In 1984 the members of the World Customs Organization (WCO) adopted the Harmonised Commodity Description and Coding Systems – more commonly referred to today as the Harmonised System or simply the HS. The system entered into operation at the beginning of 1988 and is currently used by more than 179 countries, as well as Customs or Economic Unions (there are 104 contracting parties to the HS Convention), and accounts for over 98% percent of world trade. It is therefore one of the most important instruments in world trade.

The HS comprises a standardised description of goods, classified into a number of different “sections”, “chapters” and “categories” using a system of six to ten digit numbers. The system provides for up to 99 chapter headings, covering all goods from live animals to personal effects (some HS systems only go as far as chapter 97 – Works of art, collectors’ pieces and antiques, while others include one or two additional chapters). Following the initial two-digit chapter number, are up to eight further digits (in sets of two) that provide increasingly detailed classification and descriptions of goods.

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