top of page
  • Writer's picturePTA

What is Value-Added Tax (VAT) and How Does it Work?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

What is VAT?

Value-Added Tax (VAT) is a consumption tax levied on the purchase of goods and services in the UK. It is an indirect tax, meaning that while businesses collect VAT from consumers, the actual tax burden falls on the end consumer. VAT is applied to a wide range of goods and services, including sales, the hire or loan of goods, commission, and even staff meals. VAT is not a tax on businesses; rather, it is a tax that businesses collect on behalf of the government. Once collected, businesses are required to report and pay the VAT to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

What is Value-Added Tax (VAT) and How Does it Work

VAT Registration and Threshold

Businesses with a turnover exceeding £85,000 are legally required to register for VAT. Once registered, they must charge VAT on all their goods and services. Businesses below this threshold can also voluntarily register for VAT, which allows them to reclaim VAT on business-related purchases. VAT registration is not limited to incorporated businesses; sole traders must also register if they meet the threshold.

Types of VAT Rates in the UK

In the UK, there are three main types of VAT rates:

  1. Standard Rate: This is the most common rate, set at 20%. It applies to the majority of goods and services.

  2. Reduced Rate: At 5%, this rate applies to select goods and services, such as domestic energy bills and children’s car seats.

  3. Zero Rate: Some goods and services are zero-rated, meaning they are taxed at 0%. Examples include children’s clothing and basic unprocessed foods.

VAT-Exempt and Zero-Rated: What’s the Difference?

While both zero-rated and VAT-exempt goods and services don’t carry a VAT charge, they are different in terms of VAT reclaims. Businesses can reclaim VAT on zero-rated items, but not on VAT-exempt items. VAT-exempt items include education, sporting activities, and insurance services, among others.

VAT Responsibilities for Businesses

Businesses must issue a VAT invoice for every sale made, except for in-person sales where a receipt is adequate. They are also required to complete a VAT return usually every three months, even if no VAT has been collected or paid. Overcharges of VAT must be paid to HMRC, and if a business has paid more VAT than it has collected, the difference can be reclaimed from HMRC.

Post-Brexit Changes

Brexit has led to several changes in VAT laws, especially concerning imports and exports to and from the EU. For example, goods coming from the EU are now subject to import VAT if they’re valued above £135. Businesses can choose to pay the import VAT at the point of entry and later reclaim it from HMRC.

New Changes in 2023

In 2023, the UK introduced a point-based penalty system for late VAT returns and payments. Penalties for late payments will be calculated at 2% of outstanding VAT when payments are over 15 days outstanding, with a daily rate of 4% applicable to payments that have been outstanding for more than 30 days.

Understanding VAT is crucial for both businesses and consumers. It not only impacts pricing but also has several compliance requirements that businesses must adhere to. With the ever-changing legislative landscape, especially post-Brexit, staying updated on VAT laws is essential for business success.

Current Thresholds of VAT in the UK for 2023

Understanding the Value-Added Tax (VAT) system in the UK is crucial for businesses, especially in 2023 when several regulations and rates apply. VAT is a consumption tax that is added to the cost of goods and services. It is charged by VAT-registered businesses and is collected by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

VAT Registration Threshold

The VAT registration threshold for 2023 is £85,000. This threshold has been in place since 2017 and is expected to remain the same until 31 March 2024. If a business's taxable turnover exceeds this amount over any consecutive 12-month period, it is legally required to register for VAT. Failure to register on time may result in late registration penalties and 'failure to notify' penalties.

Voluntary VAT Registration

Businesses with a turnover below the £85,000 threshold can also register for VAT voluntarily. This is often beneficial if the business's customers are other VAT-registered businesses, as they can reclaim the VAT charged. Voluntary registration is also advantageous for businesses that are often in a refund position with HMRC.

VAT Rates

The UK has different VAT rates for various goods and services:

  • Standard Rate: 20% (applies to most goods and services)

  • Reduced Rate: 5% (applies to some goods and services like children's car seats and home energy)

  • Zero Rate: 0% (applies to zero-rated goods and services like most food and children's clothes)

Business Behavior Around the VAT Threshold

Interestingly, many small businesses and sole traders cluster just below the VAT threshold of £85,000. This has led to debates and discussions, especially considering the UK's economic growth. Some businesses deliberately choose to keep their turnover below the threshold to avoid the complexities and costs associated with VAT registration.

International Comparison

The UK's VAT threshold is relatively high compared to other European countries. For example, Spain, Italy, and Greece have no domestic thresholds, while Germany has a threshold of €22,000 (£19,000). This has led to a greater proportion of actively trading businesses across Europe being registered for VAT compared to the UK.

