Italy's import-export system


Import and export refers to a set of goods and services that a country buys and sells to other countries in the world. The volume of goods and services marketed between different countries, together with Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), determines the volume of international trade.

In this article, we will focus on the Italian context, and explore main countries of destination and provenance of its goods, types of goods sold and purchased, as well as Italy’s positioning at international level.

To sum up, we try to provide answers to the following questions:

  • What are the main goods imported and exported from Italy?

  • Who are Italy's main trading partners and how is Italy positioned on the international chessboard?


Italy's import-export and its relative weight at an international level

According to Eurostat data, extracted in March 2020 and related to 2019, the 27-state EU weighs about 15% of world trade in goods. We will focus on international trade in goods, as their value is significantly higher (more than three times) than trade in services. In fact, some services by their nature can hardly move across national borders.

In 2019, the value of international trade in EU-27 goods with the rest of the world, i.e. the sum of exports and imports from outside the EU, was € 4,067 billion.

Among the main exporting countries in EU, Italy ranks third, with 11% of EU-27 exports of goods to third countries in 2019. The top two positions were taken by Germany, with 29%, followed by France, recording 11.6% of exports.

Concerning imports, Germany remains the leader in 2019, accounting for 21% of total imports from non-EU countries. The Netherlands (17.5%), France (10.7%) and Italy (9.5%) take the following places of total imports.

If we look at the 2019 trade balance, we find Italy again on the podium of the countries that have recorded the highest trade surplus in trade in goods with non-EU-27 countries. At the top of the ranking it is not surprising to find Germany, which can be proud of a commercial asset of 224.3 billion euros and a significant gap with the 2nd and 3rd classified, respectively Italy with 51.9 billion euros and Ireland with 40.6 billion euros of trade surplus.

Yet this is a relatively recent trend for Italy. In fact, since the unification of Italy and until the 1990s, Italy has mainly been an importing country. As seen from ISTAT data, Italy recorded a positive balance of payments for the first time in the decade 1993-2003, and not until 2012 we see again the volume of our exports exceeding that of imports.


Statistics related to the import / export of Italian goods, published by the Economic Observatory - Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, allow us to take a quick look at Italy's current positioning on the international chessboard. In 2019, globally, Italy was in 9th position on world exports, with a market share of 2.8%, and in 13th position on imports, with a market share of 2.5%.

Incoterms  Incoterms are internationally recognized contractual clauses which identify  the division of transport responsibilities between seller and buyer, aiming to  facilitate international trade, especially in case of import-export. Read more


We will now focus on Italian import export, considering only the exchange of goods but not limiting the analysis to non-EU-27 countries. On the contrary, as we will see, trade within the European area remains extremely important for our country and a large part of our trading partners are precisely other European countries.


Focus on imports to Italy

As for Italy's imports, 2019 ended with a volume of about 423 billion euros, an decrease of 0.7% compared to 2018.

The main countries of origin for Italian imports, in 2019, were: Germany (with 16.5% of total imports), France (8.7%) and China (7.5%), followed by the Netherlands and Spain, which account for 5.4% and 5.1% of the total respectively.

Top-10-trading-partners-Italian-imports-2019The main products imported into Italy in 2019 were: "Motor vehicles", with a volume of 32.8 billion euros, followed by "Crude oil" (26 billion euros) and "Basic chemicals, fertilizers and nitrogen compounds, plastics and synthetic rubber in primary forms" (€ 25.6 billion).


Focus on exports from Italy

Taking a more in-depth look at exports, it is important to note first that in recent years exports have been the main growth factor for Italy.

In fact, according to Sace-Simest's 2017 Export Report, the contribution of exports to GDP growth from 2010 to 2016 was + 4.8%, unlike what happened for the other elements composing GDP (consumption, import, demand, public expenditure and investments), all featuring "negative sign".

As shown by the Economic Observatory - Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, 2019 was the tenth consecutive year of growth for our exports, reaching a value of 474 billion euros of goods sold, an increase of 2.3% compared to 2018.

The main trading partners for Italian exports in 2019 were: Germany (12.2% ​​of exports), France (10.5%) and the United States (9.6%). It is interesting to note the increase in the relative weight of Switzerland (from 4.6% in 2017 to 5.5% in 2019).

Top-10-trading-partners-Italian-exports-2019In terms of product categories, the products that recorded the highest volume of exports in 2019 were "medicines and pharmaceutical preparations", with 29.5 billion euros. In 2nd position we find "Other general-purpose machinery" with 25.5 billion euros, followed by "General-purpose machinery", with 24.2 billion euros.

As for the growth potential of Italian exports, Sace-Simest's 2019 Export Report identifies 15 "essential" geographies and 5 "promises" for Made in Italy, which, according to estimates, have a growth potential of more than € 22 billion for our exports by 2022.

But the growth potential offered by international trade does not stop with exports: Italy, with its favorable geographical location stretched out in the Mediterranean, is a natural logistics platform capable of intercepting intermodal traffic flows from China and the Far East.

As described by the Uniontrasporti Report "Logistics and intramodality in Italy and in Europe", since the second half of the 90s, Italian ports have experienced a functional transformation, entering the networks of a traffic with high added value, that of containers.

However, in order to attract Far East flows, Italy must compete with the ports of the so-called Northern Range (Rotterdam, Hamburg and Antwerp), capable of handling considerably higher volumes of traffic, and with the Spanish ports of Algeciras, Barcelona and Valencia, which benefited from important investments oriented to logistic and industrial development.

Competitiveness of Italian Ports  Find out more about competitiveness of Italian ports in the wider  international panorama, especially in Europe and the Mediterranean.Read the  article

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