Trade gap narrows
Other data showed a drop in new claims for jobless benefits last week, although a severe storm that battered the East Coast distorted the figures.
The trade gap shrank 5.1 percent to $41.55 billion, the smallest deficit since December 2010, the Commerce Department said. Economists had expected it to widen to $45.0 billion.
Exports jumped 3.1 percent, the biggest increase in more than a year. The export gain more than offset a 1.5 percent increase in imports that was centered on purchases of consumer goods.
The data was the latest positive sign for the economy, which has appeared to perk up as consumers spend more freely and home construction quickens.
"This was a very encouraging report as the improvement in both export and non-petroleum import activity suggest improving demand both domestically and globally," said Millan Mulraine, an economist at TD Securities in New York.
Chinese demand for U.S. products appeared to help exporters in September. China bought $8.8 billion in U.S. goods and services, up 0.3 percent from a month earlier, although those figures were not seasonally adjusted.
Exports to the European Union, where a debt crisis has pushed several countries into recession, were flat. The U.S. government does not seasonally adjust figures for countries and regions as it does for overall imports and exports.
The larger-than-anticipated decline in the trade gap suggested economic growth may have been faster in the third quarter than the 2.0 percent annual rate initially reported.
JPMorgan said it pointed to a 2.8 percent growth rate. Analysts on Wall Street had previously increased their estimates for third-quarter growth following stronger-than-expected data on factory orders. The Commerce Department will release a revised GDP growth estimate on Nov. 29.
Many economists still think that cooling growth in the global economy will increasingly weigh on the United States.
Moreover, the economy could fall back into recession if Congress fails to avert a package of tax hikes and spending cuts planned for the new year.