How Does Value-Added Tax (VAT) Work in the UK?

The Role of VAT-Registered Businesses

Once a business is VAT-registered, it has several responsibilities. These include charging VAT on goods and services, reclaiming VAT on business-related purchases, and reporting the amount of VAT charged and paid to HMRC usually every three months via a VAT return. Businesses must also provide a VAT invoice for every sale made, except for in-person sales where a receipt is sufficient. However, a VAT receipt must still be provided if a customer requests one.

The Mechanics of VAT

The VAT a business pays to HMRC is usually the difference between the VAT charged to customers and the VAT paid to other businesses. If a business has charged more VAT than it has paid, the difference must be paid to HMRC. Conversely, if a business has paid more VAT than it has charged, HMRC will usually repay the difference.

VAT After Brexit

Post-Brexit, the UK has seen several changes in VAT legislation. For instance, goods coming from the EU are now subject to import VAT if valued above £135. Businesses can either pay this upfront or use a 'postponed accounting' system to account for it in their VAT return. For exports to the EU, the goods will be zero-rated for UK VAT, meaning no UK VAT will be charged, although they still need to be included in VAT accounting.

New Changes in 2023

Starting from 2023, a point-based penalty system will be introduced for late VAT returns and payments. Penalties for late payments will be calculated at 2% of the outstanding VAT when payments are over 15 days late, with a daily rate of 4% applicable to payments more than 30 days late.

VAT Reclaims

Businesses can reclaim VAT on specific operational expenses like staff travel, mobile service plans used for business calls, and vehicles used solely for business purposes. However, VAT cannot be reclaimed on entertainment costs or anything used purely for private use.

Zero-Rated vs VAT-Exempt

Zero-rated supplies are taxed at a rate of 0%, allowing businesses to recover the VAT on their overheads and costs. VAT-exempt supplies are not eligible for VAT reclaims. Zero-rated items include children’s clothing, basic unprocessed foods, and books. VAT-exempt items include education, sporting activities, and insurance services.

Detailed Table of VAT Rates

​Rate Type

% of VAT

​Applicable To



​Majority of goods and services



​Select goods like domestic energy bills, residential property conversions, and children’s car seats



​Zero-rated goods like children’s clothing



​Services like education, sporting activities, and insurance services

By understanding the intricacies of how VAT works in the UK, especially the changes that have come into effect in 2023, businesses can ensure they are in full compliance with the law, thereby avoiding penalties and making the most of reclaim opportunities.

The Value-Added Tax (VAT) Exemptions in the UK

The Value-Added Tax (VAT) Exemptions in the UK in 2023

Understanding VAT Exemptions

In the UK, Value-Added Tax (VAT) is a significant revenue source for the government. However, not all goods and services are subject to this tax. Some are either zero-rated or completely exempt from VAT. Understanding the difference between zero-rated and VAT-exempt items is crucial for both consumers and businesses. While zero-rated items are taxed at 0% and allow businesses to reclaim VAT on any related purchases, VAT-exempt items are entirely outside the scope of VAT, and businesses cannot reclaim any VAT associated with them.

Categories of VAT-Exempt Goods and Services

  • Education and Training

Educational services provided by eligible institutions are generally exempt from VAT. This includes school education, vocational training, and certain types of adult education.

  • Health and Medical Services

Medical services provided by registered health professionals like doctors, nurses, and dentists are usually exempt from VAT. This also extends to medical tests and evaluations.

  • Insurance and Finance

Financial services, including banking and insurance, are generally exempt from VAT. This category includes loan arrangement services, credit granting services, and the provision of insurance and reinsurance.

  • Charitable Fundraising

Charitable organizations often engage in fundraising activities that are exempt from VAT. However, this exemption has specific conditions that must be met, such as the charity being registered and the fundraising event being occasional.

  • Property Transactions

The sale or lease of commercial properties is generally exempt from VAT, although the seller or lessor can opt to charge VAT if they wish.

  • Sporting Activities

Sporting services provided by non-profit organizations are usually exempt from VAT. This includes membership fees for sports clubs and charges for playing sports like golf or tennis.

  • Postal Services

The provision of universal postal services by the Royal Mail is exempt from VAT. However, this does not extend to all courier services, which may still be subject to VAT.

  • Cultural Services

Admission charges to certain cultural sites like museums, art galleries, and zoos may be exempt from VAT if provided by eligible bodies.

  • Public Transport

Public transport services like bus and train fares are generally exempt from VAT to encourage the use of public transportation.

