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International trade is the exchange of capital, goods, and services across international borders or territories[1] because there is a need or want of goods or services.[2] (see: World economy)

In most countries, such trade represents a significant share of gross domestic product (GDP). While international trade has existed throughout history (for example Uttarapatha, Silk Road, Amber Road, salt roads), its economic, social, and political importance has been on the rise in recent centuries.

Carrying out trade at an international level is a complex process when compared to domestic trade. When trade takes place between two or more states, factors like currency, government policies, economy, judicial system, laws, and markets influence trade.

To ease and justify the process of trade between countries of different economic standing in the modern era, some international economic organizations were formed, such as the World Trade Organization. These organizations work towards the facilitation and growth of international trade. Statistical services of intergovernmental and supranational organizations and governmental statistical agencies publish official statistics on international trade.

Characteristics of global trade

A product that is transferred or sold from a party in one country to a party in another country is an export from the originating country, and an import to the country receiving that product. Imports and exports are accounted for in a country's current account in the balance of payments.[3]

Trading globally may give consumers and countries the opportunity to be exposed to new markets and products. Almost every kind of product can be found in the international market, for example: food, clothes, spare parts, oil, jewellery, wine, stocks, currencies, and water. Services are also traded, such as in tourism, banking, consulting, and transportation.

The ancient Silk Road trade routes across Eurasia

Advanced technology (including transportation), globalization, industrialization, outsourcing and multinational corporations have major impacts on the international trade systems

Differences from domestic trade

Ports play an important role in facilitating international trade. The Port of New York and New Jersey grew from the original harbor at the convergence of the Hudson River and the East River at the Upper New York Bay.

International trade is, in principle, not different from domestic trade as the motivation and the behavior of parties involved in a trade do not change fundamentally regardless of whether trade is across a border or not.

However, in practical terms, carrying out trade at an international level is typically a more complex process than domestic trade. The main difference is that international trade is typically more costly than domestic trade. This is due to the fact that cross-border trade typically incurs additional costs such as explicit tariffs as well as explicit or implicit non-tariff barriers such as time costs (due to border delays), language and cultural differences, product safety, the legal system, and so on.

Another difference between domestic and international trade is that factors of production such as capital and labor are often more mobile within a country than across countries. Thus, international trade is mostly restricted to trade in goods and services, and only to a lesser extent to trade in capital, labour, or other factors of production. Trade in goods and services can serve as a substitute for trade in factors of production. Instead of importing a factor of production, a country can import goods that make intensive use of that factor of production and thus embody it. An example of this is the import of labor-intensive goods by the United States from China. Instead of importing Chinese labor, the United States imports goods that were produced with Chinese labor. One report in 2010, suggested that international trade was increased when a country hosted a network of immigrants, but the trade effect was weakened when the immigrants became assimilated into their new country.[4]


Main article: Timeline of international trade

The history of international trade chronicles notable events that have affected trading among various economies.

Theories and models

Main article: International trade theory

There are several models that seek to explain the factors behind international trade, the welfare consequences of trade and the pattern of trade.

Most traded export products

Largest countries or regions by total international trade

Volume of world merchandise exports

Main articles: List of countries by exports and List of countries by imports

The following table is a list of the 25 largest trading states according to the World Trade Organization in 2021 and 2022.[5][6]

Rank State International trade of
goods (billions of USD)
in 2022
International trade of
services (billions of USD)
in 2021
Total international trade
of goods and services
(billions of USD)
World 50,526 11,533 62,059
 European Union 5,858 2,313 8,171
1  China 6,310 829 7,138
2  United States 5,441 1,345 6,786
3  Germany 3,227 751 3,978
4  Netherlands 1,864 482 2,346
5  Japan 1,644 369 2,013
6  United Kingdom 1,353 654 2,007
7  France 1,436 561 1,996
8  South Korea 1,415 248 1,663
9  India 1,177 435 1,612
10  Italy 1,346 212 1,559
11  Belgium 1,253 269 1,522
12  Singapore 991 453 1,444
13  Hong Kong 1,277 138 1,416
14  Canada 1,179 206 1,385
15  Mexico 1,205 65 1,270
16  United Arab Emirates 1,023 176 1,199
17  Spain 912 191 1,103
18  Ireland 360 679 1,039
19   Switzerland 758 275 1,033
20  Taiwan 914 91 1,005
21  Russia 772 130 903
22  Poland 742 130 872
23  Australia 721 82 804
24  Vietnam 731 23 753
25  Brazil 626 81 708

Top traded commodities by value (exports)

