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Trends in the Use of Trade Preference Programs for U.S. Imports

To assist developing, industrializing, and transitional economies, the United States offers duty-free market access principally through four trade preference programs:

  • the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA);
  • the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA);
  • the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), and
  • the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program.

Most trade preference program beneficiary countries are not major U.S. trade partners. Their shipments entering the U.S. market—whether under trade preference programs, other special programs, or no program claimed—collectively accounted for 15 percent of all U.S. imports in 2012 (figure ST.1), 3 percentage points less than in 2008. However, compared to U.S. imports from all trade partners, the share entering the United States under these trade preference programs was in the range of 3–5 percent during 2008–12. U.S. imports under the four trade preference programs have risen every year since 2009 following the global recession, but have not regained the levels recorded in 2008. Likewise, imports entering the U.S. market under each individual trade preference program in successive years did not reach their 2008 values (figure ST.2).

Levels of imports under trade preference programs reflect not only the overall shifts in U.S. imports affecting all trade partners, as the U.S. economy resumed growing over the past three years since the 2008–09 recession, but also several notable additions of and removals from beneficiary status for individual countries under these programs (table ST.1). In the following sections, imports under each U.S. trade preference program are examined in more detail, not only among leading industry sectors, but also for more specific products.

TABLE ST.1 Changes in designated country beneficiary status under U.S. trade preference programs, January 1, 2008–December 31, 2012.

Effective date

Designated country beneficiary status change(s)

May 17, 2008

Republic of Togo included as a beneficiary country under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

June 21, 2008

Solomon Islands included as a least-developed beneficiary developing country (LDBDC) for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program.

July 30, 2008

The single country of Serbia and Montenegro replaced by Montenegro and Serbia as two separate beneficiary developing countries for the GSP program.

December 15, 2008

Bolivia removed as a beneficiary country for the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA).

January 1, 2009

Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) enters into force for Costa Rica. Costa Rica also removed as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP, and as a beneficiary country for both the Caribbean Basin Economic Recovery Act (CBERA) and the United States-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act of 2000 (CBTPA).

January 1, 2009

Mauritania removed as a beneficiary country under AGOA.

January 1, 2009

United States-Oman Free Trade Agreement (UOFTA) enters into force and Oman removed as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP program.

February 1, 2009

Azerbaijan and Kosovo included as beneficiary developing countries for the GSP program.

February 1, 2009

United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act enters into force and Peru removed as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP program.

January 1, 2010

Maldives included as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP program.

January 1, 2010

Trinidad and Tobago removed as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP program.

January 1, 2010

Cape Verde removed as a LDBDC for the GSP program.

January 1, 2010

Mauritania included as a beneficiary country under AGOA.

January 1, 2011

Cape Verde, Croatia, and Equatorial Guinea removed as beneficiary developing countries for the GSP program.

January 1, 2011

Democratic Republic of Congo removed as a beneficiary country under AGOA.

January 1, 2011

Peru removed as a beneficiary country for ATPA.

October 25, 2011

Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, and Niger included as beneficiary countries under AGOA.

May 28, 2012

Argentina removed as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP program.

May 15, 2012

United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act enters into force and Colombia removed as a beneficiary country for ATPA.

May 28, 2012

South Sudan included as both a beneficiary developing country and a LDBDC for the GSP program.

July 1, 2012

Timor-Leste replaced East Timor as both a beneficiary developing country and an LDBDC for the GSP program.

October 31, 2012

United States-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act enters into force. Panama also removed as a beneficiary developing country for the GSP program and
as a beneficiary country for both CBERA and CBTPA.

Source: USITC, "Change Record," Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States, various editions.

African Growth and Opportunity Act
Imports entering the U.S. market under AGOA provisions accounted for between 46 percent and 66 percent of U.S. imports entering under all U.S. during 2008–12. Energy-related products accounted for 90–93 percent of all AGOA imports in each of the five most recent years (figure ST.3), as several sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries eligible for AGOA benefits are major export-oriented producers of crude petroleum—particularly Nigeria (the largest producer in Africa), but also Angola, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), Chad, and Gabon. The value of U.S. imports of energy-related products has significantly decreased since 2008 reflecting both smaller imported quantities due to recessionary economic conditions in 2009 and import-offsetting increased domestic production in 2011.

Transportation equipment and textiles and apparel were the next largest import categories under AGOA. U.S. motor vehicle imports from South Africa, in particular, accounted for much of the overall increased imports of transportation equipment. Multinational Western European, U.S., and Japanese automakers have invested in South Africa to produce motor vehicle parts and assemble motor vehicles for both local and international markets.


