Tax guide for the self-employed: all you need to know


Updated on 23 February 2021

Entrepreneurs don't have the time to trawl through thousands of HMRC documents, so we've pulled together everything you need to know when it comes to tax and small business.

Importance of keeping on top of taxes

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing…

That’s what some annoying HMRC adverts claim, but the reality is that dealing with taxation is a major burden for entrepreneurs.

In fact, the average small business loses three working weeks every year to tax compliance, according to research by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in 2018.

The study revealed a whopping 45 hours were spent on VAT, 30 hours on Pay as You Earn (PAYE), 20 sorting out employer National Insurance contributions, 16 on Income Tax, and 15 on Corporation Tax.

It also costs firms £5,000 a year to collect data, keep records, file returns, make payments and liaise with the relevant tax authorities.

It’s a reality that Martin McTague, policy director at FSB, would like to change as he insists small businesses deserve a tax system that supports their growth and ambitions.

“The UK tax system is undeniably complicated,” said McTague.

“Many small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs have limited time and resources, which poses a particular challenge when dealing with complex calculation and reporting processes.”

So, what taxes will you need to consider if you’re starting a business?

This will largely depend on the structure of your business as different rules apply to sole traders, partnerships and limited companies. There may also be industry specific levies.

The main ones to consider will be Income Tax and, potentially, VAT for a sole trader, as well as PAYE if you have employees. In addition, limited companies will pay Corporation Tax.

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Advice for entrepreneurs

It’s important to understand the rules and not ignore any communication from HMRC, according to Paula Tomlinson, director of On The Spot Accountants.

“Take it seriously and open all the brown envelopes as it won’t go away and delays can cost penalties and interest,” warned Tomlinson.

“If you don’t understand something, either appoint a bookkeeper or accountant.”

When providing information to HMRC, make sure you understand the implications of what you’re saying. If you don’t feel confident in this respect, consider professional help.

“Good bookkeepers and accountants know how to navigate the system correctly,” she said.

“A good accountant never costs you any money!”

Tomlinson suggests if you don’t have a budget for a qualified accountant, start with a good bookkeeper who can deal with a lot of taxes for a while.

“Entrepreneurs should ideally focus on growing their business and pay for good business and tax advice from experts,” she added.

“Stick to what you’re good at!”

You can find more information about different business taxes here.

Working in specific trades

There are certain industries in which different rules apply.

One example is construction. Under the Construction Industry Scheme, contractors deduct money from a subcontractor’s payments and pass it to HMRC.

The deductions count as advance payments towards the subcontractor’s tax and National Insurance (NI). While contractors must register for the scheme, subcontractors aren’t obliged.

But those that don’t will find that deductions are taken from their payments at a higher rate than would have been the case.

Work covered by this scheme includes the construction of permanent or temporary buildings, demolition work, alterations and system installations.

You can find out more information about the Construction Industry Scheme here.

Another industry where rules differ is if you’re a share fisherman.

This is defined as someone that’s not employed under a contract of service; a master or crew member of a British fishing boat manned by more than one person, and get all or part of your pay by sharing the profits or gross earnings of the vessel.

Share fishermen have complicated tax arrangements (image: Shutterstock)

Those who used to work on a British fishing boat, but now work ashore, also come under the umbrella term of share fishermen.

A share fisherman is classed as self-employed and must register as such with HMRC within three months of starting fishing.

They are obliged to fill out an annual Self-Assessment tax return each year and register to pay Class 2 National Insurance contributions.

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National Insurance Contributions

These are paid in order to qualify for certain benefits and the State Pension. There are different classes of National Insurance, depending on your situation and earnings.

Generally, any employee over 16 years old who is earning above £183 a week will pay, as well as the self-employed making a profit of over £6,475 per year (at the time of writing).

Personal Income Tax

This is a tax on your income – aside from benefits such as the first £1,000 of both income from self-employment and income from a property you rent (unless you’re using the Rent a Room scheme).