See also: List of top exporting countries by product category

Rank Commodity Value in US$ (millions) Date of
1 Mineral fuels, oils, distillation products, $3,988,389 2022
2 Electrical, electronic equipment $3,493,553 2022
3 Machinery, nuclear reactors, boilers, etc. $2,573,572 2022
4 Vehicles (excluding railway) $1,621,658 2022
5 Pharmaceutical products $875,345 2022
6 Pearls, precious stones, metals, coins, etc. $866,839 2022
7 Plastics and articles thereof $815,554 2022
8 Optical, photo, technical, medical, etc. apparatus $669,128 2022
9 Iron and steel $564,547 2022
10 Organic chemicals $537,854 2022

Source: International Trade Centre[7]


In the US, the various U.S. Presidents have held observances to promote big and small companies to be more involved with the export and import of goods and services. President George W. Bush observed World Trade Week on May 18, 2001, and May 17, 2002.[8][9] On May 13, 2016, President Barack Obama proclaimed May 15 through May 21, 2016, World Trade Week, 2016.[10] On May 19, 2017, President Donald Trump proclaimed May 21 through May 27, 2017, World Trade Week, 2017.[11][12] World Trade Week is the third week of May. Every year the President declares that week to be World Trade Week.[13][14]

International trade versus local production

Food security

Main article: Food security

The trade-offs between local food production and distant food production are controversial with limited studies comparing environmental impact and scientists cautioning that regionally specific environmental impacts should be considered.[15] A 2020 study indicated that local food crop production alone cannot meet the demand for most food crops with "current production and consumption patterns" and the locations of food production at the time of the study for 72–89% of the global population and 100–km radiuses as of early 2020.[16][17][18] Studies found that food miles are a relatively minor factor of carbon emissions, albeit increased food localization may also enable additional, more significant, environmental benefits such as recycling of energy, water, and nutrients.[19] For specific foods regional differences in harvest seasons may make it more environmentally friendly to import from distant regions than more local production and storage or local production in greenhouses.[20]

Qualitative differences and economic aspects

Qualitative differences between substitutive products of different production regions may exist due to different legal requirements and quality standards or different levels of controllability by local production- and governance-systems which may have aspects of security beyond resource security, environmental protection, product quality and product design and health. The process of transforming supply as well as labor rights may differ as well.

Local production has been reported to increase local employment in many cases. A 2018 study claimed that international trade can increase local employment.[21] A 2016 study found that local employment and total labor income in both manufacturing and nonmanufacturing were negatively affected by rising exposure to imports.[22]

Local production in high-income countries, rather than distant regions may require higher wages for workers. Higher wages incentivize automation[23] which could allow for automated workers' time to be reallocated by society and its economic mechanisms or be converted into leisure-like time.

Specialization, production efficiency and regional differences

Local production may require knowledge transfer, technology transfer and may not be able to compete in efficiency initially with specialized, established industries and businesses, or in consumer demand without policy measures such as eco-tariffs. Regional differences may cause specific regions to be more suitable for a specific production, thereby increasing the advantages of specific trade over specific local production. Forms of local products that are highly localized may not be able to meet the efficiency of more large-scale, highly consolidated production in terms of efficiency, including environmental impact.[citation needed]

Resource security

A video explaining findings of the study "Water, energy and land insecurity in global supply chains"

A systematic, and possibly first large-scale, cross-sectoral analysis of water, energy and land in security in 189 countries that links total and sectorial consumption to sources showed that countries and sectors are highly exposed to over-exploited, insecure, and degraded such resources with economic globalization having decreased security of global supply chains. The 2020 study finds that most countries exhibit greater exposure to resource risks via international trade – mainly from remote production sources – and that diversifying trading partners is unlikely to help countries and sectors to reduce these or to improve their resource self-sufficiency.[24][25][26][27]

Illicit trade

Illegal gold trade

A number of people in Africa, including children, were using informal or "artisanal" methods to produce gold. While millions were making a livelihood through the small-scale mining, governments of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia complaint about the increase in illegal production and gold smuggling. Sometimes the procedure involved criminal operations and even human and environmental cost. Investigative reports based on Africa's export data revealed that gold in large quantities is smuggled out of the country through the United Arab Emirates, without any taxes being paid to the producing states. Analysis also reflected discrepancies in the amount exported from Africa and the total gold imported into the UAE.[28]

In July 2020, a report by Swissaid highlighted that the Dubai-based precious metal refining firms, including Kaloti Jewellery International Group and Trust One Financial Services (T1FS), received most of their gold from poor African states like Sudan. The gold mines in Sudan were seldom under the militias involved in war crimes and human rights abuses. The Swissaid report also highlighted that the illicit gold coming into Dubai from Africa is imported in large quantities by the world's largest refinery in Switzerland, Valcambi.[29] [30]

