Pensions and employees

Updated on 11 April 2023


Pensions are a way of saving for your retirement. The UK government usually gives tax relief on contributions you pay into pensions. The idea is to encourage people to provide for their own retirement rather than rely on the state. This page gives some basic information on pensions.

Illustration of pensioners and a man in front of a bank

Growth on your pension savings is generally free of tax. When pensions are paid out to you they are usually taxable, but you should be able to take some part of the pension as a tax-free lump sum. We look at some of the main tax benefits of pension saving in our tax basics section (based on current law, although please note that tax benefits may depend on individual circumstances and may change in the future).

We do not give advice. The following information is for general guidance only.

What are the types of pension I might have and how are they all different?

If you are an employee, you may have the option of different kinds of pension. You may pay into some of them automatically; you have to make an active decision to pay into others. You do not necessarily have to choose between pensions – you may be able to pay into more than one kind.

We look briefly at some of the main types that you may be able to have, but if you want more information on any of them, we suggest you go to our tax basics section.

What is the state pension?

The government pays the state pension as a regular payment to eligible people who have reached state pension age. You can work out when you will reach state pension age by using the calculator on GOV.UK.

If you reach state pension age on or after 6 April 2016, you will fall under the flat rate state pension, known as the new state pension.

If you are an employee, and you earn more than a certain amount per week or per month, you will pay NIC or be treated as if you have paid it. The NIC you pay – or are treated as having paid - helps you to qualify to receive the state pension. You can read more about this in our news piece looking at NIC contribution records for low-paid employees.

There is more information about the state pension and the new state pension in our tax basics section.

What are stakeholder and personal pensions?

You can set up a stakeholder pension or a personal pension plan yourself and invest in it personally, or your employer may offer you access to a group personal pension scheme through your job and may also pay into it – this will usually be the case if they do not have an occupational scheme for you to join. If they pay into it, it is a tax-free benefit for you.

There is more information about stakeholder and personal pension schemes in our tax basics section.

What are retirement annuity schemes?

If you took out a personal pension before 1 July 1988 it would have been called a retirement annuity policy.

There is more information about retirement annuity schemes in our tax basics section.

What are occupational pensions?

An occupational pension, sometimes called a ‘works’ pension, is a pension scheme organised by your employer.

Occupational schemes may be either a defined contribution scheme, also known as a money purchase scheme, or a defined benefit scheme, also known as a salary-based scheme. Defined benefit occupational pension schemes are becoming increasingly rare and many are closed to new joiners. 

If you are a member of an occupational pension scheme, your employer is likely to contribute to it. If your employer makes a contribution to your occupational scheme, it is a tax-free benefit for you.

Generally, you can make extra payments of your own into the employer’s scheme. 

If you make contributions to an occupational scheme, your contributions are probably taken from your pay before your tax is worked out (‘net pay arrangements’), so you get tax relief immediately – provided you are a taxpayer. For example, if you pay tax at the basic rate of 20% and authorise a monthly contribution of £50, the actual cost of the contribution to you will be only £40, and you save tax of £10 (£50 at 20%). However, you will not get any tax relief on your £50 contribution if your earnings are less than the personal allowance, which is £12,570 in 2023/24, meaning your £50 contribution will cost you £50. More on this below.

What is a rebate only personal pension or appropriate personal pension?

If you want information on this type of pension, visit the tax basics section.

What is auto-enrolment?

Under auto-enrolment, employers have to automatically enrol eligible workers into a qualifying pension scheme, if they are not already in one. Workers not automatically enrolled will also be able to opt in to a pension scheme, if they wish.

More detailed guidance on auto enrolment can be found on our page: What is automatic enrolment for employees?.

What are the rules for paying into pensions, and what tax relief do I get on contributions?

Providing your pension scheme provider agrees, there is no limit on the amount you can put into your pension. There are limits on the level of payments that can be made with tax relief, but these do not impact upon people on low incomes.

You can save in more than one pension scheme at the same time, for example, in both a personal pension and an occupational pension. You should remember that once your money has been saved into a pension there are strict rules on how much you can take out and when you can take it. Heavy penalties can apply if you break these rules.

For more information on the rules for pension contributions, including tax relief and the annual and lifetime allowances, go to the tax basics section.

One point to note is that if you are a low-earner you may wish to check which type of pension scheme your employer uses. If they use a ‘relief at source’ arrangement, the pension provider claims 20p tax relief back from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for every 80p of your contribution received – no matter what the level of your earnings. This means that when you contribute 80p, £1 goes into your pension pot. Some pension providers do not use this method, and use a different approach to tax relief (called ‘net pay arrangements’), meaning employees do not get any tax relief if their earnings are less than their personal allowance, which is £12,570 in 2023/24.

For more information about this see Do you know how tax relief on your pension contributions works?.

When can I take my private pension?

Generally, the earliest you can take your personal pension is at age 55 (increasing to 57 from 6 April 2028), although it is possible this age may increase further once state retirement age increases.

For occupational pension schemes, your employer’s scheme rules give you details on pension age.

More information on the rules for taking your pensions is given in our pensioners section.

What happens if I leave my job?

If you are a member of a pension scheme set up by your employer and you leave your job – but you are not retiring – the pension pot is still yours.

You may have various options available to you, including:

  • leave the pension where it is and draw it when you retire;
  • continue paying into the pension after you leave;
  • transfer the pension to a different scheme;
  • get a refund of your pension contributions;
  • start to take your pension.

You should always contact your pension scheme administrator, to check the rules.

There is more information on GOV.UK.

We suggest that you also seek independent advice before making a decision, as it may affect the amount of your future pension income.

Can I transfer my pension?

Some pension schemes allow you to transfer all or part of your pension pot to another pension scheme. Before making a transfer, you should check that both pension schemes will allow the transfer.

You might want to transfer your pension fund for various reasons. For example, if you have had several different employers, and as a result have a few smaller pension pots, you might want to bring them together. This might make administration and organisation easier for you in the future.

The decision to transfer a pension pot is not one you should take lightly, as you may incur charges and lose some rights.

There is more information on GOV.UK.

As with all important investment decisions, we suggest that you seek independent advice.

What happens if I give up work due to ill health?

Ill health

If you have to give up your job because of illness, you might be able to get your personal pension before the usual age limit of 55.

You must meet the criteria for ill health set by your pension scheme, and in addition, you must meet HMRC’s rules. HMRC's conditions are on GOV.UK.

If you do not meet the conditions and you receive pension income before you reach 55, you will have to pay tax at a rate of at least 40% on the ‘unauthorised payment’.

You cannot get your state pension before you reach state pension age.

Serious ill health

If you retire from your job due to serious ill health, you might qualify to take all your pension pot as a lump sum. Again, you must meet certain conditions, which are set out on GOV.UK. The conditions include that you must have evidence from a doctor confirming that you are not expected to live for longer than a year.

Where can I find more information?

See our tax basics section for a list of more sources of information.

Tax guides

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