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Factfinder for the Nation: Foreign Trade Statistics

Report Number CFF No. 14 [Revised]


In 1790, the Federal Government began annual publication of general statistics on U.S. foreign commerce and navigation. Monthly data have been compiled and published since 1866. (Instead of annual data, quarterly cumulative statistics were published from 1946 to 1963; cumulative data continue to be available in some reports.) The task of compiling these statistics from customs collectors’ figures first was given to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, but later was turned over to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Since 1941, collecting these data has been part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s responsibilities, which are spelled out under the Foreign Trade Statistics Regulation, Title 15, Part 30, Code of Federal  Regulations (pursuant to Title 13, Chapter 9, of the U.S. Code).

The Trade Act of 1974 contains the requirements that U.S. export data be directly related to data on U.S. imports and, in turn, that both be related to domestic output. As a result, a revised Schedule B (Statistical Classification of Commodities Exported From the United States), based on the framework of the Tariff Schedules of the United States Annotated (TSUSA), was introduced in 1978. Both Schedule B and TSUSA contained additional detail to increase comparability with the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) Code used, at that time, in compiling domestic production data in the U.S. economic censuses and surveys, as well as elsewhere in the Federal Government. To compare data with those American trading partners, the detailed classifications in Schedule B and TSUSA were recast to the United Nations’ Standard International Trade Classification (SITC) used by most of the world trading community. SITC-based data were published in terms of Schedule E (exports) and Schedule A (imports). Presentation of the basic data by classification code permitted rearrangement in terms of end-use categories or other aggregations determined by the specific user.

In January 1989, the United States joined other nations by adopting the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) of classifying commodities in international trade. Under HS, both exported and imported commodities carry the same codes down to the six-digit level. This allows closer comparisons, and the process has been further assisted by adjustments in the SIC Code.1 The HS is intended to serve as a universally accepted product nomenclature. It can be used in the classification of goods for the administration of customs programs, the collection of data on exports and imports, and the assessment of freight charges. The use of a single product code for vessel, air, rail, and truck traffic simplifies statistical and customs tariff operations. It assists carriers, port authorities, steamship conferences, traffic managers, freight forwarders, administrative officers, customs brokers, and others in planning commercial shipments. The HS also facilitates the preparation and processing of trade documents, as well as compliance with customs regulations.

1 In January 2000, the Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division replaced the SIC with the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) as the industry classification system used by the statistical agencies of the United States for classifying business establishments.

Page Last Revised - October 8, 2021
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