What is a Contractor?

Chris Andreou

March 19, 2022

what is contractor guide

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You've been thinking about making the leap from employee to self-employed. If contracting is one of the options you're considering, this article is for you.

We'll run you through the basics, including what it means to be a contractor, how it differs from full-time employment and the type of business structures that contractors typically choose.  

What is a contractor?

Contractors are self-employed individuals who provide services to a business. Generally, they're highly skilled, and are hired for projects that require specialist skills or to bolster a team during busy periods.

Types of contractor employment

Contractors can be self-employed, a worker or an employee. Those who are employed through an umbrella company or an agency could be considered a worker or an employee.

If a contractor is a sole trader or runs a limited company, he or she will then be considered a self-employed person. If you needed more information about the different types of employment status, here's a quick recap: 


Employees have an employment contract, are provided with regular work and enjoy employment rights. They obtain a salary and benefits, and their employer makes deductions for PAYE and National Insurance Contributions from their salary. 


Workers perform casual or irregular work for a business, and their contracts typically include terms like 'casual', 'as required' or 'zero hours'. PAYE and National Insurance Contributions are deducted from their salary, and they enjoy some employment rights. 


Freelancers, sole traders, limited company directors and contractors are considered self-employed individuals. They run their own businesses, and are responsible for its success or failure. These individuals aren't paid through PAYE, and don't enjoy employment rights that employees are entitled to. 

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Contractor business structure

Contractors typically trade as a limited company, or work through an umbrella company.

There are several factors you'll need to take into consideration when deciding on a company structure that works best for you.

This includes whether your contracts will likely fall within the IR35 rules, if you plan to work as a contractor temporarily or for the long run, and if you think you can commit to the paperwork and time spent on accounts required of limited company directors.

It can be complex, and you need to understand the IR35 legislation. If you need personalised advice, a specialist contractor accountant will be able to guide you through your decision-making process.  

Contractor sitting down at a table looking at phone

Factors that identify a contractor: What is a contractor?

If you were to make comparisons between a contractor and a full-time employee working within the same company, you'll find that there are several distinct differences between them. 

These are: 

1. Contractors have a greater degree of control over their work

There are a couple of tests to distinguish an employee from a contractor.

The first is the 'how, what, when and where' test.

As the name suggests, the test identifies a contractor based on whether he or she is instructed on how to complete a task, what tasks to perform, when the tasks should be done and the location it should be completed at. An employee will be provided specific instructions across these factors; in contrast, a contractor has the freedom to make his or her own decisions.

The second test is the mutuality of obligation.

This refers to the obligation of an employer to provide work and make payment for it, and the obligation of the employee to accept the work. This doesn't apply to contractors—while the client may offer a contractor additional work after a project is completed, the contractor isn't obliged to accept it.

2. They offer a special skill set

Contractors are best known for their specialist skills, and are typically brought into the company to fill in a skill gap that employees are lacking in. 

3. They can get a replacement

Unlike employees, contractors aren't required to perform their work duties personally.

4. They enjoy tax advantages

Contractors operating through a limited company typically draw a low salary, and draw the remainder of their income through dividends.

This is a more tax efficient way to operate, as neither the company nor the contractor (as an employee) are required to pay National Insurance Contributions on dividends.

5. They aren't eligible for employment benefits

Contractors are generally not entitled to company benefits that full-time employees enjoy, and don't get holiday or sick pay when they're not working.

However, if you're in the scope of the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), you'll be entitled to certain rights in line with those of full-time employees, such as paid annual leave, equal pay and automatic pension enrolment. For more information on AWR, check out the Gov.uk website or guide.

How to become a contractor

Do your research 

The first step you’ll need to do is to conduct in-depth research, and think through various important factors—from finances and tax implications, to lifestyle and business opportunities—to ascertain if becoming a contractor is the right decision for you.

The following are factors and questions you should consider:

  • Would the benefits (e.g. increased flexibility) outweigh the downsides (e.g. lower job security)?
  • Will you be comfortable with navigating all kinds of work challenges on your own? How will you remain motivated to seek out new job opportunities constantly?
  • Are contractors in demand in your field of work? How much do these contracting jobs pay?
  • What is IR35?
  • What are the tax implications of contracting?

Decide on a business structure

Sole trader, limited company or umbrella company?

We understand that it can seem incredibly confusing and complex, so we’ve tried to keep our explanation simple and easy-to-understand. 

In our guide on contracting, we break down the pros and cons of each option.

Below, we've included a brief overview of our recommendations:

  • Sole trader or self-employed: Best for small projects outside of a regular PAYE role
  • Umbrella company: Best for contractors who want to keep things really simple and earn a regular PAYE income.
  • Limited company: Best for projects outside of IR35, invoicing multiple clients easily and tax efficiency.

Develop a business strategy

“If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail”— an oft-quoted statement by Benjamin Franklin certainly rings true for anyone who sets out to become a contractor or run their own business. 

While strategic planning is not set in stone, working out a plan is still helpful, as it is a way for you to consider multiple perspectives, identify potential opportunities and pitfalls and conceptualise back up plans you could fall back on.

Here a few questions to guide you through the process of writing a business plan:

  • What need are you addressing, and who is your target audience?
  • How much will you charge for your services?
  • How will you get the word out about your business?
  • Where will you find clients and job opportunities?
  • What’s your process for convincing clients to hire you?
  • What do you need to get started? 

Additional resources:

Get your business finances and insurance sorted out

As a first-time contractor, it’s important that you get the following sorted out:

We’ve written up a separate article on how to become a contractor, which covers additional points such as how to register a limited company, VAT, tips for expanding your network, platforms for finding opportunities and more.

Registering a Limited Company Guide

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  • What is a Limited Company
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Registering a Limited Company Guide

What's Inside:

  • What is a Limited Company
  • 10 step process for setting up a Limited Company

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