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IB DP Economics Study Notes

4.2.4 Non-Tariff Barriers

Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) represent a central topic in international economics. They are mechanisms instituted by governments to control the flow of goods and services across borders, serving as substantial elements impacting the mechanics of international trade.


Non-Tariff Barriers are governmental stipulations or policies that restrict international trade but aren’t in the form of a tax on imports (tariff). They intend to protect domestic industries by implementing restrictions, limiting the influx of foreign goods and services.

A flowchart illustrating non-tariff barriers

Image courtesy of wallstreetmojo

Types of Non-Tariff Barriers


Standards are specific criteria set to guarantee the quality, safety, and compatibility of products, acting as significant components of NTBs. These comprise a wide range of specifications that products must meet to be considered apt for consumption or use.

  • Product Standards:

    • Definition: Product standards are particular requirements related to the quality, safety, and technical specifications of products.

    • Implications: They can necessitate alterations in production processes for conformity, impacting cost and efficiency. Their variation across nations can make compliance intricate, affecting international trade dynamics significantly.

      • Example: Food safety standards can vary drastically, requiring exporters to adapt their production methods to each country’s specific requirements.


Embargoes are stringent forms of trade barriers, typically enacted due to political tensions or disagreements between countries, having severe repercussions on the international exchange of goods and services.

  • Definition: An embargo is a prohibition on commerce with a particular country or on specific goods.

    • Implications: It restricts trade completely, impacting economies and international relations.

      • Example: A nation may impose an embargo on products from a country with conflicting political ideologies or principles, inhibiting all imports of said products.

A chart illustrating the effect of Western sanctions on Russia’s GDP

Image courtesy of statista

Import Quotas

Import quotas are restrictions on the quantity of a certain commodity that can be imported within a stipulated timeframe, often affecting industries reliant on international markets.

  • Definition: These limit the amount of specific goods that can be imported during a certain period.

    • Implications: They safeguard domestic industries from foreign competition, but they can distort market dynamics and affect consumer access to products.

      • Example: A restriction might be imposed on the number of foreign automobiles that can be imported each year to shield the domestic car manufacturing industry.

Licensing Requirements

Licensing requirements are mandates specifying that certain commodities necessitate explicit licenses to be imported or exported, constraining the range and ease of international trade activities.

  • Definition: These are specific permissions required for importing or exporting certain goods.

    • Implications: They impede the free flow of goods, especially those concerning health and safety, limiting market access for various products.

      • Example: Pharmaceuticals require extensive licensing due to their potential impact on public health, constraining the assortment of products available in international trade.

Voluntary Export Restraints (VER)

VERs are agreements that limit the amount of exports of a particular commodity, often resulting from negotiations between exporting and importing countries.

  • Definition: These are consensually agreed restrictions on the quantity of goods exported to a particular country.

    • Implications: They serve to prevent more stringent trade barriers and maintain trade relations but can affect industries and consumers in the importing country.

      • Example: A country might agree to reduce the volume of textile exports to avoid the imposition of more severe restrictions on its products.

A table illustrating the effect of voluntary export limits between the UK and Japan

Image courtesy of semanticscholar

Impacts of Non-Tariff Barriers

On Domestic Industries

Non-Tariff Barriers offer protection to domestic industries from overwhelming foreign competition, allowing them the opportunity to establish themselves and potentially thrive.

  • Protection and Development:

    • Pros: By shielding infant industries from international competition, these barriers enable domestic industries to cultivate competence and market share.

    • Cons: Prolonged reliance on NTBs can impede progress and foster inefficiency, preventing industries from attaining competitiveness on a global scale.

On Consumers

Consumers often bear the brunt of NTBs as they face higher prices and limited choices due to reduced competition and restricted access to a diverse range of products.

  • Price and Variety:

    • Analysis: Reduced competition and increased prices generally accompany NTBs, as consumers are confined to fewer choices, predominantly from domestic producers.

On International Trade Relations

The enforcement of NTBs can strain international relations and induce retaliatory actions, potentially leading to broader conflicts in international trade.

  • Relations and Retaliation:

    • Example: The unilateral imposition of stringent product standards can provoke reciprocal restrictive measures, impairing bilateral relations and potentially resulting in a downward spiral of retaliatory trade barriers.

On Global Economy

The imposition of Non-Tariff Barriers can disrupt the equilibrium of global trade, undermining the principles of comparative advantage and efficient resource allocation, ultimately leading to global inefficiencies and welfare losses.

  • Distortion and Efficiency:

    • Analysis: When countries deviate from producing goods where they have a comparative advantage due to NTBs, it leads to suboptimal allocation of resources globally, precipitating inefficiencies and reducing global welfare.

On Developing Countries

Developing nations often find it arduous to comply with diverse and stringent NTBs, curtailing their access to profitable markets and stifling their economic progression.

