businesses also more likely to export and import

For older businesses, those operating for 20 years or more, 14% were involved in exporting and 14% in importing. In contrast, new businesses, those operating for less than two years, had lower levels of exporters and importers at 8% and 9% respectively. Older businesses were therefore, more likely to export, and more likely to import than new businesses. Older businesses were also around three times more likely than new businesses (9% compared with 3%) to engage in both exporting and importing activities.

Some of these differences could be attributed to older businesses having had more time to establish trade links with businesses abroad. Another possible explanation is that new businesses may be focussing on achieving growth in the local market before expanding abroad.

Business size, ownership type and age all associated with likelihood of international trade

Overall, the Annual Business Survey indicates that in 2011 a business is more likely to engage in exporting or importing activities if it has a large number people in employment, is foreign-owned and is older. These relationships have been assessed individually, but it is important to remember that these characteristics are interlinked. For example, older businesses are more likely to be larger in size as they have had a longer period for growth. 

For the data behind this short story, as well as further breakdowns of export and import activity by goods and by services, please see the data tables (113 Kb Excel sheet) .


  1. These estimates are experimental official statistics. More detail of the methodology used to produce them and their coherence with other sources can be found in the Information Note (361.5 Kb Pdf) .

  2. Registered businesses/enterprises are those which are registered for VAT and/ or PAYE, any reference to a 'business' or 'enterprise' only covers this group.

  3. These estimates cover the Great Britain Business Economy excluding Financial and Insurance industries, which accounts for just under two thirds of the economy in terms of Gross Value Added. The Information Note (361.5 Kb Pdf) contains further information on the coverage of these estimates.

  4. The tables (113 Kb Excel sheet) provided show which businesses import and export by employment size, age and ownership. The information in this short story covers export or import of goods and/ or services.

  5. Regional or industry breakdowns of these data have not been included. The information available pertains only to the location or activity of the enterprise and not to its respective local units which may be unrepresentative of trading location or activity.

  6. It is intended that this import and export breakdown will be published each November alongside the standard ABS release, with the next update available in November 2013 and containing information for the 2012 survey year. Future outputs will be available on the ONS website via the ABS webpages.

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