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About the International Trade Statistics

Guide to the U.S. Foreign Trade Statistical Program


This publication is intended to serve as a guide to the various sources of foreign trade statistics and to inform users of the content and general arrangement of the data.

The foreign trade statistics program is unique among the Census Bureau's economic statistics programs in that the information is not collected from forms sent to respondents soliciting responses as in the case of surveys. Rather, the information is compiled from automated forms and reports filed initially with the U.S. Customs Service or, in some cases, directly with the Census Bureau, for virtually all shipments leaving (exports) or entering (imports) the United States. Furthermore, exports to Canada are compiled from Canadian import data.

History of Foreign Trade Data

Beginning with 1790, annual statistical statements on the imports and exports of the United States were compiled by the Treasury Department from reports submitted by the collectors of customs and transmitted to Congress by the Secretary of the Treasury. These annual statements for the years 1790 to 1820 have been brought together and published with other reports required by the Congress in two volumes titled American State Papers. By an Act of Congress, approved February 10, 1820, provisions were made for the preparation of statistical accounts of foreign commerce of the United States, by the Registrar of the Treasury, to show the kinds, quantities, and values of all articles exported to and of all articles imported from each foreign country. Beginning with 1821, these reports compiled by local collectors of customs, were consolidated and published annually in the volume Commerce and Navigation of the United States. Another Act of Congress, approved July 28, 1866, established the Bureau of Statistics in the Treasury Department and specified that the kinds, quantities, and values of all articles exported and imported should be distinctly set forth in the statistical accounts, by countries of destinations or by shipment, and that the exports of articles produced or manufactured in the United States should be shown separately from the re-exports of foreign articles previously imported into the United States. A further Congressional Act on February 14, 1903, transferred the Bureau of Statistics from the Treasury Department to the new Department of Commerce and Labor. An Act on January 5, 1923, transferred the Section of Customs Statistics of New York from the Treasury Department to the Department of Commerce, and by order of the Secretary of Commerce, it was consolidated with the Division of Foreign Trade Statistics of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. In May 1941, the Division of Foreign Trade Statistics was transferred to the Bureau of the Census, where it has remained to the present. From these meager beginnings the statistics on U.S. foreign trade in merchandise have evolved into the current broad range of highly detailed statistics designed to meet the needs of a variety of users.

Changes in Foreign Trade Data

One of the most significant changes in recent years occurred in July 1995 when the Automated Export System (AES) became operational for the collection export statistics. AES is an electronic method for filing export transactions directly to U.S. Customs. The U.S. Customs and U.S. Census Bureau developed the AES system over the course of two years. In October 1996, AES became fully operational and available for all ports throughout the United States. It has proven to be a cost effective method for to filers to submit required information to Customs, while improving the quality and timeliness of trade statistics. AES continues to evolve based on changes in regulations and user feedback. On October 22, 2003, the Census Bureau announced their intent to make mandatory electronic filing through the AES of all information on export shipments where a SED is required. We look to have a totally paperless environment in the future.

Uses of Foreign Trade Data

The development of sounder collection bases and greater detail in publicly available trade data occurred because of an increased need for accurate trade data for commercial, economic and political purposes. Government uses the foreign trade statistics in developing the merchandise trade figures in balance of payments accounts: to appraise and analyze major movements and trends (commodity and geographic) in international trade; to evaluate and plan such programs as export expansion, agricultural development and assistance, and programs under the Foreign Assistance Act and the Merchant Marine Act; and to measure the impact of tariff and trade concessions under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The foreign trade data are also used extensively as the statistical base to implement and analyze operations under various international agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), etc.

Trade data are also used to meet a wide variety of legal and regulatory requirements. For example, accurate, detailed import data are essential to correctly assess import duties, administer embargoes and quotas, restrict counterfeit items entering the country, and implement control policies. Similarly, detailed export data are necessary to effectively administer export control and regulatory policies. Such export restrictions may be for national security or foreign policy reasons, for implementing export quotas or embargo programs, or for administrating short supply programs. Non-government users in industry, finance, research institutions, transportation, and other fields, use the foreign trade data to appraise the general trade situation and outlook, in share-of-the-market analyses and market penetration studies, in product and market development, for measuring the impact of competition, and as one of the statistical bases for determining marketing policies. The transportation industry makes extensive use of the data not only in market share and penetration analyses but also in the critical area of anticipating the need for and design of future facilities and equipment.

In view of the dynamic nature of the foreign trade statistics program and the desire to keep this program responsive to the varying needs of users, it is always possible that additional changes in the program may be required. As in the past, any changes of a substantial nature affecting the coverage or presentation of the statistics will be announced in the appropriate publications.

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