Data on import tariffs are compiled by the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Tariff analysis can be complicated, as different rates apply to different products from different partners. Moreover, the listed or "bound" rates often do not match applied rates. The tariff rankings listed below are based on the World Bank's "weighted mean applied tariff" figures, which account for the volume of imports from different partners, as of 2016.

Key Takeaways

  • Tariffs are taxes on imports imposed by a government as a protectionist strategy.
  • Economists often discourage tariffs in favor of free trade since tariffs lead to price inefficiencies and costs to consumers.
  • Less developed countries, such as those in the Caribbean and Africa tend to have the highest levels of tariffs.
  • Developed countries like Switzerland and Canada tend to have lower tariffs, although this is not always the case.

The countries with the highest import tariffs are the Bahamas, Gabon, Chad, and Bermuda. It is important to note, however, that reliable information is missing for dozens of countries. Below are the 10 countries with the highest tariffs:

Highest tariffs

Country Weighted mean applied tariff
Palau 29.9%
St. Kitts and Nevis 21.1%
Bermuda 20.9%
Bahamas 18.6%
Solomon Islands 18.5%
Benin 17.8%
Djibouti 17.6%
Gabon 16.9%
Cayman Islands 16.7%
Central African Republic 16.4%

Source: World Bank, 2017 data

As the examples above indicate, less-developed countries tend to have the highest trade barriers. Developed countries are generally less restrictive: 27 of the European Union's 28 members, for example, have an applied tariff rate of 1.6% (Iceland's is even lower, at 0.7%). This may not remain the case, however, as political opposition to pro-trade policies spreads in the developed world. Nor are the 10 countries with the lowest tariffs all wealthy:

Lowest tariffs

Country Weighted mean applied tariff
Hong Kong (China) 0.0%
Macao (China) 0.0%
Libya 0.0%
Brunei 0.0%
Singapore 0.1%
Chile 0.5%
Eswatini 0.7%
Georgia 0.7%
Peru 0.8%
Albania 0.8%

Source: World Bank, 2017 data

Tariffs vs. Free Trade

When Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, international trade was largely defined by extremely restrictive import tariffs and quotas. His influence has contributed to a consensus among economists that lowering barriers to trade encourages economic growth; that consensus was particularly strong among Western economists in the second half of the 20th century, leading to a general decline in tariffs around the world.

Many tariffs still exist, however, even among the most free-market countries. Japan, for example, favors its rice farmers through high import duties, and the U.S. does the same for its peanut farmers. Nor are tariffs the only variety of trade barriers: others include exchange controls, subsidies, fair trade laws, local-content requirements and quotas on imports and exports. Based on this broader view of trade barriers, the Fraser Institute compiled a ranking of countries based on openness to trade in 2014: