What is VAT - Guide to Value Added Tax in the UK

By Chris Andreou
Last updated
June 28, 2024
What is VAT - Guide to Value Added Tax in the UKWhat is VAT - Guide to Value Added Tax in the UK

VAT (Value-Added Tax) Overview

Do you know that Value Added Tax (VAT) contributes over £130 billion annually to the UK government? Introduced in 1973, VAT plays a crucial role in funding public services and shaping the economy and is applied to nearly every purchase. Whether you're a business owner or a consumer, understanding VAT can help you handle its impact on your finances.

VAT, which stands for Value-Added Tax, is a significant aspect of the British tax system. In this article, we'll break down the basics of what VAT is and how it affects businesses.

VAT is a type of consumption tax added to the cost of most goods and services for both B2C and B2B markets.

Do you know that Value Added Tax (VAT) contributes over £130 billion annually to the UK government? Introduced in 1973, VAT plays a crucial role in funding public services and shaping the economy and is applied to nearly every purchase. Whether you're a business owner or a consumer, understanding VAT can help you handle its impact on your finances.

VAT, which stands for Value-Added Tax, is a significant aspect of the British tax system. In this article, we'll break down the basics of what VAT is and how it affects businesses.

VAT is a type of consumption tax added to the cost of most goods and services for both B2C and B2B markets.

What is VAT?

Value Added Tax, commonly known as VAT, is a consumption tax levied on goods and services at each stage of the production and distribution process. Unlike a sales tax, which is only applied at the point of sale to the end consumer, VAT is collected incrementally.

VAT is charged on most goods and services in the UK, including imports and exports as mentioned below:

  • business sales (i.e. goods or services you offer as a business)
  • business assets sales
  • items sold to staff (i.e. staff canteen meals)
  • commissions

History of VAT

VAT was introduced in the UK on April 1, 1973, replacing Purchase Tax. This introduction was part of the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union (EU), which required member states to implement a VAT system. The introduction of VAT aligned the UK with other EEC member states' tax systems, promoting consistency and simplicity in cross-border trade. The initial standard rate of VAT was set at 10%, but it has undergone several changes since then.

Key milestones in the history of VAT in the UK include:

  • 1979: The standard rate of VAT increased from 10% to 15%.
  • 1991: The rate was further increased to 17.5%.
  • 2010: The standard rate rose to 20%, where it has remained since then, although there have been temporary reductions, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, to support the economy.

How VAT Works?

Each business involved in producing, distributing, or selling goods and services charges VAT on its sales and can reclaim the VAT paid on its purchases. This system ensures that the tax burden is shared among all participants in the production process, with the end consumer ultimately bearing the cost.

VAT is charged at each stage of the supply chain, from production to the final sale to consumers. Here's a step-by-step breakdown of how VAT works:

  1. Production and Manufacturing: A manufacturer purchases raw materials and pays VAT on these purchases. When the manufacturer sells the finished product to a wholesaler, they charge VAT on the sale. The VAT paid on raw materials can be reclaimed, known as input tax.
  2. Wholesale: The wholesaler buys the product, paying VAT to the manufacturer. When they sell the product to a retailer, they charge VAT. Again, the VAT paid to the manufacturer can be reclaimed as input tax.
  3. Retail: The retailer purchases the product, paying VAT to the wholesaler. When they sell the product to the final consumer, they charge VAT. Retailers also reclaim the VAT paid to the wholesaler.
  4. Consumers: The final consumer pays VAT on the product's purchase price. Unlike businesses, consumers cannot reclaim VAT, making it a consumption tax.

At each stage, businesses can reclaim the VAT they paid on their purchases, ensuring that only the value added at each step is taxed. The end consumer, however, cannot reclaim VAT, making them the final bearer of the tax.

How VAT is Charged?

