Navigating Free Trade Zones: How Businesses Can Benefit from Duty Reductions
Businesses can save money and improve their access to international markets by relying on free trade zones and special economic zones. Here’s what you should know.
Introduction to Free Trade Zones
A free trade zone is an area in which countries or jurisdictions have agreed to remove or limit trade restrictions. These areas are used to import, store, handle, assemble, and otherwise manage products before they are processed through specific customs regulations.
Though free trade zones may exist anywhere, they generally are established close to major seaports, airports, and international borders where trade takes place.
There are thousands of free trade zones and special economic zones around the world. Many of those zones have been established by free trade agreements, such as:
- The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
- The European single market standard
- The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)
- The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Free Trade Area (AFTA)
- China’s Special Economic Zones
Significance of Free Trade Zones in Fostering International Trade
Free trade zones make it easier for companies to participate in international commerce. Because free trade zones reduce the cost of engaging in cross-border trade, they allow companies to spend more money on other aspects of business and commerce.
If companies take advantage of free trade zones successfully, they will likely grow larger and engage in greater international trade. By encouraging greater participation in global commerce, free trade zones increase the amount of trading activity that occurs worldwide.
Overview of Duty Reductions in Free Trade Zones
Free trade zones typically eliminate or reduce taxes that companies engaging in trade would otherwise pay. Below, we’ll look at certain types of duties that might be reduced.
Types of Duties that Businesses Can Reduce or Eliminate
Companies can expect to save money on taxes and duties through these benefits:
- Duty exemptions: Through exemptions, companies may entirely avoid duties on certain types of products such as re-exports and wasted materials
- Duty deferrals: Companies can use free trade zones to postpone duty payments until a later date, such as when an imported product enters commerce
- Duty reductions: Products may have different duties imposed depending on whether those fees are applied to their individual components or their finished state; free trade zones may allow a company to pay the lower of those two possible rates
- Inverted tariff elimination: Often, free trade zones counter inverted tariffs, which impose a higher duty on raw materials than a finished product
- Quota avoidance: If trade laws limit product movement through quotas, free trade zones may allow a company to store or modify products regardless of those quotas
How Duty Reductions Can Significantly Impact a Company
Duty reductions can significantly impact a company’s finances and operations in several areas, including but not limited to:
- Lessened merchandise processing fees (MFPs)
- Better inventory and cost control
- Improved supply chain management
- Reduced costs on waste and scrap parts
- Faster times to market
- Reduced insurance premiums
- Improved security
- Better logistics
- More competitive operations
Compliance Requirements Associated with Duty Reduction
Though free trade zones provide numerous benefits, those who take advantage of these benefits must also abide by rules, regulations, and compliance requirements.
According to the International Trade Association, free trade zones typically allow certain activities. In addition to moving and shipping products in ways that are generally permitted, participants may assemble, exhibit, clean, manipulate, manufacture, mix, relabel, repack, repair, salvage, sample, store, test, display, and destroy products in a free trade zone.
Retail activity is typically not permitted in free trade zones. Production activities, which involve modifying a product in a significant way, may require approval. Items that are prohibited in any given country are typically kept out of the relevant free trade zone, though certain restricted items may be permitted to move through said zones.
Naturally, participants must also abide by broader, commonplace laws such as anti-money laundering regulations (AML) and criminal laws as well as the above rules.
Benefits of Operating in Free Trade Zones
By setting up operations in free trade zones, companies stand to gain numerous benefits, the most notable of which are reduced taxes, fees, tariffs, and duties.
Free trade zones can additionally help businesses access a broader selection of customers and suppliers. They can also provide customers with greater access to affordable and high quality foreign goods. Furthermore, free trade zones streamline import and export procedures, simplify operations, and indirectly improve the economy and living standards.
Import/Export Duties and Taxes Reduction
As noted above, free trade zones allow products to be shipped internationally with reduced or eliminated duties or taxes. This can help companies save money that would otherwise be spent on paying those fees. Different policies and taxes may apply depending on location.