  • Market Access and Compliance:

    • Example: Countries with limited resources and technical proficiency might struggle to conform to the elevated standards of developed nations, inhibiting their ability to penetrate those markets and restricting their export capabilities.

On Innovation and Productivity

Shielding domestic industries from global competition can result in stagnation and a dearth of innovation, as the impetus to improve and evolve diminishes in the absence of competitive pressures.

  • Innovation and Competition:

    • Analysis: The drive to innovate and enhance productivity is inherently linked to competition. In environments where domestic industries are overly protected, the incentive to advance and innovate is diminished, potentially impacting the long-term viability and growth of these industries.


Delving into non-tariff barriers is indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of international trade. The plethora of barriers, including embargoes and diverse standards, influence trade relations and economic landscapes, highlighting the pivotal role they play in shaping the international economic environment. Balancing protectionism with the benefits of free trade remains a crucial challenge for policymakers globally.


Non-tariff barriers significantly impact consumer choices and product diversity within a market. By limiting the import of foreign goods through measures like quotas, standards, and documentation requirements, these barriers reduce the variety of products available to consumers. Reduced product diversity can lead to limited consumer choices, potentially impacting consumer satisfaction and welfare. Moreover, the reduced competition can lead to domestic producers having more market power, possibly resulting in higher prices and lower quality goods, further impacting consumer welfare and the overall efficiency of the market.

Non-tariff barriers can significantly disrupt global supply chains and hinder international cooperation. By imposing restrictions, standards, and documentation requirements, they can create bottlenecks and delays in the supply chain, affecting the seamless flow of goods and services across borders. This disruption can lead to increased costs, decreased efficiency, and reduced reliability of supply chains, affecting businesses globally. Moreover, the implementation of such barriers can strain international cooperation, as countries may perceive them as protectionist measures, leading to retaliatory actions and a potential escalation in trade tensions, disrupting international trade networks and alliances.

Yes, non-tariff barriers can indeed lead to trade diversion, causing countries to alter their trading patterns. Trade diversion occurs when trade barriers shift imports away from efficient producers to less efficient ones, usually due to preferential trade agreements or other trade-distorting policies. This can significantly affect international trade dynamics, altering trade flows and impacting the comparative advantage of nations. Such diversion can lead to inefficiencies in global trade, impacting the global allocation of resources and potentially leading to strained relations between countries, as they may perceive such barriers as discriminatory or protectionist.

Countries can mitigate the negative impacts of non-tariff barriers on international trade by promoting transparency and engaging in multilateral discussions and negotiations to address and resolve trade concerns. Enhancing the clarity and predictability of trade-related regulations and standards can reduce uncertainties and facilitate smoother trade. Pursuing harmonisation of standards and mutual recognition agreements can also lower trade barriers. Additionally, engaging in dialogue through international platforms like the World Trade Organization can help in resolving disputes and reaching consensus on fair and equitable trade practices, fostering a conducive environment for international trade and cooperation.

Non-tariff barriers (NTBs) can indeed be more restrictive than tariff barriers. While tariffs are transparent, being quantifiable and visible, NTBs are often less clear, varying in nature and application, and can include a multitude of restrictive measures like stringent standards, quotas, and extensive documentation requirements. These barriers can be incredibly prohibitive, especially for developing countries, hindering access to essential markets. Such restrictive measures can obstruct the free flow of goods more severely than tariffs by posing insurmountable barriers, affecting international trade dynamics and relations significantly.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the implications of stringent product standards as a type of non-tariff barrier on both domestic and international markets.

Stringent product standards, as a form of non-tariff barrier, have significant implications. Domestically, they protect industries from substandard international goods, ensuring safety and quality, and potentially promoting local businesses and employment. However, they can also limit consumer choice and lead to higher prices due to reduced competition. Internationally, stringent standards can hinder trade, especially for developing countries lacking the means to meet these standards, potentially limiting market access and economic growth. While they safeguard domestic interests, the resultant market distortions can lead to inefficiencies and strained international trade relations.

Discuss how the implementation of import quotas and embargoes as non-tariff barriers can impact international trade relations and the global economy.

The enforcement of import quotas and embargoes profoundly impacts international trade relations and the global economy. Quotas restrict the quantity of imports, protecting domestic industries but possibly leading to retaliation and strained relations between countries. They also distort market equilibrium, leading to potential global inefficiencies. Embargoes, usually politically motivated, completely prohibit trade with a country, severely straining international relations and impacting countries’ economies by restricting market access. These non-tariff barriers, while protecting domestic interests, can inhibit free trade, disrupt international relations, and lead to suboptimal global resource allocation and economic outcomes.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

Dave is a Cambridge Economics graduate with over 8 years of tutoring expertise in Economics & Business Studies. He crafts resources for A-Level, IB, & GCSE and excels at enhancing students' understanding & confidence in these subjects.

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