Another report in March 2022 revealed the contradiction between the lucrative gold trade of West African countries and the illicit dealings. Like Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana and other states, differences were recorded in the gold production in Mali and its trade with Dubai, UAE. The third largest gold exporter in Africa, Mali imposed taxes only on first 50kg gold exports per month, which allowed several small-scale miners to enjoy tax exemptions and smuggle gold worth millions. In 2014, Mali's gold production was of 45.8 tonnes, while the UAE's gold import were at 59.9 tonnes.[31] [32]

In May 2024, a report released by Swissaid revealed that the prime recipient of tens of billions of dollars of smuggled African gold each year had been the UAE. Between the 2012 and 2022, 2596 tonnes of gold undeclared was exported out of Africa to the UAE. In 2022 alone, 435 tonnes (worth about $31 billion) of gold not declared was exported from Africa, and the UAE accounted for 93% of the undeclared exports. Following the Emirates, next two prime importers were Switzerland and India. Majority of the artisanal gold extracted in the 18 African countries ends up in the Emirates. As per Swiss regulations, gold’s place of origin is usually where it is last refined, because of which smuggled gold linked to conflicts and human rights violations legally enters Switzerland.[33] [34]

See also



  1. ^ "Trade – Define Trade at". Archived from the original on 2010-07-27. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  2. ^ "International Trade and Finance by ICC Academy". Archived from the original on 2022-03-12. Retrieved 2020-04-05.
  3. ^ "Balance Of Payments (BOP)". Investopedia. 2003-11-25. Archived from the original on 2017-05-12. Retrieved 2017-05-07.
  4. ^ Kusum Mundra (October 18, 2010). "Immigrant Networks and U.S. Bilateral Trade: The Role of Immigrant Income". Department of Economics, Rutgers University. SSRN 1693334.
  5. ^ "WTO Stats". World Trade Organization. Archived from the original on 9 November 2022. Retrieved 15 April 2023.
  6. ^ "WTO Stats". World Trade Organization. Archived from the original on 15 April 2023. Retrieved 15 April 2023.
  7. ^ "List of exporters for the selected product in 2022". ITC. Retrieved 2022-08-22.
  8. ^ Office of the Press Secretary (May 22, 2001). "World Trade Week, 2001". Federal Register. Washington, D.C.: Federal Government of the United States. Archived from the original on November 24, 2016. Retrieved March 13, 2017. Alt URL Archived 2017-10-20 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Office of the Press Secretary (May 22, 2002). "World Trade Week, 2002". Federal Register. Washington, D.C.: Federal Government of the United States. Archived from the original on March 13, 2017. Retrieved March 12, 2017. Alt URL Archived 2017-10-20 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ "Presidential Proclamation -- World Trade Week, 2016". Washington, D.C. May 13, 2016. Archived from the original on April 11, 2017. Retrieved April 11, 2017 – via National Archives.
  11. ^ Office of the Press Secretary (May 19, 2017). "President Donald J. Trump Proclaims May 21 through May 27, 2017, as World Trade Week". Washington, D.C.: White House. Archived from the original on May 20, 2017. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  12. ^ "President Donald J. Trump Proclaims May 21 through May 27, 2017, as World Trade Week". World News Network. United States: World News Inc. May 20, 2017. Archived from the original on October 20, 2017. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  13. ^ "Import Export Data". Import Export data. Archived from the original on 2017-10-28. Retrieved 2017-10-06.
  14. ^ "World Trade Week New York". World Trade Week New York. Archived from the original on 2005-02-19. Retrieved 2017-10-06.
  15. ^ Rothwell, Alison; Ridoutt, Brad; Page, Girija; Bellotti, William (15 February 2016). "Environmental performance of local food: trade-offs and implications for climate resilience in a developed city". Journal of Cleaner Production. 114: 420–430. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.04.096. ISSN 0959-6526. Archived from the original on 13 March 2023. Retrieved 4 December 2020.
  16. ^ Dunphy, Siobhán (28 April 2020). "Majority of the world's population depends on imported food". European Scientist. Archived from the original on 4 May 2020. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  17. ^ "Relying on 'local food' is a distant dream for most of the world". Archived from the original on 29 April 2020. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  18. ^ Kinnunen, Pekka; Guillaume, Joseph H. A.; Taka, Maija; D’Odorico, Paolo; Siebert, Stefan; Puma, Michael J.; Jalava, Mika; Kummu, Matti (April 2020). "Local food crop production can fulfil demand for less than one-third of the population". Nature Food. 1 (4): 229–237. doi:10.1038/s43016-020-0060-7.