VAT is charged as a percentage of the total value of a product or service. Businesses collect this tax on behalf of the government and then remit it to the tax authorities. The tax is ultimately paid by the end consumer, but it is the responsibility of businesses to ensure it reaches the government.

VAT Rate Type VAT Percentage Applicable On
Standard rate 20% Most goods and services
Reduced rate 5% Goods and services such as children’s car seats and home energy
Zero rate 0% Most food and children’s clothes

1. Standard Rate (20%):

The standard VAT rate in the UK is 20%, and it applies to most goods and services. This rate is the default unless a product or service specifically qualifies for a reduced or zero rate. Businesses selling goods and services at the standard rate must charge 20% VAT on their sales and can reclaim VAT on their business-related purchases. For EU business customers, a different set of rules apply.

Examples of Goods and Services Charged at the Standard Rate:

  1. Electronics: TVs, computers, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.
  2. Clothing and Footwear: Standard adult clothing and footwear.
  3. Professional Services: Legal advice, accountancy services, and consultancy.
  4. Dining Out: Meals at restaurants, cafes, and takeaways (excluding certain exempt food items).
  5. Entertainment: Tickets to concerts, movies, and sports events.

The standard rate affects a wide range of everyday items and services, making it the most commonly applied VAT rate.

2. Reduced Rate (5%):

The reduced VAT rate of 5% is applied to specific goods and services that the government deems essential or beneficial for society. This rate helps lower the cost of these items, making them more affordable for consumers.

What Qualifies for the Reduced Rate:

  1. Domestic Fuel and Power: Gas, electricity, and heating oil supplied for domestic use.
  2. Children's Car Seats: Car seats and certain safety equipment for children.
  3. Energy-Saving Materials: Installation of materials like insulation, solar panels, and heat pumps in residential properties.
  4. Some Contraceptives: Certain types of contraceptive products.

The reduced rate may also apply based on the context of the sale. For instance, it will apply to mobility devices if purchased by an individual over 60 and installed in their home. You can buy an accounting service through which an expert accountant should be able to quickly go over your sales and expenses and tell you which categories your business falls under.

By applying a reduced rate to these items, the government aims to encourage energy efficiency, enhance child safety, and make essential services more accessible.

3. Zero Rate (0%):

Zero-rated goods and services are still VAT-taxable, but the rate of VAT charged is 0%. Businesses selling zero-rated items must record them in their VAT accounts and report them on their VAT returns. However, they do not charge VAT on these sales and can reclaim VAT on their related purchases.

Examples of Zero-Rated Goods and Services:

  1. Most Food and Drinks: Basic groceries, such as bread, milk, fruits, and vegetables, but excluding alcoholic beverages, confectionery, and catering.
  2. Books and Newspapers: Printed books, magazines, and newspapers.
  3. Children's Clothing and Footwear: Clothing and footwear designed for children under 14.
  4. Public Transport: Passenger transport services, such as bus, train, and air travel within the UK.

Zero-rated VAT is intended to keep essential goods and services affordable, especially those that are necessary for everyday living.

VAT-Exempt Goods and Services

Certain goods and services are exempt from VAT. This means no VAT is charged, and businesses cannot reclaim VAT on related purchases. Exemptions typically apply to sectors where it is either impractical or undesirable to impose VAT.

Examples of Exempt Goods and Services:

  • Financial services (e.g., insurance, credit, investment management)
  • Education and training services
  • Healthcare services provided by doctors and dentists
  • Charitable fundraising events
  • Burial and cremation services

Exemptions are designed to support sectors that provide essential services or where VAT would add unnecessary complexity or cost.

The full list of exempt items can be viewed on the Gov.uk website. These transactions should, however, still be recorded in your general business accounts.

‘Zero-Rate VAT’ vs ‘VAT-Exempt’

The terms 'Zero-Rate' and 'VAT-Exempt' may sound similar, but there's a crucial difference. Zero-rated items are taxable, but the rate is set at 0%, while VAT-exempt items are not subject to VAT at all.

