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The (essential) role of UN's Comtrade in trade data

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This blog is part of a series about WITS, the World Integrated Trade Solution, a collaborative trade data platform developed by the World Bank and other institutions. This is the fifth installment of the series—for further reading, here are the first, second, third and fourth installments. In this blog we give you a sneak peek into how the United Nations Statistical Division collects and curates’ data for COMTRADE database.

In today's globalized economy, access to accurate and comprehensive trade data is indispensable for policymakers, researchers, and businesses alike. At the forefront of facilitating transparent and accessible international trade statistics stands the United Nations Comtrade platform. 

Launched by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), Comtrade serves as a vital repository, offering a wealth of information on global merchandise trade. From analyzing market trends to informing policy decisions, this platform plays a pivotal role in fostering transparency and understanding in the complex landscape of international trade.  

Who provides the data to UN Comtrade

UN Comtrade relies on official sources to ensure the accuracy and reliability of its data. In most countries this is a single agency, like a customs department, a national statistics office, or a relevant ministry. UN Comtrade works directly with these official bodies to collect the data.

While secondary sources like regional organizations might occasionally be used, UN Comtrade prioritizes data that originates directly from the responsible country authority. This ensures the data reflects the official reporting and method from each nation. For the same reason, UN Comtrade doesn't accept information from unofficial sources, such as academic databases or research organizations. This keeps the integrity of the data as a trusted repository of official trade statistics.

Illustration 1. Sending institutions for trade statistics (commodity and services)


How UN Comtrade releases information

UN Comtrade strives to be a constantly updated resource, but some datasets have a fixed release schedule. Data processing happens on a rolling basis, prioritizing the freshest information while managing workload. For instance, data received throughout 2023 might include annual or monthly trade statistics on goods and services for individual countries.

Table 1. Summary of datasets received by UN Comtrade for 2023


With 193 countries and territories reporting trade data, UN Comtrade houses a vast amount of information. In a single year, you could potentially find:

  • Annual trade in services for all countries (193)

  • Annual merchandise trade data for all countries (193)

  • Monthly merchandise trade data for every country (193 x 12 = 2,316 entries) 

That's a total of 2,702 potential data points! But here's the catch: initial reported trade data gets adjusted for reasons such as adjustments made to customs declarations or new estimation methods emerge.  For example, some countries even allow revisions to data for up to five years back, which means users might see updates to data from previous years alongside the current year's information. Understanding these revisions is crucial for getting the most accurate picture of global trade activity. By acknowledging these updates, users can ensure their analysis reflects the latest trends and realities of the international marketplace. 

To gain a better understanding of the data, it is essential to break it down to include revisions. Doing so will provide a more accurate picture of trade activities.

Table 2. Incoming data broken down by the Harmonized System revisions in 2023.


Addressing data gaps in UN Comtrade 

While UN Comtrade has an impressive amount of trade data, it’s important to be aware that there are occasional gaps.  Some countries might submit updated data regularly, while others face technical or geopolitical challenges that delay their reporting.

Data quality is top priority at UN Comtrade, so it is important to understand the relevance of timely and accurate information for users. Here's a snapshot of the current landscape:

Table 3. Availability of reporting countries/areas


Examples on why timeliness on data is relevant:

  • Merchandise Annual Data (2022): As of March 2024, data for 146 countries is available, compared to 177 in 2017. This signifies a decrease, and it can take several years to regain the same level of reporting.

  • Trade in Services: Generally, service data is more readily available, though it might not be as recent as merchandise data due to its more aggregated nature.

  • Monthly Data: The number of countries reporting monthly data is typically lower than those reporting annually.

What does this mean for you?  Being aware of these data gaps allows you to make informed decisions when using UN Comtrade data.  For instance, you might need to adjust your analysis timeframe or consider alternative data sources for countries with missing information.

In conclusion, the United Nations Comtrade platform stands as an invaluable resource in the realm of global trade data, providing essential insights for a myriad of stakeholders worldwide. While its comprehensive database empowers analysis and decision-making, challenges such as data gaps persist, highlighting the need for ongoing collaboration and support to bolster statistical capacities, particularly in regions facing limitations. To bridge this gap, continuous technical assistance and data tools are crucial. Initiatives like the Trade Data Tools, developed by Eurostat and UNSD, serve as a model for collaboration. We encourage other organizations to join the effort, fostering a collective approach to building trade statistics capacity.

As we navigate the complexities of international trade, initiatives like the Trade Data Tools exemplify the importance of collective efforts in enhancing data quality and accessibility. By embracing collaboration and innovation, we can ensure that UN Comtrade continues to serve as a cornerstone in fostering transparency and informed decision-making on the global stage and helping platforms like WITS to disseminate trade data.

Markie Muryawan

Head of the Trade Statistics Section at the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD)

Melissa Paca

Senior Statistics Assistant at the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD)

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