Master Your Margins: A Guide to VAT for Small Businesses Explained Simply

"Master Your Margins" offers a comprehensive, straightforward guide to VAT for small businesses.

James Robson
January 16, 2024

If you’re running a small business, understanding VAT is essential but can often be confusing. This “A Guide to VAT for Small Businesses” is tailored to give you a clear understanding of VAT’s role within your business, including when and how to register, how to manage different rates and categories, how to file returns efficiently, and ways to prevent common errors and avoid penalties. With this guide, gain the confidence to navigate VAT matters with ease, ensuring your business remains compliant and financially sound.

Key Takeaways

  • VAT (Value Added Tax) is a tax applied to most goods and services, collected by businesses on revenue and offset by VAT paid on expenses. Over-collected VAT is remitted to the government, with mandatory registration required once sales reach a certain threshold, currently £85,000.
  • Businesses can voluntarily register for VAT even if their turnover is below the mandatory threshold, which can allow them to reclaim VAT on business purchases. VAT payments and returns must be timely filed and paid to avoid penalties, with several rates and categories, including standard (20%), reduced (5%), and zero rates, influencing the amount chargeable.
  • Making Tax Digital (MTD) requires VAT-registered businesses to maintain digital records and file VAT returns electronically using compatible software. This initiative is aimed at increasing the accuracy of tax records and efficiency of tax administration, with some businesses potentially qualifying for exemptions.

Understanding VAT: The Basics

VAT or Value Added Tax, as the name suggests, is a tax levied on the value added to goods and services. Often, businesses find themselves collecting more VAT from their customers than they pay to their suppliers, and this surplus is subsequently remitted to the government through periodic VAT returns. Introduced as a more uniform tax system with easier compliance, VAT generates significant revenue for the government.

VAT applies throughout the supply chain - from production to the final sale. While businesses compute the VAT owed on their revenue, they can also offset this with credits for VAT paid on expenses. This system contributes to VAT’s widespread adoption across many countries.

What is VAT?

Understanding VAT starts with understanding what it impacts. Primarily, VAT is levied on goods and services. Businesses can register for VAT online, which is the most common method for VAT registration. However, it’s important to note that not all goods and services fall under the VAT-able category. Activities such as:

  • the sale of goods
  • renting and hiring of goods
  • personal use of business stock
  • certain services like hairdressing

are subject to VAT.

Businesses pay VAT on these goods and services.

How does VAT work?

At its core, VAT operates on a simple principle: businesses charge VAT to their customers and pay it to their suppliers. Now, you might ask, “What happens when businesses collect more VAT than they pay?” Well, this is where VAT returns come into play. VAT-registered businesses are obligated to issue VAT invoices, file VAT returns, and adhere to specific VAT accounting schemes, making the payment of VAT an essential part of a business’s financial responsibilities.

In the VAT world, two key terms are ‘output tax’ and ‘input tax’. While output tax refers to the VAT charged on supplies or services provided by a business, input tax pertains to the VAT paid on business purchases and expenses. The difference between these two amounts determines how much VAT a business owes or can reclaim. This is where VAT invoices become crucial. These invoices need to be issued when a business sells goods or services to another VAT-registered business, ensuring proper documentation for VAT purposes.

Moreover, businesses need to keep detailed records of all transactions like:

  • bank statements
  • bills
  • receipts
  • cheque stubs

These records substantiate them for VAT filing and auditing purposes. However, note that not all business expenses are eligible for VAT reclaim, including certain types of cars, entertainment, and expenses related to supplying exempt goods and services.

VAT Registration: When and How

VAT registration process

Knowing when and how to register for VAT is fundamental for any business. The necessity to register for VAT arises when your business turnover reaches or is expected to reach a certain threshold. Businesses can register through various methods, with online registration being the most common one. However, there are alternative methods available if online registration is not feasible.

We’ll explore further into VAT registration, its thresholds, and the process involved.

VAT Threshold and Mandatory Registration

Every business owner needs to be aware of the VAT threshold. This threshold, currently set at £85,000, is the level of taxable turnover a business can achieve before it becomes mandatory to register for VAT. VAT registration becomes obligatory when a business anticipates its VAT taxable turnover to surpass the vat registration threshold in the upcoming 30-day period or when its turnover has surpassed the threshold over the preceding 12 months.

Timely registration is imperative as delayed registration could lead to the obligation to settle outstanding VAT from when registration was due and could also result in penalties.

Voluntary VAT Registration

While mandatory registration is based on the VAT threshold, businesses also have the option to voluntarily register for VAT, even if their turnover is below the threshold. Now, you might wonder, “Why would a business want to voluntarily register?” Well, voluntary registration provides businesses with the opportunity to reclaim VAT on their business purchases and prepare for expansion without being restricted by turnover thresholds.

However, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each business must evaluate its specific circumstances, weighing the advantages and disadvantages, to ascertain whether voluntary VAT registration aligns with its growth strategy and financial practices.

Registering for VAT: Step-by-Step Guide

If you’ve decided to register for VAT, understanding the process is key. You have the option to register online through your business tax account, by post using form VAT1, or via an agent who can handle the process on your behalf. Once you’ve filled out the appropriate online forms and submitted them, you will be issued a VAT registration certificate containing your new VAT number.

This certificate encompasses your unique VAT number and specifies the deadline for the submission of your first VAT return. The registration process generally takes around a month to complete.

