U.S. Export Restrictions: What Are They, and How Do They Work?

The U.S. government restricts the export of a number of items it deems potentially threatening to national security or its vital economic interests, including weapons, technology, technical data, and even technical assistance and training. Most restrictions apply to specific items that have actual or potential military applications or that the U.S. government believes could harm the economic interests of the country.

In addition to restricting the export of specific items or know-how, the rules also restrict exports to specific countries, organizations, and even individuals. U.S. exporters must first apply for a license before exporting products, technology, or know-how subject to restrictions, or to a restricted country, organization, or individual.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. government imposes numerous restrictions on the export of a wide range of items it deems could threaten national security or vital economic interests.
  • Most restricted items are weapons and advanced technology, but the rules also apply to technical data and even providing assistance or training to non-U.S. people.
  • U.S. export restrictions also target specific countries, organizations, and even individuals.
  • The complex set of rules is administered by a variety of different agencies, each with its own lists and often its own policies and procedures.
  • Exporters have to check both the item and the destination, and reconcile information from at least two different agencies.

Which Items Are Subject to U.S. Export Restrictions?

U.S. export restrictions are complex and administered by numerous agencies.

In addition, there are lengthy rules that vary depending upon what the specific export item is, where it’s going, and for what purpose it will be used.

What’s Being Exported

There is a long list of specific items that are subject to export controls and require a license. The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) classifies items that need an export license using Export Control Classification Numbers (ECCNs), which are listed on the Commerce Control List (CCL). If the item is subject to export controls but is not listed on the CCL, it is classified as an EAR99 export. EAR99 items do not require an export license. However, even ordinary consumer goods need an export license if they are going to an embargoed country or to certain organizations or individuals, or if they will be used for a prohibited purpose (see below).

Where It’s Being Exported

In addition to the long list of items subject to export controls, there are many country-specific requirements, so exporters have to review both the ECCN and the Commerce Department’s Country Chart to ensure that the item can be exported and that it can be exported to the specific country, organization, or individual.

Who Receives the Export

U.S. exporters are not allowed to ship anything to organizations on the U.S. government’s Consolidated Screening List.

What’s the End Use?

The United States also restricts exporting items that will be used for any purpose prohibited under U.S. law. These items may require a license or may not be allowed to export at all. Prohibited items are listed in the Export Administration Regulations. For example, a piece of technology that normally has benign uses may be banned from export if the end use would violate U.S. law, such as conducting surveillance in a manner that would be illegal in the U.S. or would create the potential for human rights violations.

The U.S. also extends these rules to third parties using U.S. technology anywhere in the world. A non-U.S. company operating outside the U.S. would also need to apply for permission to use the technology in a third country and, if found to be violating U.S. export controls, could get cut off from access to U.S. technology.

U.S. Entities That Enforce Export Restrictions

As outlined, there is a wide range of laws that restrict exports of specific items from the U.S., and those laws are administrated by many federal agencies, depending what is being exported and to where.

These are the key federal agencies that manage export controls:

  • The U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) administers Export Administration Regulations (EAR). EAR applies to exports of commercial and dual-use goods, computer software, hardware, and certain encryption algorithms. The BIS also controls the export of weapons, including parts and components that a foreign military could use.
  • The U.S. Export Administration (USEA) is part of the BIS and reviews license applications for exports, reexports, transfers, and “deemed exports” (technology transfers to foreign nationals in the U.S.) that are subject to EAR.
  • The U.S. State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) administers International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR controls the export of weapons, military services, and even data that can be used for military purposes.
  • The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) restricts the export of certain goods and services to specific countries. In particular, OFAC administers economic and trade sanctions. These sanctions may be far-reaching and restrict nearly all transactions with and exports to specific countries, organizations, or individuals.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division (FTD) manages rules on how information on exports is reported to the U.S. government. In particular, the division administers the Electronic Export Information (EEI) documents that most exporters have to submit to the U.S. government. The Census Bureau shares this export data with the BIS, the OFAC, the DDTC, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and other regulatory and law enforcement agencies to ensure that exports comply with the wide array of U.S. export controls administered by these agencies.

Items restricted by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) include anything specifically designed or adapted for military use, which can include models, designs, and mock-ups. If an item contains even one component restricted under ITAR, the entire product is subject to the same restriction.

Key U.S. Export Control Regulations

The federal agencies above administer a complex set of export controls. These are the key rules that these agencies administer that affect exports, technology transfer, and services provided to non-U.S. entities.

  • International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) regulate the export (and even reexport) of a wide range of military items, including military services, technical data, and training for any foreign destination or foreign person (even if the person is in the U.S.). ITAR also limits transferring of information on the design, development, assembly, production, operation, repair, testing, maintenance, or modification of a military product. This can include drawings, assembly instructions, and user manuals. ITAR further restricts military services, including any assistance such as supplying information on military equipment, training to use it, or even how to maintain it.
  • Export Administration Regulations (EAR) regulate most items not subject to ITAR control. Unlike ITAR, however, EAR does not control services. Its controls apply to exports and reexports of U.S. technology and technical data, which means either data or technical assistance, and is quite broadly defined to include “specific information necessary for the ‘development’, ‘production’, or ‘use’ of a product.” This can include designs, models, formulae, tables, manuals, and even instructions written or recorded on any media. Any technology related to the development, production, or use of items that need an export license is subject to EAR.
  • The Commerce Control List (CCL) lists the specific items controlled by EAR. If an item is not listed on the CCL, it is designated as EAR99, which does not require an export license and mainly includes low-tech consumer goods.

What is the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS)?

The BIS administers Export Administration Regulations (EAR). EAR applies to exports of commercial and dual-use goods, computer software, hardware, and certain encryption algorithms. The BIS also controls the export of weapons, including parts and components that could be used by a foreign military.

What is the U.S. Export Administration?

The BIS’s Export Administration (EA) reviews license applications for exports, reexports, transfers, and deemed exports (technology transfers to foreign nationals in the U.S.) subject to EAR. The administration was established by the Export Administration Act of 1979 to implement a variety of U.S. export control policies.

What is the U.S. State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC)?

The DDTC administers International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). ITAR controls the export of weapons, military services, and technical data that can be used for military purposes.

The Bottom Line

The U.S. government imposes numerous restrictions on the export of a wide range of items it deems possibly threatening to national security or key U.S. economic interests.

These mainly include items such as weapons and advanced technology, but can also include information such as technical data and even providing technical assistance or training to non-U.S. people. Most U.S. export restrictions apply to specific items with actual or potential military use, but there are also many that the U.S. government believes could harm the country’s economic interests.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security. “Export Control Basics: Export Administration Regulations.”

  2. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security. “Introduction to Commerce Department Export Controls,” Page 5.

  3. University of Kansas, Office of Export Compliance. “Overview of U.S. Export Laws.”

  4. International Trade Administration. “U.S. Export Controls: Bureau of Industry and Security.”

  5. Congress.gov, U.S. Congress. “S.737—Export Administration Act of 1979: Summary.”

  6. U.S. Department of State, Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. “ITAR & Export Controls.”