Simplifying International Trade with Single Windows


Trade-enabling technology – TradeTech – makes international commerce more efficient, inclusive, and sustainable.

In this three-part series, digital trade expert Craig Atkinson, CITP addresses key questions and practical considerations related to technology-enabled cross-border interaction among buyers, sellers, intermediaries, and governments. Article based on an interview by FITT’s Pamela Hyatt.

Craig Atkinson, CITP Headshot

Craig Atkinson is the Founder and Director of Lexmerca International Trade and a Trade Development Specialist with the International Trade Centre (ITC), the joint agency of the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). His roles focus on addressing legal-technical challenges that affect global trade.

Active in the field of digital trade, Craig participates in the World Economic Forum’s TradeTech community and in projects with multiple international organizations, academic institutions, technology foundations, and standards bodies.

Academically, he is a Non-Resident Fellow with the World Trade Institute (WTI) as well as a Research Affiliate with the Singapore Management University (SMU) Centre for AI and Data Governance and the SMU Centre for Computational Law. Professionally, Craig has been a FITT Certified International Trade Professional (CITP) since 2011.

What is a ‘Single Window’ for trade regulation?

In the first article in this series, ‘Single Windows’ were described as exemplifying the digitalization of goods trade. Aside from being known as the most impactful class of ‘TradeTech’, what is a Single Window?

The answer is found in the ambitions of ‘digital trade facilitation’: government measures to simplify, harmonize, and modernize trade formalities and procedures to allow for cross-border paperless exchange between actors in international supply chains.

According to United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT) Recommendation 33, a Single Window (SW) is a ‘facility’ that “allows parties involved in trade and transport to lodge standardized information and documents with a single entry point to fulfil all import, export, and transit-related regulatory requirements”.

An electronic SW environment links government bodies – Customs and other government agencies (OGAs) like ministries of health, agriculture, and finance – for online application, issuance, and exchange of trade-related permits/certificates.

Private stakeholders include traders, agents, customs brokers, carriers, forwarders, ports, freight terminals, and commercial banks. As documents (or data) is in electronic form, they only require ‘single’ submission and leading systems utilize ‘rules engines’ for compliance automation.

While Singapore is credited with deploying the first SW in 1989 – TradeNet for Business-to-Government (B2G) exchange and the more recent Networked Trade Platform (NTP) extension to facilitate Business-to-Business (B2B) transactions – other countries have implemented projects for paperless trade via Single Window.

Source: Singapore Customs (2024)

Note: Singapore is not a typical case. Above, ‘Trade Permit’ is used for Customs declarations. Yet, if goods require permits from other OGAs when submitting a ‘Trade Permit Application’ to TradeNet, the application is a ‘single’ submission for other OGAs to process and provide permits. Unlike the SWs of most countries, traders/agents using TradeNet do not have to apply for each permit separately.

How do Single Windows solve problems?

Borders represent a ‘labyrinth’ of paper that must be exchanged between private actors and government agencies through manual processes.

In reaction, Single Windows lower certain barriers to trade compliance – identifying, preparing, submitting, and coordinating documents – by creating a public-private interface to overcome what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls “sludge”: unjustified friction that affects satisfaction, trust, and access to government services.

As institutional arrangements, networks, and platforms, SWs generate observable results that make trade faster and less costly as well as more safe and secure. In offering the highest standard of public service delivery, a Single Window for trade is considered a ‘beau ideal’ by the World Customs Organization (WCO).

As SW is a ‘whole-of-government’ facility, Customs is just one of the involved regulatory agencies and its authority is limited to import/export approval and permitting.

Though Customs is often a lead agency for SW, it does not have legal power to override other OGAs. Even if a SW neither eliminates nor diminishes the role of any regulatory agency, simplification through a single point of entry mitigates duplication, ‘re-keying’, and other data-related issues while enabling consistent data reuse.

Significant benefits arise for trade logistics and economies: across studies on the impact of Single Window, costs fall for all actors (i.e., traders, intermediaries, and governments), trade grows between countries with SWs, and the public sector improves its revenue mobilization/collection capacity.

For example, in the United States, government agencies and traders have realized benefits with the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE). In 2021, the platform reduced transaction processing by 795,000 hours for private actors, assisted process automation for 269 forms/document types, and led to $2.7 billion USD in efficiencies.