What is Outside the Scope of VAT

There are certain goods and services that are outside the scope of VAT. This means that they are not subject to VAT and no VAT is charged on them. These items include employee salaries, charges imposed by the government and donations to a charity.

How to Calculate VAT?

Calculating VAT in the UK is essential for businesses to ensure they charge the correct amount of tax on their goods and services. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to calculate VAT:

Steps to Calculate VAT

To calculate VAT, you need to follow three steps:

  1. Determine the VAT Rate
  2. Identify the Net or Gross Price
  3. Calculate VAT

Step 1: Determine the VAT Rate:

Determine the applicable VAT rate for your goods or services. In the UK, there are different rates:

  • Standard Rate: Currently 20% (applies to most goods and services).
  • Reduced Rate: Currently 5% (applies to certain goods like home energy and children's car seats).
  • Zero Rate: 0% (applies to essentials like most food items, books, and children's clothes).

Step 2: Identify the Net or Gross Price

  • Net Price: The price before VAT is added.
  • Gross Price: The price after VAT is included

Step 3: Calculate VAT

If you have the net price and want to find the gross price:

  1. Multiply the net price by the VAT rate (expressed as a decimal).
  2. Add the result to the net price.

VAT Amount = Net Price × VAT Rate
Gross Price = Net Price + VAT Amount

If you have the gross price and want to find the net price:

  1. Divide the gross price by 1+VAT Rate


Net Price = Gross Price/(1+VAT Rate)​

Example Calculation

Let's go through an example for clarity.

Example 1: Calculate VAT from Net Price

Imagine you are buying a table that costs £100 before VAT, and the VAT rate is 20%.

  1. Identify the Net Price: £100
  2. Determine the VAT Rate: 20% (which is 0.20 as a decimal)
  3. Calculate the VAT Amount: VAT Amount = £100 × 0.20 = £20
  4. Calculate the Gross Price: Gross Price = £100 + £20 = £120

So, the table costs £120 including VAT.

Example 2: Calculate Net Price from Gross Price

Now, let's say you know the total price of the table including VAT is £120, and you want to find out the net price.

  1. Identify the Gross Price: £120
  2. Determine the VAT Rate: 20% (which is 0.20 as a decimal)
  3. Calculate the Net Price: Net Price = £120/(1 + 0.20) = £120/1.20 = £100

So, the net price of the table is £100.

Quick Reference

  • To find the gross price: Net Price × (1 + VAT Rate)
  • To find the net price: Gross Price / (1 + VAT Rate)
  • To find the VAT amount from the net price: Net Price × VAT Rate
  • To find the VAT amount from the gross price: Gross Price × (VAT Rate/(1+VAT Rate))​​

VAT Registration

Businesses must register for VAT if their taxable turnover exceeds the VAT registration threshold, which is £90,000 as of 2024.

Compulsory Registration

If a business's taxable turnover exceeds the VAT registration threshold £90,000 within a 12-month period or is expected to do so in the next 30 days, it must register for VAT with HMRC. Failure to register on time can result in penalties and interest charges.

Voluntary Registration

Businesses below the VAT registration threshold can choose to register voluntarily. This allows them to reclaim VAT on purchases, which can be beneficial if they make significant capital investments or supply zero-rated goods.

VAT De-registration

Businesses can de-register for VAT if their taxable turnover falls below the de-registration threshold, which is £88,000 for 2024/25 tax year. This can simplify administration and reduce compliance costs for smaller businesses.

VAT Threshold 2024

Not all businesses are required to register for VAT. If your business's taxable turnover exceeds a threshold £90,000 in 2024, you must register for VAT. This threshold is based on the total value of your taxable supplies over a rolling 12-month period.

