What is VAT? Our Guide to Value-Added Tax in 2024

Please note that this article is intended for educational purposes only and should not be deemed to be or used as legal, employment, or health & safety advice. For guidance or advice specific to your business, consult with a qualified professional.

Running your own business inevitably changes your perspective on value-added tax (VAT). As well as impacting company accounting and cash flow, registering for VAT has a wealth of compliance factors to be aware of.

In the wake of Brexit, legislation around VAT is constantly changing. In this VAT guide, we look at everything businesses need to know about VAT registration and compliance in this ever-shifting legislative landscape.

What is VAT?

VAT is a form of consumption tax – a tax applied to purchases of goods or services and other ‘taxable supplies’. For a business, VAT plays an important role and can be charged on a range of your goods and services. Charities will have different rules governing their VAT. But for many businesses, areas that are taxable include:

  • sales of your goods and/or services

  • the hire or loan of your goods

  • commission

  • exchanges

  • staff sales, e.g. staff meals

  • business goods you use personally

  • the sale of business assets

VAT is a tax which is ultimately paid by the consumer, and is not a tax on individual businesses. VAT is typically included on business invoices. POS systems can also be programmed to add VAT to product prices and aggregate VAT.

While businesses pay VAT to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the actual cost has already been paid by the customer, covered by the purchase price of goods or services bought. As such, it is an indirect tax, but businesses are still required to report it to HMRC.

What is the VAT Threshold? Do I Need to Register my Business?

If your business turnover is more than £85,000, this is the threshold at which you are legally required to register for VAT. This will require you to charge VAT on all services or goods offered by your business. Note that you can only charge VAT if you are registered to do so. Businesses must register for VAT whether they are incorporated or are sole traders, whether they pay corporation tax or not.

Businesses with revenue below this threshold may also benefit from registering for VAT. VAT registration allows businesses to reclaim VAT on goods and services purchased by your business. It can also make your small businesses appear more established.

What is My VAT Number?

Company VAT numbers are given only to VAT-registered businesses and can be found on your business’ VAT registration certificate. This important piece of paperwork will also outline when your first VAT return is due and the date from which your company went over the UK VAT registration threshold and therefore became required to register.

What are My VAT Responsibilities?

As a VAT-registered company, you must charge VAT on your goods or services, and can also reclaim VAT on those you have purchased for business-related purposes. Businesses are also legally required to provide a VAT invoice which includes sales tax whenever a sale is made. The only exception to this is in-person sales where a receipt of goods is adequate. However, businesses must still provide a VAT receipt to any customer that asks for one.

VAT charged by your business is calculated on the full value of what it is you sell. VAT must be applied to sales even if you operate based on an exchange or part-exchange basis. If you charge a customer without the inclusion of VAT, the sales price you do charge will still be considered inclusive of VAT by HMRC.

VAT-registered businesses must report the amount of VAT they have charged or paid to HRMC via a VAT return usually completed once every 3 months. You must complete this even if you have no VAT to report.

Over-charges of VAT by you to the customer must be paid to HMRC. If you have paid more VAT than you have charged your customers then this difference can be reclaimed from HMRC.

What is the Current Rate of VAT?

In 2024, the VAT rates for goods and services remain unchanged from the previous year. Rates are as follows:

Rate % of VAT Applicable to
Standard 20 The majority of goods and services
Reduced 5 Select goods and services including domestic energy bills, residential property conversions and children’s car seats
Zero 0 Zero-rated goods and services e.g. children’s clothing

What is Exempt from VAT?

The rate of VAT depends on the nature of the good or service being purchased. Some services and goods are in fact VAT-exempt. These are typically items that are considered essential for day-to-day living. These include:

  • education or training

  • sporting activities and physical education

  • charitable fundraising

  • selling or letting commercial properties

  • insurance and finance services

  • and postage stamps

You can see precisely which level of VAT relates to which type of service or product on the gov.uk website.

What is the Difference Between ‘Zero-Rate’ and ‘VAT-Exempt’?

Zero-rated supplies are not charged VAT in a traditional sense but at the rate of 0%, allowing businesses which supply these items or services to recover the VAT on their business overheads and costs. VAT-exempt supplies are not eligible for VAT reclaims.

Some examples of zero-rated products include:

  • children’s clothing

  • footwear

  • water

  • basic unprocessed or raw foods

  • books and newspapers

  • period products

  • energy-saving technologies such as solar panels

The key difference between zero-VAT and VAT-exempt products is that zero-rated products are still considered part of a company’s taxable revenue on the company’s tax return, while VAT-exempt products are not.

If your business offers only VAT-exempt supplies then you are not required to register for VAT.

What Can I Reclaim VAT On?

Businesses can reclaim VAT on goods or services used specifically for their operation. Claiming VAT back is possible for things such as

  • Staff travel

  • Mobile service plans used for business calls

  • Vehicles used only for business

  • Fuel, accessories and maintenance for said vehicles

  • Utility bills if you are a home business (proportional to the percentage of utilities used for business needs)

Some things are not eligible for VAT reclaims, these include:

  • Entertainment costs

  • Anything that is purely for private use

  • Business assets transferred to you as a going concern

More information on VAT reclaims can be found on the gov.uk website.

Changes to VAT After Brexit

The domestic VAT rules affecting your business should stay the same following the UK’s departure from the European Union in 2021. Things are now a little more complex if you regularly import and export goods to or from the continent. Below are the key changes to VAT following Brexit.

New rules around EU import VAT

The UK left the EU’s VAT regime at the beginning of 2021. This means countries within the EU are now treated the same as those outside the EU when it comes to value-added tax. In other words, any goods coming in from the EU and elsewhere must now account for import VAT if they’re valued above £135.

Goods become subject to import VAT when they enter free circulation – for example when they’re going through a UK port. Your business can choose to pay the import VAT at this stage and later reclaim it from HMRC using C79 certificates.

Alternatively, you can now take advantage of a ‘postponed accounting’ system for VAT, introduced by the Government in January 2021. In a nutshell, it gives you the chance to account for any import VAT using your VAT return instead. It means you don’t have to pay the tax as soon as your goods arrive in the UK and then reclaim them.

If your company imports EU goods with a value under £135, you should declare the value-added tax on your next VAT return using the reverse charge procedure.

Reforms to EU export VAT

If your business sends goods across the Channel, you’ll need to know the EU export VAT rules, which came into force in January 2021.

Since EU countries are now treated the same as those outside the EU, your exports to Europe will be zero-rated for UK VAT – with a 0% rate applying. It means you won’t pay UK value-added tax on your goods, although they’ll still need to be included in your VAT accounting.

It’s important to note that if you’re sending goods directly to consumers on the continent, you’ll need to research whether EU VAT registration is required in the countries you serve.

Why Northern Ireland’s trade rules are different

The Brexit deal agreed upon between Britain and the EU handed a special trade status to Northern Ireland. The aim was to avoid a hard customs border on the island of Ireland. This might be something to factor into your VAT planning, with more information available from the official government website.

Square Invoices

Get paid faster with online invoices.

New changes to VAT in 2024

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt made few references to changes in VAT for 2024 in his autumn budget in November of 2023.

While mentions of VAT were sparse in the statement, changes for 2024 include:

expanding the scope of zero-rating to more energy-saving technologies (e.g. water-source heat pumps)
the zero rate on period products is to be extended to reusable products
buildings used solely for a relevant charitable purpose will be eligible for VAT relief from 1 February 2024 to 1 April 2027

Start Growing Your Business with Square

Sign up for a free Square account today - no long-term contracts or hidden fees.