Navigating Free Trade Zone Regulations and Requirements
Businesses that make use of free trade zones must comply with various rules, regulations, and standards. One publication from KPMG describes several relevant requirements.
Companies and other operators are required to meet certain requirements involving security, storage, safety, and inventory management within free trade zones.
The same document also provides examples of various customs forms that are used to permit movement through and admission to free-trade zones, among other things. Though these documents apply to U.S. free trade zones, other countries have similar requirements.
Real-Life Case Studies
Earlier, we noted that there are several free trade agreements that have led to the establishment of free-trade zones. We’ll look at a few of those in detail below.
European Free Trade Association (EFTA)
In 1993, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) created the European single market, which includes both members of the EU and certain non-members. The single market allows the region to compete on the global market more effectively than its individual members.
However, this approach also has downsides: under the European single market, each member nation has reduced ability to regulate its own imports and exports. Members may also depart from and weaken the group: for example, Brexit saw the U.K. leave the single market and arrange a separate trading agreement with European countries in 2020.
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was established in 1994 and included the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Though NAFTA prompted increased international trade and put in place high safety and environmental standards, it was controversial as it led to job losses in some areas as well as increased inflation and trade deficits in the U.S.
NAFTA was replaced with a similar agreement called The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) during the presidency of Donald Trump in 2020. This new agreement is largely built on NAFTA, meaning that the older model is still widely discussed today.
China’s Special Economic Zones
Though China does not have a single trade agreement, it has several special economic zones that allow for free trade. Main zones include Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Shantou, Xiamen, Hainan, Shanghai Pudong New Area, and Tianjin Binhai New Area.
These areas include policies such as tax exemptions, reduced duties, reduced land prices, and freer contract negotiations. The existence of special economic zones has also created jobs, promoted industrialization, and increased farming revenue. Nevertheless, China’s special economic zones have been criticised for their focus on short-term benefits, their focus on select industries, and their failure to address inequality in various areas.
African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is an agreement that various member states reached in 2018. Despite its relatively young age, it is the largest free trade area when measured by land coverage, population, and sheer number of member states.
AfCFTA aims to reduce and eliminate tariffs in several areas and promote economic growth. However, the U.N. has critically stated that AfCFTA should address poverty and inequality and ensure that its activities are not detrimental to businesses that are led by women.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations Free Trade Area (AFTA)
The ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) is a trade bloc agreement that various Southeast Asian countries created in 1992. As of 2023, the group has just ten members: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The arrangement has successfully reduced tariffs between member states and enhanced local economies. However, it has been criticised for its difficulties in resolving differences between member states and its subpar handling of security issues and illegal commercial activity. The fact that China is not a member of the group has also created challenges.
Future Trends in Free Trade Zones
Free trade zones will undergo change in the future. The trend is becoming increasingly popular: the United Nations reports that the total number of special economic zones including free trade zones grew to 5,000 by the end of the 2010s. Free trade zones are likely to grow in number further, as the U.N. notes that there are “many more planned.”
Aside from experiencing sheer growth, free trade zones will also be affected by technological innovation. Technology can change how participation in free trade zones work by streamlining operations, increasing efficiency, and improving communications. Plus, digitalization through the Internet, mobile networks, and online financial networks will provide new ways for free trade zone participants to transact and interact with other parties.
Sustainable development may also affect the future of free trade zones. Many companies currently aim to meet their economic goals without compromising long-term social, economic, and environmental integrity. By improving trading efficiency in an all-around manner, free trade zones may help companies meet sustainability goals.
Companies that intend to engage with free trade zones should hire personnel in the above areas, especially staff that are capable of handling changing and complex requirements.
Free trade zones are important because they allow countries to create environments that promote economic development and international trade. Businesses engaged in international trade can take advantage of these zones in order to save on duties, taxes, and other costs — thereby saving money that can be put toward broader business growth.
Free trade zones are well-established worldwide and are likely to become even more popular in the coming years. Companies should familiarise themselves with developments or employ experts in various areas if they intend to work within free trade zones.
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