Threshold Type Threshold Amount
VAT Registration £90,000
VAT Deregistration £88,000

VAT Returns and Payments

Businesses registered for VAT must regularly file VAT returns with HMRC. The return summarizes the VAT charged on sales (output tax) and the VAT paid on purchases (input tax). The difference between the output and input tax determines whether the business owes VAT to HMRC or is due a refund. You need to submit your VAT return one month and seven days after the end of your VAT period which occurs every 3 months (quarterly).

VAT Payment Deadlines:

After filing your VAT return, you need to pay any VAT you owe to HMRC. Payments are due at the same time as your VAT return, which is one month and seven days after the end of the VAT period. For example, if your VAT quarter ends on June 30, the payment deadline is August 7.

VAT Payment Methods:

  • Direct Debit: Set up a direct debit through your HMRC online account. This is a convenient way to ensure timely payments.
  • Bank Transfer (Faster Payments, CHAPS, or Bacs): Transfer the payment directly from your bank account. Ensure you use the correct VAT reference number to avoid delays.
  • Online Banking: Pay through your bank’s online banking services.
  • Debit or Corporate Credit Card: Pay online through the HMRC website using your card. Note that there may be a fee for using a corporate credit card.

Make sure you allow enough time for your payment to clear. Bank transfers typically take one working day (Faster Payments), but other methods like Bacs can take three working days. Note that, late filing or payment of VAT can result in significant penalties and interest charges.

VAT Accounting Schemes

VAT accounting schemes offer simplified accounting methods for eligible businesses. These schemes can help manage cash flow and reduce administrative burdens.

  • Flat Rate Scheme: Allows businesses with a turnover of £150,000 or less to pay a fixed percentage of their turnover as VAT. This simplifies record-keeping since there’s no need to track VAT on every purchase.
  • Cash Accounting Scheme: Businesses only pay VAT when they receive payment from their customers, rather than when they issue an invoice. This helps with cash flow management.
  • Annual Accounting Scheme: Suitable for businesses with a turnover of up to £1.35 million. Instead of quarterly returns, businesses make advance VAT payments based on estimated liability and submit one annual return.
Scheme Threshold to join scheme Threshold to leave scheme
Flat Rate Scheme £150,000 or less More than £230,000
Cash Accounting Scheme £1.35 million or less More than £1.6 million
Annual Accounting Scheme £1.35 million or less More than £1.6 million

Keeping VAT Records

Businesses registered for VAT must keep specific records to support their VAT returns and comply with HMRC requirements. These records include:

  • Record everything you buy and sell, including items with zero VAT, reduced VAT, or VAT exemptions.
  • Maintain copies of all invoices you send out.
  • Keep records of all invoices you receive, whether they are in paper or electronic form.
  • A VAT account summarizing VAT charged on sales (output tax) and VAT paid on purchases (input tax).
  • Document any self-billing agreements where the customer creates the invoice.
  • Note down the name, address, and VAT number of any suppliers involved in self-billing.
  • Keep track of any debit or credit notes issued.
  • Record any goods taken from stock for personal use or given away.
  • Maintain general business records such as bank statements, cash books, cheque stubs, paying-in slips, and till rolls.

Tips for Maintaining Accurate and Compliant Records

To ensure VAT compliance and streamline record-keeping processes, consider the following best practices:

  1. Use Accounting Software: Use VAT-compatible accounting software to automate calculations and record-keeping tasks. Many software are compatible with HMRC's Making Tax Digital (MTD) initiative, which requires businesses to keep digital records and submit VAT returns using compatible software.
  2. Regular Reconciliation: Regularly reconcile your VAT account with your financial statements to identify and correct discrepancies promptly. This helps in maintaining accurate records and avoiding errors in VAT returns.
  3. Document Retention: Store VAT records securely for at least six years following the end of the accounting period they relate to.
  4. Stay Informed on VAT Changes: VAT rules and rates can change. Staying informed about updates from HMRC ensures that your business remains compliant and applies the correct rates and regulations.
  5. Seek Professional Advice: VAT can be complex, especially for businesses with diverse transactions or international trade. Consulting with a VAT specialist or small business accountant can provide valuable guidance and help manage complex VAT issues.

