Do I have to pay VAT if I am self-employed?

Updated on 23 March 2020

VAT is a complex tax that attracts strict penalties. On this page, we take you through some of the various VAT related issues you may have as a self-employed person.

Not all self-employed businesses need to be registered for VAT. This page explains what VAT is and when you may have to become a VAT-registered trader.

VAT is a complex tax that attracts strict penalties. We give no more than an overview here.

The UK left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020 and entered a transitional period, currently due to end on 31 December 2020, during which EU law continues to apply in the UK. The UK’s relationship with the EU beyond the end of the transitional period has not yet been finalised. Please note that the guidance below reflects the law as it applied before the UK’s departure from the EU, and as it will continue to apply throughout the transitional period.

What is VAT?

VAT is Value Added Tax. It is a sales tax charged by VAT registered traders on the value of the goods or services supplied to their customers.

As explained below, the law requires that UK traders with sales (turnover) above the VAT threshold to register for VAT and charge it on supplies of goods or services. The trader charges the VAT and then pays it over to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), the government’s tax-collecting authority.

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What rate is VAT charged at?

The standard rate of VAT is 20%. Certain items are charged at lower rates, for example children’s clothing is charged at the rate of 0% whereas household fuel, for example gas and electricity is charged at the reduced rate of 5%.

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Are all sales liable to VAT?

No, they are not. Some traders are not registered for VAT because their businesses have a low turnover (sales) – and some business activities do not attract VAT. For more information, see GOV.UK.

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I have been charged VAT on some of the items I have bought. Can I get it back?

If you are not VAT registered then you will not be able to reclaim any VAT unless you are a visitor from overseas.

If you are a VAT registered trader, then you will normally set off the VAT you have been charged by your suppliers against the VAT you have charged your customers. This is done each time a VAT return is completed. The net amount of VAT shown on your VAT return must then be paid to HMRC. If you have paid more VAT to your suppliers than you have charged to your customers, you should receive a VAT repayment from HMRC upon submitting your VAT return.

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When do I have to start charging VAT to my customers?

When your business income reaches the VAT registration threshold, you will need to consider whether you need to register for VAT.

There are two separate tests for VAT registration:

  1. Each month you need to total your sales for the month. You then need to keep a 12 month running total, that is, the total amount for that month and the preceding 11 months of your VAT taxable turnover. For many businesses, the VAT taxable turnover and sales will be the same. When that total reaches the VAT registration threshold (£85,000 for a 12-month period ending in 2019/20), you need to register by the end of the following month.  

    For example, if your VAT taxable turnover exceeds £85,000 for the twelve months to 31 August 2019, you need to register for VAT by 30 September 2019.

    You must remember that you need to register for VAT if your VAT taxable turnover in ANY consecutive 12-month period reaches the registration limit – it is not just the level of VAT taxable turnover in your 12-month accounting period that you need to check.

  2. If at the start of any 30-day period you believe that your VAT taxable turnover for that 30-day period alone will exceed the VAT registration threshold (£85,000 for 2019/20), you need to register immediately.

Once you are registered for VAT you must then add VAT to your sales invoices at the appropriate rate and complete VAT returns.

Even if you are not required to register for VAT due to the level of your sales you may choose to register for VAT. This is known as voluntary registration. You might want to do this because you know the VAT you pay out on your purchases will exceed the VAT you must charge on your sales and so by registering for VAT you will be able to claim regular VAT refunds. 

There is more information on registering for VAT on GOV.UK.

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How do I register for VAT?

Most businesses can register online for VAT. Otherwise, you need to complete form VAT1. You can find out more about how to register for UK VAT on GOV.UK.

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When do I have to make VAT returns to HMRC?

Most businesses need to complete these quarterly. They must usually be completed and submitted within 37 days of the end of the relevant period and payment made at the same time. For example, a VAT return for the 3 months to 30 June 2019 must be submitted by 7 August 2019. Subsequent VAT returns will need to be submitted for the 3-month periods to 30 September 2019, 31 December 2019, 31 March 2020 and so on.

The way in which most VAT returns must be filed has recently changed with the introduction of HMRC’s ‘Making Tax Digital‘ regime in April 2019. See What is Making Tax Digital for VAT? for more detailed information on filing VAT returns.

If you struggle to deal with matters digitally, then you may qualify for exemption from digital filing of your VAT returns, for example if you have a disability, or you live in an area where broadband is unreliable. If so, HMRC should offer alternative arrangements to enable you to file your returns. You should contact HMRC to discuss this.

You can find out more about VAT returns at GOV.UK. There are different types of VAT schemes which you may be eligible to use, and these are explained further in the section Accounting for VAT on GOV.UK.

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Are there any simplified VAT schemes which may suit my business?

Depending on the type of business and your annual sales, you may be able to choose to use a simplified VAT scheme. Below is a table which includes a brief summary of the main VAT schemes that self-employed businesses choose and where you can find further information. There are additional VAT schemes available which are not covered below; these are detailed under Accounting for VAT on GOV.UK.

Scheme Eligibility Important points More information
Annual accounting Estimated VAT taxable turnover for next 12 months is £1.35 million or less.

Submit one VAT return annually.

Make advanced VAT payments during the year.

Not suitable if you anticipate regular VAT repayments.
Cash accounting Estimated VAT taxable turnover for next 12 months is £1.35 million or less. VAT is calculated on actual cash receipts and payments rather than based on invoice dates. See GOV.UK.
Flat rate

Estimated VAT taxable turnover for next 12 months is £150,000 (excluding VAT) or less.

Pay VAT based on a fixed percentage of your sales, the percentage used depends on the type of business ran and you may also have to consider the amount of business expenditure incurred on ‘relevant goods’.

Do not claim VAT back on purchases except certain capital assets costing over £2,000.


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What happens if I pay my VAT late?

Penalties for non-compliance with the VAT system are extensive. You can find out more at GOV.UK.

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What records do I need to keep for VAT?

Usually you should keep all the information relating to your VAT return, such as business invoices and receipts, for at least six years. You should check the detailed guidance on what you need to keep and how long for on GOV.UK.

Some changes relating to the record keeping requirements for VAT came into effect in April 2019 when the Making Tax Digital for VAT regime was introduced. If you must comply with the Making Tax Digital for VAT rules, then you will need to keep at least some of your records in digital format. See our section on digital recordkeeping which explains the new rules.

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Where can I get further information on VAT generally?

GOV.UK has information on VAT including: deadlines for filing and payment, reclaiming VAT, VAT visits and inspections, partnerships and using VAT online services.

HMRC have developed webinars and e-learning resources to help you understand VAT, a list of these are on GOV.UK.

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