All you need to know about pharmaceutical exports

2 months ago   •   6 min read

By Silverbird Content Team

Exporting medicines has never been more lucrative.

From herbal products to generic drugs, the global manufacturing and export of pharmaceutical products continue to reach newfound gargantuan heights.

Over the past two decades, the pharma industry’s revenues worldwide grew up to a whopping 1.42 trillion U.S. Dollars in 2021. The global pandemic was fuel to the fire as governments across the world bulk-bought pharmaceutical products.

It’s clear that the foreign trade of pharmaceutical products is booming. It's more important than ever before that every pharma export company has the necessary documents in place to streamline customs clearance.

In this article, we highlight what type of drugs require permission to export, and the sort of pharma export documentation you are required to provide before you are allowed to export.


This article at a glance

Any company that wants to export pharmaceutical products overseas may require an export licence — in effect, permission to export certain drugs and medicines. Depending on the type of pharmaceutical product you export, you will need to fill out the right export certificate or face a penalty.


What is a pharmacy export licence?

Foreign trade is bound by bureaucracy — anyone looking to export goods has to fill out paperwork. Exporting pharmaceutical products is no different.

There are certain documents required for the export of pharmaceutical products.

An exporters licence or certificate is critical — this acts as permission to export pharmaceutical products and will smoothen customs clearance.

3 common scenarios where you will require permission in the UK include the following:

  • Controlled goods (drugs such as opioids, certain stimulants or psychotropic substances)
  • Drugs that can be used in lethal injections outside the EU
  • Patented drugs or medicines for humans or animals

Keep in mind that the above only applies if you are an exporter shipping large or bulk pharmaceutical products to other countries. Personal drug usage does not fall under the above rules.

How can I export medicines from the UK?

First things first: know your HS code. The Harmonised System (HS) is an internationally-recognised import-export code that classifies goods based on type. The HS Code enables customs authorities to control the flow of goods into their home country and levy the correct tax.

This is particularly important for controlled goods, like pharma products, and helps the importing country know what goods they're receiving.

In short, it's one of those important freight details to get right and ensures smooth customs clearance.

Controlled drugs
If you are unsure of what constitutes a controlled drug, check out this list of the most commonly encountered drugs currently controlled under the misuse of drugs legislation in the UK.

You will require both:

  • A domestic licence to process the drug in the UK
  • A Home Office-controlled drug licence to export it outside the UK

Every pharmaceutical exporter needs a Home Office-controlled drug licence to export controlled drugs anywhere in the world. Here’s how to apply for one.

  1. Register for a Home Office-controlled drug licence on the NDS Web
  2. Log into the portal once you have registered

Your licence will be valid for up to 2 months or until your import permit expires, whichever is sooner. Note that the export of controlled drugs to the Channel Islands will require you to contact channel_islands@homeoffice.gov.uk.

The Home Office controlled drug licence costs £24. You will receive a written invoice to your registered address from the Drugs and Firearms Licensing Unit (DFLU).

Drugs that can be used in lethal injections
To export pharma products that can be used in lethal injections, you will require the following:

  • A VMD export certificate scheme application
  • An export licence issued by the Export Control Joint Unit (Department for International Trade)

The rules and steps for exporting these drugs are similar to those relating to the exporting of torture and capital punishment goods (barbiturates) and are controlled by the Torture Goods Regulations.

Before you apply for any licence, ensure that your drugs do not fall under this category: drugs that have no practical use other than capital punishment, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

You will never be able to export those drugs, as they are strictly prohibited, except in specific circumstances.

However, you may be allowed to export these two categories of drugs through an export licence:

  • Drugs that have legitimate law enforcement applications, but could be used for torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • Drugs that could be used for capital punishment

In other words, if you plan to export drugs that can be used in lethal injections, you must ensure that they serve other purposes other than simply being a form of punishment. For a list of goods that are prohibited and those that require export authorisation, check out this link.

Here’s how you can apply for an export licence for drugs used in lethal injections:

  1. Check whether your drug can be exported with a licence
  2. Apply for the appropriate licence using Export Control Joint Unit (ECJU’s) online export licensing system SPIRE

For more detailed information, refer to this guide.

Medicines for humans or animals
You must hold a drug manufacturer, wholesale dealer and marketing licence and an export certificate if you wish to export veterinary and human pharmaceutical products.

Keep in mind that you will not need the above licences to export over-the-counter veterinary medicines classed as ‘AVM-GSL’. Here’s a list of veterinary medicines included in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

If your medicine is coated in or contains animal products such as gelatine, follow these additional rules.

Documents required for pharmaceutical export from the UK

There are two situations: exporting medicine for humans and medicine for animals.

5 types of export certificates for medicines for humans
You do not need to apply for all five certificates. The one you need will depend on the importing country’s requirements. Contact your importer to find out more.

Certificate What is covered
1. Certificate of a pharmaceutical product (licensed) The certificate shows details including the following: the marketing authorisation holder the active ingredients and excipients the manufacturing, packaging and batch release sites whether or not the product is on the market in the UK Here’s how to apply.
2. Certificate of a pharmaceutical product (unlicensed) Your drug must have been manufactured in the UK. You must also hold a manufacturer's licence for the drug. Here’s how to apply.
3. Certificate of manufacturing status The certificate confirms that named sites on a specified manufacturer licence meet good manufacturing practice requirements. Here’s how to apply.
4. Certificate of licensing status This certificate is for importing agents who must screen bids made by an international tender for licensed or unlicensed products (excluding specials). Here’s how to apply.
5. Certificate for the importation of a pharmaceutical constituent The specific active ingredient or excipient must be in either a: current licensed human medicine national or international pharmacopoeia (official standards for pharmaceutical substances and medicines) Here’s how to apply.

5 types of export certificates for medicines for animals:
You do not need to apply for all five certificates. Which one you need will depend on the importing country’s requirements. Contact your importer to find out more.

Certificate What is covered
1. Defra-1 This certificate shows: the product is manufactured in the UK the product meets good manufacturing practice (GMP) requirements the UK administrative address the UK manufacturing site addresses the authorised operations at the UK manufacturing sites You have the option to fill in a schedule that lets you give additional specific information about your export. You can apply through email or the VMD website.
2. Defra-2 The information on this certificate shows that the export product is authorised for sale and supply in the UK. You can apply through email or the VMD website.
3. Defra-3 Same as Defra-1, but without the option to fill in additional specific information about your export. You can apply through email or the VMD website.
4. Defra-4 This certificate shows: the same things as in the Defra-1 and Defra-3 certificates that active substances in your product are available in a UK-authorised product. You can apply through email or the VMD website.
5. Defra-SFA This certificate can show either: the same things as in the Defra-1 and Defra-3 certificates that your product is UK-authorised Apply for the Defra-SFA through email.

Streamline your payment process

There are many licences and certificates you require when exporting pharmaceuticals overseas – and for good reason. Governments and businesses must ensure the highest standards of drug safety. Why make the process more difficult with complicated payment methods?

Silverbird lets you avoid the high costs and smothering regulations of international trade. We enable you to hold, transfer and exchange foreign currencies online simply by using a single multi-currency account. Make and receive payments in over 30 currencies without fuss.

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Author: Silverbird Content Team
Illustration: Kate Faldina

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