International Trade Theory and Policy
by Steven M. Suranovic

Trade 10-1

Import Tariffs

An import tariff is a tax collected on imported goods. Generally speaking, a tariff is any tax or fee collected by a government. Sometimes tariff is used in a non-trade context, as in railroad tariffs. However, the term is much more commonly applied to a tax on imported goods.

There are two basic ways in which tariffs may be levied: specific tariffs and ad valorem tariffs.

A specific tariff is levied as a fixed charge per unit of imports. For example, the US government levies a 51 cent specific tariff on every wristwatch imported into the US. Thus, if 1000 watches are imported, the US government collects $510 in tariff revenue. In this case, $510 is collected whether the watch is a $40 Swatch or a $5000 Rolex.

An ad valorem tariff is levied as a fixed percentage of the value of the commodity imported. "Ad valorem" is Latin for "on value" or "in proportion to the value." The US currently levies a 2.5% ad valorem tariff on imported automobiles. Thus if $100,000 worth of autos are imported, the US government collects $2,500 in tariff revenue. In this case, $2500 is collected whether two $50,000 BMWs are imported or ten $10,000 Hyundais.

Occasionally both a specific and an ad valorem tariff are levied on the same product simultaneously. This is known as a two-part tariff. For example, wristwatches imported into the US face the 51 cent specific tariff as well as a 6.25% ad valorem tariff on the case and the strap and a 5.3% ad valorem tariff on the battery. Perhaps this should be called a three-part tariff!

As the above examples suggest, different tariffs are generally applied to different commodities. Governments rarely apply the same tariff to all goods and services imported into the country. One exception to this occurred in 1971 when President Nixon, in a last-ditch effort to save the Bretton Woods, system of fixed exchange rates, imposed a 10% ad valorem tariff on all imported goods from IMF member countries. But incidents such as this are uncommon.

Thus, instead of one tariff rate, countries have a tariff schedule which specifies the tariff collected on every particular good and service. The schedule of tariffs charged in all import commodity categories is called the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States (HTS). The commodity classifications are based on the international Harmonized Commodity Coding and Classification System (or the Harmonized System) established by the World Customs Organization.

Lists of selected US tariff rates for 1996 and 2004 are provided below.


International Trade Theory and Policy - Chapter 10-1: Last Updated on 5/13/08