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  • Writer's pictureIrina Inayat

A Beginner's Guide to Understanding VAT (Value Added Tax)

VAT (Value Added Tax) is a crucial component of the UK's taxation system, being one of the three largest taxation sources of the UK government. For companies that are just starting out, the concept of VAT can seem daunting, but with a clear understanding of its basics, you can navigate this with confidence. 

This guide aims to demystify VAT, explaining what it is, how it works, and its implications for businesses and consumers.

What is VAT?

VAT is a consumption tax that is imposed on goods and services in the UK. It is a type of indirect tax, meaning that businesses need to charge VAT on their goods and services on behalf of the government and pay the VAT to HMRC. 

VAT is charged as a percentage of the sale price of goods and services. The standard rate of VAT in the UK is 20%, though there are reduced rates of 5% and 0% for certain items. For example, domestic fuel and power are subject to a 5% VAT rate, while most food and children's clothing are zero-rated. Some goods and services are exempt from VAT, such as insurance, financial services, and education. 

The VAT Process

Registration: Businesses with a taxable turnover above £90,000 must register for VAT. Businesses with a taxable turnover less than the threshold need not charge VAT on their goods and services and do not need to register with HMRC. Once companies have registered with HMRC, they will receive a VAT registration certificate, including their VAT number. 

Issuing VAT Invoices: Once registered, businesses must issue VAT invoices for their sales, showing the VAT charged separately.

Collecting VAT: The business collects VAT from customers at the point of sale. After which, registered businesses must submit regular VAT returns to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), detailing the VAT collected and paid. While customers are the ones paying VAT, it is the responsibility of businesses to pay this VAT to HMRC correctly. 

Reclaiming VAT: For business-related purchases, businesses can reclaim the VAT they pay on those goods and services, called input tax.

VAT Compliance 

As a legal obligation for businesses, it is important for businesses to adhere to the rules regarding VAT to avoid penalties or repercussions. For late registration, HMRC can issue penalties of up to 15% of the VAT due. They can also levy penalties if VAT payments are not received or if taxes are understated or over-claimed by businesses. 

With these penalties, it is important for businesses to ensure that they have accurate record-keeping for VAT compliance. Businesses must keep detailed records of all sales and purchases, VAT invoices, and VAT returns for at least six years. Now with the advent of digital taxation, HMRC's Making Tax Digital (MTD) initiative requires businesses to keep digital records and submit VAT returns using compatible software.

Common VAT Challenges

Complexity: Navigating different VAT rates and exemptions can be complex, especially for businesses dealing with a wide range of products and services. There are VAT schemes designed to simplify how businesses calculate and account for VAT, which can be helpful for businesses. 

International Trade: VAT rules for imports and exports in and out of the country can add another layer of complexity. Businesses must be aware of different VAT treatments for goods and services traded within and outside the EU.

Changes and Updates: VAT regulations are subject to change, influenced by government policy and economic conditions. For instance, there was a recent increase to the tax threshold for businesses needing to register, this threshold was £85,000 before 1 April 2024. Staying informed about such changes is crucial for staying compliant and effective business planning.

At the end of the day, understanding VAT is essential for businesses as it means ensuring compliance and managing finances effectively.

Whether you're starting a new business, managing an existing one, or simply looking to understand how VAT impacts your business purchases, staying informed and compliant with VAT regulations is important. 

For new businesses who are unsure of how to approach VAT registration or compliance, working with an experienced accountant like Penn Accounts can make staying financially compliant as simple as possible. 

Irina Inayat

0207 183 6623 


The information provided in this article is not intended to constitute professional advice and you should take full and comprehensive legal, accountancy or financial advice as appropriate on your individual circumstances by a fully qualified Solicitor, Accountant or Financial Advisor/Mortgage Broker before you embark on any course of action. 


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