VAT Advice from GoForma

Understanding VAT regulations can be complex, but with proper planning, the right tools, and expert guidance, businesses can manage VAT effectively. Consider hiring our small business accountants who specialize in VAT management. From seamless VAT registration and selecting the right VAT accounting scheme to ensuring accurate recordkeeping and expertly handling complex transactions, our accountants are your partners in financial success. Don't let VAT complexities hinder your business growth—Book a free consultation today and take the next step towards financial excellence.

Frequently Asked Questions on VAT (Value-Added Tax):

1. How much is UK VAT?

VAT in the UK is a tax on the sale of goods and services. The standard rate is 20%, but there are also reduced rates of 5% and 0% for certain items.

2. What is VAT in simple terms?

VAT, or Value Added Tax, is a tax added to the price of most goods and services sold in the UK. It’s a consumption tax, meaning it is paid by the end consumer.

3. Who pays VAT and why?

Consumers pay VAT when they buy goods and services. Businesses collect this tax on behalf of the government and then pass it on to HMRC. This helps fund public services.

4. What is VAT tax charged on?

VAT is charged on most goods and services sold in the UK. This includes items like clothing, electronics, and restaurant meals, as well as services like repairs and professional advice. Certain goods and services, such as food and children’s clothing, may be charged at reduced rates or be zero-rated.

5. Can I claim VAT back?

Yes, if you're a VAT-registered business, you can claim back the VAT you've paid on business-related purchases and expenses. This process is known as reclaiming input tax.

6. Is the first £90,000 VAT free?

Yes, businesses do not need to register for VAT or charge it until their taxable turnover exceeds £90,000 in a 12-month period. This threshold allows smaller businesses to be VAT-free until they reach that level of income.

7. How much VAT do I pay?

In the UK, the standard VAT rate is 20%. However, some items may be charged at a reduced rate of 5%, or be zero-rated, meaning you pay no VAT on them. The exact amount of VAT you pay depends on the VAT rate applicable to the goods or services you purchase.

8. How does VAT work?

VAT works by adding a percentage to the price of goods and services. Businesses charge VAT on their sales (output tax) and pay VAT on their purchases (input tax). They then submit VAT returns to HMRC, where they report the VAT charged and paid. If the output tax exceeds the input tax, the business pays the difference to HMRC. If the input tax is higher, they can reclaim the difference from HMRC.

9. Do I pay VAT on profit or turnover?

You pay VAT on turnover, not profit. VAT is calculated on the total sales of goods and services, regardless of whether the business makes a profit or loss.

10. When can I stop paying VAT?

You can stop paying VAT when you deregister from VAT with HMRC. This typically happens if your taxable turnover drops below the deregistration threshold, which is currently £88,000 in the UK. Once deregistered, you no longer charge VAT on your sales or reclaim VAT on your purchases.

11. What is my VAT number?

Your VAT number is a unique identification number assigned to your business when you register for VAT with HMRC. It is 9 digits longs and usually starts with GB. It is used for communication with HMRC regarding VAT matters, for issuing VAT invoices, and for other official purposes related to VAT compliance. If you are VAT registered, your VAT number will be included on your VAT registration certificate.

12. What is VAT registration threshold?

The VAT registration threshold is the turnover threshold at which businesses in the UK must register for VAT with HMRC. As of the 2024/25 tax year, businesses must register for VAT if their taxable turnover exceeds £90,000 over a 12-month period. Once registered, businesses must charge VAT on their taxable supplies and can reclaim VAT on their eligible business expenses.

Read more of our free business tax guides

Free business accounting consultation for contractors, freelancers, self employed and limited companies

Speak to a tax accountant

Get a free 20 minute consultation about your business tax queries

Business accounting from £35