How can Single Windows contribute to inclusive trade?

Single Windows are inclusive because, as a whole-of-government interface that is usually free (or low cost), they allow for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to interact with governments with less or no need for intermediaries (e.g., agents and brokers).

A single channel of interaction lowers effort and administrative costs of compliance with documentation and increases accuracy/speed of submission and processing, helping small businesses to better participate in international trade.

For example, In Costa Rica, a study by Volpe Martincus et al. estimated the impact of the gradual phase-in (2007-2016) of an electronic SW, Ventanilla Única de Comercio Exterior (VUCE CR). Adoption of VUCE was associated with increased and more frequent exports by businesses using the system, larger shipments, and greater numbers of exporters, especially MSMEs located in non-central areas.

Such outcomes are particularly important in industries and sectors with specific or complex regulations. For instance, to meet Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) requirements for food safety, pest mitigation, or disease prevention, SW facilitated trade in agricultural goods has moved toward processing of electronic SPS certificates.

Are there different kinds of ‘Single Windows’ for trade regulation?

The short answer: no. The term ‘Single Window’ is frequently mis-used. In digital trade facilitation, it’s important to follow UN/CEFACT standard terminologies. Five ‘must’ features differentiate SWs for national trade regulation.

(1) Exclusive for type of operator (2) Standardized information and documents (3) Government mandate for ‘Single Entry Point’ (4) Regulatory procedures and processes (5) Single submission point for individual data elements
Single Window (SW) Must be Must use Must have Must include Must be

Source: Adapted from UN/CEFACT 2017

Given the strict criteria provided by Recommendation 33, true SWs are realized by a country as a ‘National Single Window’ (NSW).

At their core, NSWs are a B2G interface, but some systems have evolved to further allow for B2B transactions. Under Article 10.4 of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), member governments “shall endeavour to establish or maintain” a NSW. Article 10.4 is also the most frequently requested area of TFA-related technical assistance.

Under Article 23.1, a national trade facilitation committee (NTFC) is usually the appropriate cross-government agency/mechanism to guide and monitor NSW establishment.

Going beyond the scope of UN/CEFACT Recommendation 33, NSWs can be interlinked for Country-to-Country exchange as a ‘Regional Single Window’ (RSW).

However, these systems are not ‘facilities’ in the same sense as the Single Window definition: RSWs are Government-to-Government (G2G) focused and implemented under international frameworks as a collaborative system of NSW networks.

Additionally, and not to be conflated with a SW for trade regulation, there are many ‘sector-specific’ platforms, such as an airport Cargo Community System (CCS) or a maritime Port Community System (PCS).

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) defines a Maritime Single Window (MSW) as a “one-stop service environment”: a vessel operator-to-port interface for maritime procedures (e.g., port entry/departure declaration and security reports) between private and public actors. The amended Annex to the IMO FAL Convention makes MSW mandatory for ports.

In some cases, a ‘unified’ PCS can be considered MSW.

Which governments have established a Single Window?

Hundreds of Single Windows have been deployed and are at different stages of maturity. With more than ten years in operation, some SWs are relatively mature and cover all the OGAs in their respective country, such as Indonesia (Indonesia NSW, INSW), Singapore (NTP/TradeNet), and South Korea (UNIPASS/uTradeHub).

Those already deployed, but in in progress toward covering all OGAs, include Canada (Single Window Initiative, SWI), Chile (Sistema Integrado de Comercio Exterior, SICEXChile), Costa Rica (VUCE CR), Kenya (Kenya TradeNet), New Zealand (Trade Single Window, TSW), Pakistan (Pakistan Single Window, PSW), Peru (VUCE PERÚ), and the US (ACE).

Other jurisdictions are continuing to strengthen their bases for SW, including Australia, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and the United Kingdom (UK). For example, under the Single Trade Window (Preparation) Regulations and the Electronic Trade Documents Act (ETDA) (see FITT coverage), the UK is planning its NSW.

Taking stock of initiatives globally, the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement Facility (TFAF) indicates that, at 56%, SW is the TFA measure with lowest ​implementation rate.

