The US trade deficit expanded in November to its widest point in seven months, driven by a surge in imports that outpaced only modest growth in exports.

The Commerce Department said today that the deficit widened by 15.8% to $48.7 billion in November from October.

Imports grew 3.8% to $231.3 billion, led by gains in shipments of mobile phones, including Apple's new iPhone.

Exports increased only 1% to $182.6 billion. Exports to Europe fell 1.3%, further evidence of the prolonged debt crisis that has gripped the region.

A wider trade deficit acts as a drag on US growth as it usually means the US is earning less on overseas sales while spending more on foreign products.

Faster growth in exports helped the US economy grow in the months from July to September at an annual rate of 3.1% - more than double the rate of growth in the spring.

Most economists say growth has slowed from October to December to an annual rate of 2% or less and one reason for the expected weaker growth is slower gains in exports.

For the first 11 months of 2012, the trade deficit is running at an annual rate of $546.6 billion, roughly 2.4% lower than the 2011 deficit. Imports of consumer goods grew to $45.3 billion in November, a monthly record. Much of the growth was from mobile phones and other household electronics products. Oil imports dropped 2.5%, reflecting a fall in prices and lower volume.

The US trade deficit with China, the largest with any country, totalled $29 billion in November, down slightly from the monthly record of $29.5 billion in October. But the trade gap with China is still on track to set a new annual record in 2012.

Trade was a modest positive for overall economic growth in 2012, and many economists believe that trend will continue in 2013. However, that forecast is based on a view that the European debt crisis stabilises and growth in Asia begins to rebound.

In its latest outlook, a forecasting panel for the National Association for Business Economics predicted that the US trade deficit for 2013 will total $533 billion, a slight improvement from the $540 billion deficit they expect when the trade numbers are totaled up for all of 2012. That expectation for a slight improvement is based on a view that export growth will outpace imports in 2013.