Category: International Trade Sub-category: International Trade Organisation
Document type: article


Any state or customs territory having full autonomy in the conduct of its trade policies may become a member (“accede to”) the WTO, but all WTO members must agree on the terms. This is done through the establishment of a working party of WTO members and through a process of negotiations.

How to join the WTO: the accession process

Any state or customs territory having full autonomy in the conduct of its trade policies may join (“accede to”) the WTO, but WTO members must agree on the terms. Broadly speaking the application goes through four stages:

  1. First, “tell us about yourself”. The government applying for membership has to describe all aspects of its trade and economic policies that have a bearing on WTO agreements. This is submitted to the WTO in a memorandum which is examined by the working party dealing with the country’s application. These working parties are open to all WTO members.
  2. Second, “work out with us individually what you have to offer”. When the working party has made sufficient progress on principles and policies, parallel bilateral talks begin between the prospective new member and individual countries. They are bilateral because different countries have different trading interests. These talks cover tariff rates and specific market access commitments, and other policies in goods and services. The new member’s commitments are to apply equally to all WTO members under normal non-discrimination rules, even though they are negotiated bilaterally. In other words, the talks determine the benefits (in the form of export opportunities and guarantees) other WTO members can expect when the new member joins. (The talks can be highly complicated. It has been said that in some cases the negotiations are almost as large as an entire round of multilateral trade negotiations.)
  3. Third, “let’s draft membership terms”. Once the working party has completed its examination of the applicant’s trade regime, and the parallel bilateral market access negotiations are complete, the working party finalizes the terms of accession. These appear in a report, a draft membership treaty (“protocol of accession”) and lists (“schedules”) of the member-to-be’s commitments.
  4. Finally, “the decision”. The final package, consisting of the report, protocol and lists of commitments, is presented to the WTO General Council or the Ministerial Conference. If a two-thirds majority of WTO members vote in favour, the applicant is free to sign the protocol and to accede to the organization. In many cases, the country’s own parliament or legislature has to ratify the agreement before membership is complete.