  19. ^ Yang, Yi; Campbell, J. Elliott (1 March 2017). "Improving attributional life cycle assessment for decision support: The case of local food in sustainable design". Journal of Cleaner Production. 145: 361–366. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.01.020. ISSN 0959-6526. Archived from the original on 8 November 2021. Retrieved 4 December 2020.
  20. ^ Edwards-Jones, Gareth (2010). "Does eating local food reduce the environmental impact of food production and enhance consumer health?". Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 69 (4): 582–591. doi:10.1017/S0029665110002004. ISSN 1475-2719. PMID 20696093.
  21. ^ Wang, Zhi; Wei, Shang-Jin; Yu, Xinding; Zhu, Kunfu (13 August 2018). "Re-examining the Effects of Trading with China on Local Labor Markets: A Supply Chain Perspective". National Bureau of Economic Research. doi:10.3386/w24886. S2CID 158243880. Archived from the original on 22 December 2020. Retrieved 4 December 2020. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ Malgouyres, Clément (2017). "The Impact of Chinese Import Competition on the Local Structure of Employment and Wages: Evidence from France". Journal of Regional Science. 57 (3): 411–441. doi:10.1111/jors.12303. ISSN 1467-9787. S2CID 56047849. Archived from the original on 21 January 2022. Retrieved 4 December 2020.
  23. ^ "How Artificial Intelligence Could Widen the Gap Between Rich and Poor Nations". IMF Blog. Archived from the original on 3 December 2020. Retrieved 4 December 2020. Higher wages Advanced economies have higher wages because total factor productivity is higher. These higher wages induce firms in advanced economies to use robots more intensively, to begin with, especially when robots easily substitute for workers. Then, when robot productivity rises, the advanced economy will benefit more in the long run. This divergence grows larger, the more robots substitute for workers.
  24. ^ "Global trade linked to resource insecurity". Cosmos Magazine. 26 October 2020. Archived from the original on 3 December 2020. Retrieved 3 December 2020.
  25. ^ Dunphy, Siobhán (20 November 2020). "Is globalisation compatible with sustainable and resilient supply chains?". European Scientist. Archived from the original on 2 December 2020. Retrieved 3 December 2020.
  26. ^ "Globalized economy making water, energy and land insecurity worse: study". Archived from the original on 4 December 2020. Retrieved 3 December 2020.
  27. ^ Taherzadeh, Oliver; Bithell, Mike; Richards, Keith (28 October 2020). "Water, energy and land insecurity in global supply chains". Global Environmental Change. 67: 102158. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102158. ISSN 0959-3780. S2CID 228952251. Retrieved 3 December 2020.
  28. ^ "Gold worth billions smuggled out of Africa". Reuters. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  29. ^ "Dubai's dubious gold is prized in Switzerland". Le Temps. 16 July 2020. Archived from the original on 17 July 2020. Retrieved 16 July 2020.
  30. ^ "GOLDEN DETOUR: The hidden face of the gold trade between the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland" (PDF). Swissaid. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 July 2020. Retrieved 16 July 2020.
  31. ^ "Mali: West Africa's hub for illegal gold trade with Dubai". Enact Africa. 11 March 2022. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 11 March 2022.
  32. ^ "Mali to Dubai: artery for West Africa's booming illegal gold trade". ISS Africa. 3 August 2022. Archived from the original on 2 January 2020. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  33. ^ "Bulk of gold smuggled from Africa exported to UAE, says report". The Financial Times. 30 May 2024. Archived from the original on 4 June 2024. Retrieved 5 June 2024.
  34. ^ "On the trail of African gold".

Further reading


  • Jones, Ronald W. (1961). "Comparative Advantage and the Theory of Tariffs". The Review of Economic Studies. 28 (3): 161–175. doi:10.2307/2295945. JSTOR 2295945.
  • McKenzie, Lionel W. (1954). "Specialization and Efficiency in World Production". The Review of Economic Studies. 21 (3): 165–180. doi:10.2307/2295770. JSTOR 2295770.
  • Samuelson, Paul (2001). "A Ricardo-Sraffa Paradigm Comparing the Gains from Trade in Inputs and Finished Goods". Journal of Economic Literature. 39 (4): 1204–1214. doi:10.1257/jel.39.4.1204.


Statistics from intergovernmental sources

Data on the value of exports and imports and their quantities often broken down by detailed lists of products are available in statistical collections on international trade published by the statistical services of intergovernmental and supranational organisations and national statistical institutes. The definitions and methodological concepts applied for the various statistical collections on international trade often differ in terms of definition (e.g. special trade vs. general trade) and coverage (reporting thresholds, inclusion of trade in services, estimates for smuggled goods and cross-border provision of illegal services). Metadata providing information on definitions and methods are often published along with the data.

Other external links