Skip to main content

To promote fair trade and protect South African citizens’ health and safety, the South African government regulates certain items for import and export. These regulations can take the form of prohibitions or restrictions, depending on the nature of the product. Some products may also be regulated for import purposes, but not for export purposes (or vice versa).

Each country has different requirements regarding what they classify as regulated, restricted, or prohibited goods for import and export trade. For example, some countries might allow prescription medication or animal skin trade, while others do not.

Prohibited goods

According to customs, prohibited goods are goods that are not allowed to cross the border either out of or into the country. Attempting to import or export prohibited goods can lead to serious fines and even criminal charges.

Examples of prohibited goods for import include:

  • Narcotics and habit-forming drugs
  • Poisons and toxic substances
  • Certain types of firearms, military weapons
  • Certain types of explosives and fireworks
  • Cigarettes (over a specific mass)
  • Counterfeit goods
  • Illegal reproductions of copyrighted works
  • Goods manufactured in prisons
  • Second-hand clothing

Note: If a good is prohibited, that prohibition applies regardless of how it is brought into or taken out of the country. Whether a trader carries the goods in their hand luggage, or packages and transports them via sea, road, rail, air, or post, it remains illegal.

Restricted goods

Regulated (restricted) goods are goods that are controlled by an import or export permit. These permits regulate either the quality or quantity of the goods. Quality permit restrictions are controlled by government departments such as the Department of Health, the Department of Agriculture, or the Department of Environmental Affairs for example. Volume (quantity) permits are usually controlled by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) or the International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC).

To protect South African citizens’ health, livestock, animal hair, and honey imports require a phytosanitary certificate. Gambling equipment imports are regulated to protect social health, and used goods not manufactured in South Africa are regulated for import to protect local industries.

Second-hand goods: To import second-hand or used goods (including refurbished goods), the importer must apply for an import permit. The only exception to this rule is if the importer can prove that the goods are genuinely personal effects (for example, personal household possessions brought into the country when immigrating).

For imports, some products need to be sampled and tested before the import permit is issued. An example of this is when the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) is required to test a product for safety. The permit may only be issued once the SABS accepts the product as safe.

You can look up prohibited or regulated items in our lookup guides below. Our office can obtain most permits for you.

Customs regularly publishes a comprehensive list of restricted and prohibited imports and exports. For ease of reference, the list categorises goods according to universal HS Tariff codes as set out in the Tariff Book.

Figure 1 below shows an excerpt from the above-mentioned lists.

  1. Heading/subheading: This is the product’s HS code or tariff code reference.
  2. Description of goods: The description of the goods from the tariff book.
  3. Prohibition or restriction: Regulatory body/authority that controls the import and/or export of the goods.

If the importer/exporter is not in possession of the applicable permit, then the regulated and prohibited goods will not be allowed into or out of the country. Should customs need to store the goods for the duration it takes to obtain the necessary permit, the importer/exporter will accrue storage costs. Delays in customs clearance due to incorrect documentation may also result in business losses due to the lack of availability of the goods. It is therefore very important to make yourself aware of any restrictions and obtain a permit before customs clearance.

Get an import or export permit

For assistance with permits and more information on restricted and prohibited imports and exports, call 087 550 1038 or visit our website.

Tracy Venter

Tracy transitioned from industry to founding Import Export License in 2011, aiding importers and exporters with customs compliance. In 2014, she launched Trade Logistics, focusing on supporting startups and SMMEs in international trade. Since then, Tracy's team has assisted 35,000+ businesses, reaching 32,000 traders monthly through newsletters. She's contributed to publications like Entrepreneurs Magazine and SME Toolkit, spoken at trade events, and participated in customs forums. Import Export License helped with the pilot trial to launch customs' new online registration platform (RLA). Through Trade Logistics she has launched 3 online import-export training courses. She holds an Honours degree from Stellenbosch University and a Cum Laude Masters from Middlesex University. In her spare time, Tracy enjoys running, mountain biking, playing piano, and cherishing moments with her husband and four children.