The amount you will pay also depends on factors such as tax reliefs, including pension contributions and charity donations.

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VAT

You must register your business for VAT with HMRC if its VAT taxable turnover – defined as the total of everything you sell that’s not exempt from VAT – is more than £85,000.

You might pay less VAT if you work in the hospitality and tourism industries as the rate was temporarily slashed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Once you have registered, you must charge the right amount, pay any due to HMRC and submit VAT returns, as well as keeping VAT records and a VAT account.

If your turnover is less than this figure, you can still register voluntarily, which could be beneficial if you buy goods from VAT-registered suppliers as you can claim back the VAT.

VAT rules can vary depending on the industry so check with HMRC about your particular circumstances.

PAYE for employees

Employers have to operate the PAYE scheme, which is the system to collect Income Tax and National Insurance from employment.

You will also have to keep records, including how much you pay employees, the deductions you make, employee absences, and reports/payments you make to HMRC.

The payments to your employees will include their salary or wages, as well as any tips, bonuses, Statutory Sick Pay or maternity pay.

It will be up to you to deduct tax and National Insurance for employees – and these may include student loan repayments and pension contributions.

You’ll need to report your employees’ payments and deductions to HMRC on – or before – each payday. You can use software packages to work out how much tax and National Insurance is owed.

Corporation Tax

You must pay Corporation Tax on profits if you are a limited company, a foreign company with a UK office, or a club/co-operative or unincorporated association such as a sports club.

The first step is to register for Corporation Tax, which is part of the process when you set up your company via Companies House and needs to be done within three months of starting your business.

You will then need to keep accounting records, which includes details of all money received and spent by the company, as well as assets and debts owed.

In addition, you will have to keep other financial records to prepare and file your annual accounts and company tax return.

These will include all money spent and received by the company, as well as relevant documents such as bank statements.

Failure to keep proper accounting records could see you disqualified as a company director and fined £3,000 by HMRC.

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Miscellaneous taxes

Depending on the industry in which your business operates, there may be other levies to consider.

For example, Gaming Duty is paid on casino gaming profits in the UK. If you offer gaming over the internet, you’ll be liable to pay remote Gaming Duty.

If your business gets rid of a lot of waste, you may need to pay Landfill Tax. The rate you will be charged depends on the weight and type of waste.

This is why it’s important to factor various taxations into your initial business plans before starting to work for yourself.

Don't forget about Landfill Tax (image: Shutterstock)

Business Rates

This is a tax on properties used for business purposes and is usually charged on shops, offices, pubs, warehouses and factories.

Last year, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a temporary business rates holiday for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which could be extended, according to media reports.

If you're not eligible for the business rates holiday, your local council will send you a bill in February or March for the following tax year.

It’s possible you may qualify for Business Rates Relief – but if you do, then you’ll probably still need to apply as it’s not always applied automatically.

Certain properties are exempt from business rates, including agricultural land and buildings, those used for training, and sites registered for public religious worship.

Any queries will need to go to the council or the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) if you think your rateable value is wrong.

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Capital Gains Tax

You have to pay CGT if you make a profit when you sell all or part of a business asset. This can include land and buildings, goodwill, and registered trademarks.

This will be applicable if you’re a self-employed sole trader or in a partnership. If you have a limited company, you will pay Corporation Tax on profits from selling assets.

The gain is effectively the difference between what you paid for your business asset and how much you received from selling it.

But you can deduct certain costs of buying, selling or improving this asset, including valuation fees and Stamp Duty Land Tax.

Closing down your business

For sole traders, it’s very simple and, if sold at a profit, CGT at only 10% should apply, according to Tomlinson.

“For limited companies, the best result is usually to sell shares in the company so that, CGT at 10% applies,” she said.

If a company is liquidated, CGT should also apply.

“However, for a simple striking off, some funds taken out may be subject to Income Tax on dividends, which could be taxed at 7.5%/32.5%/38.1% depending on the amounts involved,” she added.

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