Indicators of Implementation Results (02/2024)
Global rate of implementation of commitments on Single Window 56%
WTO member countries committing to implement a Single Window in 2024/25 30
Donors/agencies providing technical assistance to implement SW (reported by beneficiary countries) 17

Source: Author based on WTO data (2024)

Regionally, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members have established the ASEAN Single Window (ASW) and technical collaborations; the Pacific Alliance has connected its member NSWs; and the European Union aims to enhance ‘digital cooperation’ under the Single Window Environment (SWE) regulation.

Why do governments and the private sector need to work together?

More than a technology project, SW initiatives represent major ‘reform’ and require whole-of-government cooperation internally as well as collaboration externally with the private sector to realize a fully-fledged, evolved, SW environment. A Single Window and its suite of services truly represent a ‘virtual enterprise’.

Implementation of a SW requires planning and the creation of a legal-institutional framework, followed by business process analysis/design, document simplification/standardization, data harmonization, platform piloting, and phased deployment.

Despite the variety of implementation or operational models, all stakeholders should be aware of the types of decisions to be made at each phase:

  • Develop internally: The public sector is made up of different agencies must coordinate the roll-out and functioning of SW with their own staff and resources. For governments, it’s important that services – Customs, finance/treasury, health, agriculture, – work harmoniously, regardless of the internal model(s).
  • ‘Buy off the shelf’: Procure hardware, software components, and/or services.
  • Engage in public-private partnerships: Any combination of options at different phases of implementation and/or operation of a Single Window.

What are some key resources for planning and deployment?

There are many implementation guides and even a ‘ChatGPT’ for Single Window. Key resources include:

  • Under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), UN/CEFACT provides core standards and guidance, such as Recommendation 33 (establishing SW), Recommendation 34 (data simplification/standardization), Recommendation 35 (legal framework), the Reference Data Model White Paper, a technical note on terminology for SW, and the SW Assessment Methodology (SWAM).
  • The WCO Compendium on Building a Single Window Environment (g., Volume 1 Part 1, Volume 2, and the supplement), WCO Data Model, and Data Harmonization Guidelines.
  • The United Nations Trade and Development roadmap for building a SW.
  • The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and its Network of Experts for Paperless Trade and Transport in Asia and the Pacific (UNNExT) provide a planning/implementation guide and expert Neelima Pamulapati has developed comprehensive case studies on legal frameworks for SW. Other important UNESCAP guides focus on Business Process Analysis and Data Harmonization/Modeling.
  • The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) SW implementation guide.
  • With significance for Regional Single Window, UN/CEFACT Recommendation 36 provides guidance required for the interconnectivity and interoperability of two or more SWs, APEC has produced a study on SW systems’ international interoperability, UNESCAP provides a paper on ‘e-trade’ through the ASEAN Single Window, and UN/CEFACT is developing guidelines on establishing RSW.

How are you engaging with Single Window-related efforts?

Cross-border regulations are constantly changing and digital public infrastructure (DPI) must be agile. In certain situations, rules and requirements can change by the minute.

Taken as a whole, the contributions have been to advance Single Window design in support of greater engagement by software development and business communities.

Although ‘greenfield projects’ and ‘legacy system’ integrations face difficulties, prospects exist for SW ‘rules engine’ (re)design in the short-term and new thinking on the long-term viability of systems.

Everything is deeply interconnected and ‘global value chains’ (GVCs) depend on streamlined interactions between people through computer technologies. Single Windows should empower MSMEs to capture value in GVCs through ‘interlinking’.

Any trade professional, especially a CITP, may consider informing SW deployment and upgrading. The next article in this series examines relevant innovations and how a Single Window frontend/backend paradigm can be ‘flipped’ for optimal human communication, interoperability of systems, and impact.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributing author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forum for International Trade Training.

About the author

Author: Craig Atkinson, CITP

Craig Atkinson is the Founder and Director of Lexmerca International Trade and a Trade Development Specialist with the International Trade Centre (ITC), the joint agency of the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Active in the field of digital trade, Craig participates in projects with multiple international organizations, academic institutions, technology foundations, and standards bodies. Academically, he is a Non-Resident Fellow with the World Trade Institute (WTI) as well as a Research Affiliate with the Singapore Management University (SMU) Centre for AI and Data Governance and the SMU Centre for Computational Law. Professionally, Craig has been a FITT Certified International Trade Professional (CITP) since 2011.

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