The most accessible and inexpensive source for global trade flow statistics is the United Nations. Through their COMTRADE database, users are free to search for and download data on the imports and exports of products classified in over 6,000 categories (in the Harmonized System) between almost 200 reporting countries. The same data is also available in other product classification systems (like the ISIC and SITC) for some countries.
The statistics are gathered and disseminated, as they are received, on an annual basis. With some countries the time lag is only several months following year-end, while others take a year or two to report. The dataset depicts trade value, number of units bought or sold and trading partner (corresponding country) for each given year. The U.N. maintains (and makes available to the public) historic records of each country’s trade activity up to several decades back.
Users are limited to the number of records they are able to download at one time without cost. However, the U.N. offers an inexpensive paid subscription option that provides unlimited search and download capability of all their trade databases. The corresponding interface allows users to save their search queries for later use as well as set up alerts with automatic download of updated data.
The only negatives are the lack of specificity and recency. The U.N. data only reflects aggregated annualized figures. Updates are sometimes spotty and infrequent. The data contains only the basest attributes of value, flow (import or export) partner (country) and unit of measure as well as other derivative statistical information therein contained (category sums, cost-per-unit, etc).
If you want greater specificity and frequency, you will need to turn to other sources. GTIS (Global Trade Information Services) and WISER Trade (World Institute for Strategic Economic Research) (They used to be called MISER.) These sources have gone through the sometimes complicated processes of obtaining trade data directly from the individual countries as soon as it is made available – sometimes monthly. The countries where they don’t get “special” data, they fill in with U.N. /ComTrade data, FYI.
Of course, individuals and organizations have the option of apprehending the same information (that GTIS or WISER sells) fairly easily, at least on 50% -60% of the countries. U.S. Census sells import/export merchandise trade flow statistics for a couple hundred dollars. EuroStat, releases similar information at no or low cost. Obtaining Japan trade data is a simple matter as well. Therefore, 80% of the worldwide merchandise trade, conducted by the countries referenced above, can be obtained and analyzed on a monthly basis at minimal cost.
What one abandons by such efforts are the technologies and convenient user search and reporting tools that have been developed by GTIS, WISER and several other Trade Intelligence providers, many of which are finally integrating aspects of Global Trade Flow Statistics into their particular product interfaces. On the other hand, for maximum flexibility, versatility and veracity in utilizing data for specific analyses, reporting and applications, one may be best served by going directly to the sources.