Over the recent five-year period, the United States imported textiles and apparel under AGOA provisions—textiles primarily from South Africa and apparel primarily from Lesotho, followed by Kenya and Swaziland. U.S. AGOA imports of apparel from Swaziland declined each successive year over this period, a reflection of the industry’s fragmentation, inadequate transportation infrastructure, inefficient labor markets, and other constraints that hamper textile and apparel production in Swaziland and other SSA countries.

Andean Trade Preference Act

Lower U.S. imports recorded under ATPA provisions over the five-year period reflect the decreasing number of eligible beneficiary countries during this time. In 2008, U.S. imports from Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru were all eligible for ATPA preferences; by the end of 2012, Ecuador was the sole remaining eligible beneficiary country (table ST.1). Additionally, the authority to provide preferential treatment under the ATPA program lapsed for eight months in 2011 before being extended in October 2011 retroactively through July 2013. The legislation extending preferential treatment authority allowed importers that paid duties during the lapse to apply for a refund of duties paid, but the lapse in authorization was considered to have discouraged imports during the eight months it was in existence.

During the five-year period, energy-related products led all U.S. imports granted ATPA preference, growing from 76 percent in 2009 to 92 percent by 2012 (figure ST.4). Colombia and Ecuador are major export-oriented producers of crude petroleum.

U.S. imports of agricultural products under ATPA provisions (the second-largest type of import), particularly fresh flowers from Colombia and Ecuador, decreased in 2011, probably due to the eight-month lapse in the ATPA preferential treatment authority that year. U.S. imports of fresh flowers (other than roses) from both Andean countries were also eligible to enter the United States duty-free under the U.S. GSP program (roses were not eligible for duty-free treatment under the GSP program).

Andean countries are endowed with significant mineral resources and have long histories of mining. The notable declines of U.S. imports of minerals and metals under ATPA provisions in 2009 and 2011 partially reflect the suspension of ATPA eligibility for Bolivia, a major producer of silver, and the removal of Peru, a major producer of copper. The lapse in preferential treatment authority under the ATPA during much of 2011 likely played a role in that year’s decline as well.

Similarly, the decline of U.S. imports under ATPA provisions for textiles and apparel in 2011, particularly of apparel, resulted both from the removal of Peru from ATPA eligibility and from the temporary lapse of preferential treatment authority under ATPA that year. During the lapse, apparel imports from Colombia entered at MFN rates of duty with no preferential treatment sought.

Caribbean Basin Initiative

U.S. imports under the CBI recorded a significant decline from 2008 to 2009, and have fluctuated subsequently (figure ST.5). A major factor influencing decreased U.S. imports under CBI provisions in 2009 was the removal of Costa Rica from eligibility once the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States FTA (CAFTA-DR) entered into force for that trade partner in January 2009. Costa Rica is a major regional producer of textiles and apparel, as well as tropical fruit, which was the leading category for agricultural products imported by the United States from CBI beneficiary countries. Costa Rica is also a source of other types of fresh or processed fruit and vegetables; live plants; cut flowers; beef; and sugar, all of which are now entering under CAFTA-DR rather than CBI.

The leading import sector decrease in 2009 was of certain organic chemicals, primarily from Trinidad and Tobago, in the form of methanol converted from natural-gas liquids production. This decrease was largely attributable to decreased demand in the U.S. market due to the recession. As the largest crude petroleum producer in the Caribbean Basin and the site of a medium-capacity (175,000 barrels per day) petroleum refinery, Trinidad and Tobago was also the predominant source for U.S. imports of energy-related products under CBI provisions, primarily crude petroleum but also certain refined petroleum products. Costa Rica’s removal from eligibility for CBI benefits also contributed to decreased U.S. imports of tires, the second-largest product among chemicals and related products imported under CBI provisions in 2009.


Generalized System of Preferences
GSP was the second leading trade preference program in terms of the value of U.S. imports during the 2008–12 period. GSP imports were much less concentrated than those of the other programs, with no single industry sector accounting for more than 35 percent of all GSP imports in any year of the recent five-year period (figure ST.6). Energy-related products were the largest industry sector during 2008–10. However, a large decrease was recorded for imports of energy-related products in 2011, due largely to the removal from GSP eligibility of Equatorial Guinea, a major producer of crude petroleum and natural gas since the 1990s.