  • Betting and Gaming

Activities related to betting, gaming, and lotteries are generally exempt from VAT. This includes the sale of lottery tickets and charges for participating in games of chance.

Comprehensive List of VAT-Exempt Items and Services

  1. School education

  2. Vocational training

  3. Adult education by eligible bodies

  4. Medical services by registered professionals

  5. Medical tests and evaluations

  6. Insurance services

  7. Financial services

  8. Charitable fundraising by registered charities

  9. Sale or lease of commercial properties

  10. Membership fees for non-profit sports clubs

  11. Charges for playing sports at non-profit facilities

  12. Universal postal services by the Royal Mail

  13. Admission to cultural sites by eligible bodies

  14. Public bus fares

  15. Public train fares

  16. Betting activities

  17. Gaming activities

  18. Sale of lottery tickets

Understanding VAT exemptions is crucial for businesses to ensure compliance with tax regulations and for consumers to be aware of the actual costs of goods and services. The list of VAT-exempt items and services is extensive and varies based on several factors, including the provider of the service and the nature of the goods. Therefore, it's essential to consult the latest guidelines from HMRC to confirm the VAT status of any particular item or service.

What is VAT Point-Based Penalty System in the UK in 2023?

The VAT Point-Based Penalty System in the UK is a new framework introduced to penalize late submissions of VAT returns. This system came into effect on January 1, 2023, and is designed to replace the previous VAT default surcharge system. The new system is more structured and aims to encourage timely submissions by implementing a points-based penalty mechanism.

How the System Works

The point-based penalty system operates on accumulating penalty points for each late VAT return submission. Once a business reaches a certain threshold of penalty points, a financial penalty is imposed. Specifically, a £200 penalty is levied upon reaching the threshold, and an additional £200 penalty is applied for each subsequent late submission while the business remains at the threshold.

Penalty Points Threshold

The threshold for penalty points varies depending on the accounting period of the business:

· Annual Accounting Period: Threshold is 2 points

· Quarterly Accounting Period: Threshold is 4 points

· Monthly Accounting Period: Threshold is 5 points

For businesses using non-standard accounting periods, the rules differ slightly but align closely with the standard accounting periods.

Example Scenario

For instance, a business that submits VAT returns quarterly and has already accumulated three penalty points will receive a fourth penalty point for their next late submission. This will trigger a £200 penalty as they would have reached the threshold of 4 points.

Adjustments and Appeals

If a business changes its accounting period, the threshold and existing penalty points will be adjusted accordingly. These adjustments are not subject to appeal. Penalty points will expire automatically roughly two years after the date the relevant return was due, provided the threshold has not been reached.

Late Payment Penalties

Apart from late submission penalties, businesses are also subject to late payment interest charges. The interest is calculated from the first day the payment is overdue until the day it's paid in full, at the Bank of England base rate plus 2.5%. Additional penalties are imposed if the payment is more than 15 days late.

How to Remove Penalty Points

To remove penalty points and avoid further £200 penalties, businesses must complete a "period of compliance," submitting all returns by their deadlines and clearing any outstanding returns for the previous 24 months.

Appeals and Reviews

If a business receives a penalty, it will be notified via a penalty decision letter from HMRC. This letter will offer a review and outline of the appeal process. Appeals can be made online or by sending a signed letter to HMRC within 30 days from the date the penalty was issued.

Special Cases

The new rules do not apply to the first VAT return for newly registered businesses or the final VAT return upon canceling VAT registration. Also, one-off VAT returns covering non-standard periods are exempt from these rules.

By understanding the intricacies of the VAT Point-Based Penalty System, businesses can better navigate their tax obligations and avoid unnecessary financial burdens.

How to Work Out VAT from Gross in the UK

Understanding how to calculate Value-Added Tax (VAT) from a gross amount is crucial for both business owners and consumers in the UK. This guide simplifies the process, making it easier for you to manage your finances effectively.

Understanding VAT Thresholds in the UK

Before you start calculating VAT, it's essential to know the current VAT thresholds. In the UK, if your total taxable turnover exceeds £85,000, you must register for VAT. This rule applies whether you're trading within the UK or importing goods into Northern Ireland from the EU. There are also specific thresholds for different VAT accounting schemes like the Flat Rate Scheme, Cash Accounting Scheme, and Annual Accounting Scheme. Knowing these thresholds helps you understand whether you need to register for VAT and which accounting scheme might be best for you.

The Simple Formula for Calculating VAT

Calculating VAT from a gross amount doesn't have to be complicated. You can use a straightforward formula to find out how much VAT you've paid on a purchase. The formula is:

VAT Paid = Total Amount (Gross) - (Total Amount / (1 + VAT Rate / 100)) This formula allows you to find out the VAT portion from the total or gross amount you've paid for a product or service.

