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

Updated on 21 April 2023


⚠️ 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. Please note we give no more than an overview here.

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.

Illustration of the letters VAT with people standing and sitting around

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 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.

Traders whose sales are below the VAT threshold do not need to register for VAT (but can do so voluntarily) so not all traders are required to be VAT-registered.

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%.

The rate of VAT was reduced temporarily for some businesses such as hospitality and tourism which were severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The temporary reduction ceased on 31 March 2022. For more information on this see GOV.UK.

Are all sales liable to VAT?

No, they are not. Some traders are not registered for VAT because their businesses have sales (turnover) below the VAT registration threshold and so they cannot charge VAT on their sales (unless they decide to register voluntarily – see ’When do I have to start charging VAT to my customers’ below). Also some business activities do not attract VAT. For more information, see the ‘Get started’ section on GOV.UK.

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 from overseas visiting Northern Ireland.

If you are a VAT registered trader, then you will normally offset 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.

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

You must start charging VAT on sales once you are a VAT registered trader. This can be as a consequence of either compulsory or voluntary registration.

You must consider whether you are legally obliged to register for VAT (this is compulsory registration).

There are two separate tests for compulsory 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 2023/24), you need to register by the end of the following month.

For example, if your VAT taxable turnover exceeds £85,000 for the 12 months to 31 August 2023, you need to register for VAT by 30 September 2023. Usually you will then be required to charge VAT on your sales from 1 October 2023.

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.

  1. 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 2023/24), 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. If you are considering registering on a voluntary basis then you may want to read our news article: Are you in low paid self-employment and considering becoming VAT registered?.

There is more information on registering for VAT on GOV.UK and in our guidance below

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.

From 1 April 2022, when you register for VAT you will also be automatically registered for ‘Making Tax Digital (MTD) for VAT’. You will have to comply with the MTD rules unless you are exempt. Therefore, at the same time as registering for VAT you will need to either apply for exemption from Making Tax Digital for VAT or begin keeping digital records immediately. There is more information on the records needed when you are VAT registered in the section ‘What records do I need to keep for VAT?' below.

When do I have to make VAT returns to HMRC and pay my VAT?

Most businesses need to complete VAT returns quarterly. They must usually be completed and submitted within one month and 7 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 2023 must be submitted by 7 August 2023. Subsequent VAT returns will need to be submitted for the 3-month periods to 30 September 2023, 31 December 2023, 31 March 2024 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. See How do I file my VAT return once I am in 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.

There are different types of VAT schemes which you may be eligible to use, and these are explained briefly below and also in the section Different ways to account for VAT on GOV.UK.

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 Different ways to account for VAT on GOV.UK.



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.


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 business sector 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.


What happens if I pay my VAT late or submit my VAT return late?

Penalties for not complying with the VAT system can be extensive, depending on the nature of the error.

When a VAT return is filed late or a VAT payment is late it is likely that penalties will be charged by HMRC. The amount of any penalty will depend on whether the period to which the VAT return and/or VAT payment relates ends on or before 31 December 2022 or on 1 January 2023 onwards as there is a different penalty system in place for each period.   

You can find out more about both penalty regimes and also the rules relating to interest charges in respect of late payment under both regimes on GOV.UK.

You should bear in mind that penalties can usually be appealed against if you have a reasonable excuse for the failure which led to the penalty.  

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 for how long 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 outlines the new rules.

When do I no longer need to be VAT registered?

If your business is VAT registered, then you will need to cancel your VAT registration when you stop trading (unless you have sold your business as a going concern and the new owner has kept the same VAT registration number, but you should take professional advice in this situation). You must cancel your VAT registration within 30 days of ceasing to trade or you may be charged a penalty. You can notify HMRC online, or by completing form VAT7 available on GOV.UK.

You can also voluntarily cancel your VAT registration if you believe your VAT taxable turnover will be below the deregistration threshold of £83,000 in the next 12 months.

There is information on GOV.UK on what happens when you cancel your registration and on completing your final VAT return, and more detailed information about deregistration in HMRC’s deregistration manual.

After cancelling your VAT registration, you need to keep your VAT records for six years.

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 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.

Tax guides

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