Includes typical use of agents and distributors and how to find a good partner, e.g., whether use of an agent or distributor is legally required.
Last Published: 8/5/2019

Most U.S. exporters to the UK sell their products via distributors, who purchase goods directly from the manufacturer with the intent of reselling them to third parties. Distributors position products and brands in the market through advertising and promotion and assist with after-sales service, which is increasingly important for UK customers and contributes to a positive image of U.S. firms doing business in the UK.  In many sectors, one distributor can cover the entire UK market, although in certain cases U.S. companies may wish to appoint separate distributors to cover selected regions as well as to cover Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Depending upon the distributor’s market coverage, U.S. exporters may also benefit from access to territories beyond the UK.  Sales agents are less commonly used in the UK as they tend to be small, one- person operations and may offer only limited geographic sales coverage.  Note that the law covering agents is different from the United States and principals should be aware of the EU Agency Directive.  When deciding upon the optimal form of representation, U.S. exporters should consider pricing, distribution network, operational expenses and after-sales service.  Additional information on Agreement Termination.

Companies wishing to use distribution, franchising and agency arrangements need to ensure that the agreements they put into place are in accordance with EU and member state national laws. Council Directive 86/653/EEC[CD1]  establishes certain minimum standards of protection for self-employed commercial agents who sell or purchase goods on behalf of their principals.  The Directive establishes the rights and obligations of the principal and its agents, the agent’s remuneration and the conclusion and termination of an agency contract.  It also establishes the notice to be given and indemnity or compensation to be paid to the agent.  U.S. companies should be particularly aware that according to the Directive, parties may not derogate from certain requirements.  Accordingly, the inclusion of a clause specifying an alternate body of law to be applied in the event of a dispute will likely be ruled invalid by European courts.  Additional information on Rules Governing Competition.

The European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition enforces legislation concerned with the effects on competition in the internal market of "vertical agreements."  U.S. small- and medium-sized companies (SMEs) are exempt from these regulations because their agreements likely would qualify as "agreements of minor importance," meaning they are considered incapable of impacting competition at the EU level but useful for cooperation between SMEs.  Generally speaking, companies with fewer than 250 employees and an annual turnover of less than €50 million are considered small- and medium-sized. The EU has additionally indicated that agreements that affect less than 10% of a particular market are generally exempted (Commission Notice 2014/C 291/01 ).  Additional information on Rules Governing Payments .

The EU also looks to combat payment delays.  Directive 2011/7/EU , which replaced the current law in March 2013, covers all commercial transactions within the EU, whether in the public or private sector, primarily dealing with the consequences of late payment. Transactions with consumers, however, do not fall within the scope of this Directive.  Directive 2011/7/EU entitles a seller who does not receive payment for goods and/or services within 30 days of the payment deadline to collect interest (at a rate of 8% above the European Central Bank rate) as well as 40 Euro as compensation for recovery of costs.  For business-to-business transactions a 60-day period may be negotiated subject to conditions. The seller may also retain the title to goods until payment is completed and may claim full compensation for all recovery costs.  Additional information on European Ombudsman.

Companies’ agents and distributors can take advantage of the European Ombudsman when victim of inefficient management by an EU institution or body.  Complaints can be made to the European Ombudsman only by businesses and other bodies with registered offices in the EU.  The Ombudsman can act upon these complaints by investigating cases in which EU institutions fail to act in accordance with the law, fail to respect the principles of good administration, or violate fundamental rights.  In addition, SOLVIT, a network of national centers, offers online assistance to citizens and businesses who encounter problems with transactions within the borders of the single market.

Dispute Resolution

Although there are few instances that specifically require the use of a local lawyer, contracts and agreements should be vetted by a competent attorney or firm conversant with UK and EU Law.  While contract coverage is often similar, specific clauses and language can be considerably different from that in the United States.  Standard American contracts should not be used, as they are mostly unenforceable under UK law.  Many U.S. law firms have either established their own UK offices or have links with local practices and are often the most convenient and practical sources of legal advice for American companies. The Commercial Service in London can provide lists of local law firms, including those with U.S. links.


Prepared by our U.S. Embassies abroad. With its network of 108 offices across the United States and in more than 75 countries, the U.S. Commercial Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce utilizes its global presence and international marketing expertise to help U.S. companies sell their products and services worldwide. Locate the U.S. Commercial Service trade specialist in the U.S. nearest you by visiting

United Kingdom Trade Development and Promotion