Practical Example to Illustrate the Formula

Let's say you've bought a piece of furniture for £120, and the VAT rate is 20%. To find out how much VAT you've paid, you can use the formula as follows: VAT Paid = £120 - (£120 / (1 + 20 / 100)) VAT Paid = £120 - (£120 / 1.2) VAT Paid = £120 - £100 VAT Paid = £20 So, you've paid £20 as VAT for the furniture. This formula makes it easy to determine the VAT portion of any purchase.

Why Professional Help is Important

Calculating VAT and understanding the thresholds can be a bit complex, especially for businesses. That's why it's often beneficial to seek professional help from a tax accountant. They can guide you through the VAT registration process, help you understand your obligations, and even assist in VAT planning and risk mitigation. A tax accountant can also help you navigate the complexities of VAT laws, ensuring that you're compliant and minimizing the risk of penalties.

Understanding how to calculate VAT from a gross amount is essential for financial management, whether you're a consumer or a business owner. By knowing the VAT thresholds and using a simple formula, you can easily find out how much VAT you've paid on your purchases. And if you find the process too complicated, don't hesitate to seek professional help. A tax accountant can provide valuable insights and make the process much more manageable.

How a Tax Accountant Can Help You with VAT Payments and VAT Exemptions in the UK?

The Complexity of VAT in the UK

The Value-Added Tax (VAT) system in the UK is a complex landscape that requires a deep understanding of tax laws, rates, and exemptions. For businesses, especially those with a high volume of transactions or those dealing in specialized goods and services, navigating VAT can be a daunting task. This is where the expertise of a tax accountant comes into play.

Expert Guidance on VAT Registration

One of the first steps in dealing with VAT is determining whether your business needs to be VAT-registered. The current threshold for mandatory VAT registration is a taxable turnover of £85,000 over a 12-month period. A tax accountant can assess your business's financials to determine if you need to register for VAT or if voluntary registration would be beneficial. They can also guide you through the registration process, ensuring that all paperwork is correctly filled out and submitted on time.

Accurate VAT Calculations

Calculating the correct amount of VAT to charge on goods and services and reclaim on business purchases can be complicated. A tax accountant can help you set up an efficient accounting system that accurately tracks these amounts. They can also advise on the different VAT schemes available, such as the Flat Rate Scheme or the Cash Accounting Scheme, and help you choose the one that's most advantageous for your business.

Navigating VAT Exemptions and Zero-Rated Items

Understanding which goods and services are exempt from VAT or zero-rated is crucial for accurate tax reporting. A tax accountant can provide a comprehensive list of these items and help you understand the implications for your business. For example, if you deal in medical supplies, some items might be zero-rated, allowing you to reclaim VAT on related purchases. On the other hand, certain financial services are VAT-exempt, meaning you can't reclaim any VAT.

Timely VAT Returns and Payments

Filing VAT returns and making payments to HMRC is a regular obligation for VAT-registered businesses. A tax accountant can prepare and file these returns on your behalf, ensuring they are accurate and submitted before the deadline. This not only saves you time but also helps you avoid penalties for late or incorrect submissions.

Handling VAT Audits

In case your business is selected for a VAT audit by HMRC, having a tax accountant by your side can be invaluable. They can prepare all the necessary documentation, represent your business during the audit, and negotiate with tax authorities if any discrepancies are found.

Post-Brexit VAT Changes

Brexit has brought about several changes to the VAT system, especially concerning imports and exports between the UK and EU countries. A tax accountant can help you understand these changes and implement any required adjustments to your accounting practices.

Point-Based Penalty System in 2023

Starting from 2023, the UK has introduced a point-based penalty system for late VAT returns and payments. A tax accountant can help you understand this new system and ensure that you remain compliant to avoid penalties.

VAT Reclaims on Business Expenses

Certain business expenses, such as staff travel and mobile service plans, are eligible for VAT reclaims. A tax accountant can identify these opportunities and help you reclaim the maximum amount possible.

Long-Term VAT Strategy

Beyond immediate concerns, a tax accountant can help you develop a long-term VAT strategy. This could involve planning for business expansion, exploring VAT implications of diversifying into new goods or services, or optimizing your VAT recovery on capital assets.

By hiring a tax accountant to handle your VAT obligations, you're not just outsourcing a task; you're gaining a partner who can help you navigate the complexities of the UK's VAT system. Their expertise can save you time, prevent costly mistakes, and even uncover opportunities for financial savings.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page