The trade gap swelled more than four per cent to $52.6 billion, the highest since October 2008. The department also raised its estimate of the December trade deficit to $50.4 billion, from its previous figure of $48.8 billion.
Imports rose 2.1 per cent to a record $233.4 billion. China accounted for a big share of the gain, with imports from that country rising 4.7 per cent to $34.4 billion.
Goods imports reached the highest level since July 2008, just before the financial crisis caused world trade to plummet.
Stronger US demand also pushed imports of services, autos, capital goods and food, feeds and beverages to record highs.
The average price for imported oil fell slightly to $103.81 per barrel, but remained well above the January 2011 level of $84.34.
The growth was led by exports to Mexico and Japan, with shipments to China and the 27-nation European Union tumbling.
The closely watched US trade deficit with China swelled 12.5 per cent to $26.0 billion. Last year, it set an annual record of more than $295 billion.