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Self-employed VAT return

Find out what VAT is, how it works and whether you need to register to pay VAT as a self-employed person.

In this article
What is VAT and how does it work? What is the VAT threshold? How do I register for VAT? How much VAT should I charge? What are the benefits of registering for VAT? When do I have to make VAT returns to HMRC?
What happens if I’m late paying or submitting my VAT return? VAT return penalties What if I pay too little VAT? What if I pay too much VAT? What is the flat-rate VAT scheme?

What is VAT and how does it work?

Value Added Tax (VAT) is a tax charged on traders that they recover from their customers.

The VAT rate that businesses charge depends on what goods and services they sell.

VAT is charged on just about everything you can buy – and the goods and services you charge for as a self-employed person are no different.

You charge VAT to whoever is buying your goods and services, and then have to hand it over to HMRC in a VAT return – these are usually done quarterly.

Some goods and services are exempt from VAT. These include:

  • Insurance
  • Postage stamps or services 
  • Health services provided by doctors

Get a head start on your 2017-18 tax return with the Which? tax calculator. Tot up your tax bill, get tips on where to save and submit your return direct to HMRC with Which?.

What is the VAT threshold?

You must register for VAT with HMRC if your business’ VAT taxable turnover – i.e. the total value of everything you sell that isn’t exempt from VAT - is more than £85,000 in 2017-18.

Up to this, you can register voluntarily, which may be worthwhile if you can claim a lot of VAT on items bought for your business.

How do I register for VAT?

You can register with HMRC online – this will create a VAT online account (sometimes called a ‘Government Gateway account’), which you’ll need to submit your VAT return.

There are some instances – usually to do with importing or selling from an EU business or country – where you have to register by post. HMRC outlines this fully in its guide to VAT registration.

How much VAT should I charge?

The VAT charged on goods and services can vary depending on what they are.

The current rates of VAT are outlined in the table below.

VAT rates for goods and services
Tax rate

% of VAT

What the rate applies to

Standard 20% Most goods and services
Reduced rate 5% Some goods and services, e.g. children's
car seats and home energy
Zero rate 0% Zero-rated goods and services, e.g. most
food and children's clothes

The full list of VAT notices can be found on HMRC.

When charging VAT you must always do the following:

  • Charge the correct rate of VAT
  • Show the VAT information on your invoice
  • Show the transaction in your VAT account – this is a summary of your VAT
  • Show the amount on your VAT return

If you don’t do all of these things correctly, you may not be able to claim back the VAT on purchases that relate to these sales – eg. Materials bought to provide goods to a customer.

You can only charge VAT if your business is registered for VAT.

You must account for VAT on the full value of what you sell. This is still the case if you receive goods or services instead of money, and if you haven’t charged any VAT to the customer. Whatever price you charge will be treated as including VAT by HMRC.

What are the benefits of registering for VAT?

Even if your business turnover doesn’t exceed £85,000, it can be a good idea to voluntarily register for VAT.

This is because you can claim the VAT tax back on purchases you make in order to run your business. This includes things like tools, laptops, travel and stationery.

You can’t claim back VAT unless you are VAT registered with HMRC.

When do I have to make VAT returns to HMRC?

You usually submit a VAT return every three months.

The return records figures for things such as:

  • Your sales and purchases
  • The amount of VAT you owe
  • The amount of VAT you can reclaim
  • Your VAT refund from HMRC

If you’re registered for VAT, you must submit a VAT return even if you have no VAT to pay or reclaim.

It’s possible to sign up to get email reminders when your VAT return is due. You can do this by logging on to your VAT online account, following the link next to ‘VAT messages’ and adding your email address.

Useful link: See HMRC’s guide to submitting VAT returns

What happens if I’m late paying or submitting my VAT return?

If HMRC doesn’t receive your VAT return or your full VAT payment by the deadline, a ‘default’ will be recorded.

This means you may then enter a 12 month ‘surcharge period’. This is like a warning as you won’t get asked to pay a surcharge on your first default.  

However, if you default again within this surcharge period you may have to pay an extra amount on top of the VAT you owe, and the surcharge period will be extended by another 12 months.

The surcharge is a percentage of the VAT you owe. The surcharge rate increases each time you default again within that surcharge period.

There are a couple of exceptions. You won’t have to pay a surcharge if you submit a late VAT return and:

  • Pay your VAT in full by the due date.
  • Don’t owe any tax.
  • Are due a VAT repayment.

It’s always best to submit your VAT return on time to avoid any chance of having to pay a surcharge.

VAT return penalties

Even if you submit your VAT return and payment on time, HMRC may issue a penalty fine in the following instances:

  • If you send a VAT return that contains a careless or deliberate inaccuracy, HMRC can charge 100% of any tax that’s under-stated or over-claimed.
  • 30% of a ‘VAT notice of assessment of tax’ (which you will receive if you don’t submit a VAT return on time) if HMRC sends you a figure that’s too low and you don’t tell them it’s wrong within 30 days.
  • £400 if you submit a paper VAT return, unless you’ve been told you’re exempt from submitting your return online.

What if I pay too little VAT?

HMRC may charge you interest if you’ve reported and paid less VAT than you owe.

You’ll be charged 2.75% interest – HMRC will send you a notice telling you how much you owe, and how the figure has been worked out.

If you don’t pay within 30 days, further interest will be charged on the VAT – and this will continue up to a maximum of two years.

What if I pay too much VAT?

You may be able to claim interest from HMRC if there is a mistake on its part that means you’ve paid too much VAT, reclaimed too little VAT, or a payment you were expecting from HMRC was delayed.

You can claim 0.5% interest, usually paid for the whole period from when the VAT was overpaid. 

You have to claim the interest separately from the repayment itself by writing to HMRC with the details of the repayment. Any interest you receive counts as taxable income.

If HMRC’s mistake means your customers paid too much VAT, you must refund them as well.

What is the flat-rate VAT scheme?

If your turnover is less than £150,000 it could be worth considering the flat-rate VAT scheme.

Under this scheme you pay a fixed rate of VAT to HMRC and keep the difference between what you charge your customers and pay to HMRC.

Your flat rate depends on your business type, and you’ll get a 1% discount in your first year as a VAT-registered business.

However, you can’t reclaim the VAT on you purchases – except on certain capital assets over £2,000.

This reduces admin and can be good value for small businesses.