Navigating VAT Rates and Categories

Having addressed VAT registration, we can now focus on understanding VAT rates and categories. These rates and categories determine the amount of VAT you charge on your goods and services, and the amount you can reclaim on your purchases. In the UK, there are several VAT rates and categories, including:

  • Standard rate
  • Reduced rates
  • Zero rates
  • Certain goods and services that are fully exempt.

Standard, Reduced, and Zero-Rated VAT

Begin with the three main VAT rates. The standard rate, currently set at 20%, applies to most goods and services. On the other hand, certain products and services, such as electricity for domestic and residential use, gas for domestic and residential use, and power utilities, are eligible for the reduced VAT rate of 5%.

Finally, there’s a zero-rated VAT, which pertains to a VAT rate of 0% on specific goods and services, such as food and drink for human consumption, excluding items like catering and alcoholic drinks that are subject to the standard rate.

Exempt Goods and Services

Apart from the standard, reduced, and zero-rated VAT, certain goods and services are entirely exempt from VAT. These items encompass postage stamps, basic food items, and newspapers. They form essentials in everyday life. It’s important to note that while you can register for VAT and reclaim VAT on purchases if your business sells zero-rated goods or services, this isn’t the case if your business exclusively sells goods or services that are exempt from VAT.

An updated list of exempt goods and services can be found on the official government website.

Managing VAT Returns and Payments

Managing VAT returns

Having navigated VAT rates and categories, we can now move onto managing VAT returns and payments. A VAT return is a document used to calculate the VAT owed on sales (output VAT) by deducting the reclaimable VAT on purchases (input VAT). It’s crucial for businesses to file their VAT returns and pay their VAT bills on time to avoid penalties.

Let’s examine filing VAT returns, paying your VAT bill, and claiming back VAT on expenses more closely.

Filing VAT Returns

Filing VAT returns is a routine task for VAT-registered businesses. These returns are typically filed on a quarterly basis, and the deadline usually falls on the 7th day of the second month after the end of the reporting period. When filing VAT returns, businesses are required to include the following information:

  • Total sales
  • Total purchases
  • Amount of VAT owed
  • Amount of VAT that can be reclaimed
  • VAT refund owed from HM Revenue and Customs.

If a business spends more on VAT than it collects, it can submit a VAT return on a monthly basis to request a refund from HMRC.

Paying Your VAT Bill

When it comes to paying your VAT bill, HMRC offers various methods, including online payment by card or Direct Debit, bank transfer, and standing order. Payments are typically processed within three working days after the payment deadline on your VAT return, but payments made via Faster Payments usually reach HMRC the same or next day, including weekends and bank holidays.

It’s crucial to submit your payment before the deadline, which is typically one calendar month and seven days after the end of your accounting period, to avoid penalties.

Claiming Back VAT on Expenses

Claiming back VAT on expenses is another important aspect of managing VAT. To claim back VAT, the business must be registered for VAT, and the expenses must be for ‘business purpose’ and have a direct connection to VAT.

Eligible expenses for VAT reclaim include employee travel expenses for business trips, including transport, meals, and accommodation. However, it’s important to note that not all business expenses are eligible for VAT reclaim, and businesses are required to maintain records of their transactions for a minimum of 6 years.

Choosing the Right VAT Accounting Scheme

Selecting the appropriate VAT accounting scheme is key to efficient VAT management. There are several VAT accounting schemes designed to minimise the administrative burden for small businesses. These include the standard VAT accounting scheme, the cash accounting scheme, and the flat rate scheme. Each scheme has its own merits and drawbacks, and businesses should consider their specific needs and turnover before deciding on the most suitable scheme.

Standard VAT Accounting

The standard VAT accounting scheme, also known as the accrual VAT scheme, involves paying VAT collected (‘Input VAT’) and claiming back VAT paid (‘Output VAT’) on a quarterly basis. The benefits of this scheme include the ability to reclaim VAT paid on business expenses and the perception of being a larger business. However, it can potentially lead to a higher amount of VAT payable to HMRC compared to other VAT calculation methods.

This scheme is ideal for businesses:

  • required to maintain digital records
  • required to submit their VAT returns using compliant Making Tax software
  • with complex VAT transactions, such as international sales or purchases.

Cash Accounting Scheme

The cash accounting scheme allows businesses to account for VAT based on the payments made and received, rather than on the basis of invoices issued. This scheme is available to small businesses if their VAT taxable turnover does not exceed £1.35 million per year.

The cash accounting scheme can have a positive effect on the cash flow of a small business, allowing businesses to pay VAT only upon receiving payment from their customers, rather than when the invoice is issued, thus preventing VAT payment on unpaid invoices.

Flat Rate Scheme

The flat rate scheme (FRS) involves paying a fixed percentage of your turnover to HMRC, which is below the standard 20% VAT rate. In order to be eligible for the FRS, an entity’s VAT turnover should not exceed £150,000 (excluding VAT).

The benefits of the FRS include:

  • Simplified record-keeping
  • Lower fixed rates compared to the standard rate
  • The opportunity to retain the difference between the amount charged to customers and the payment made to HMRC

The flat rate applicable to your business can be determined using HMRC’s guidance, which contains a list of different business sectors and their respective flat rates.

Avoiding Common VAT Mistakes and Penalties

Despite a comprehensive understanding of VAT, errors can occur. These mistakes can be expensive, leading to penalties from HMRC. Businesses must, therefore, comprehend the common VAT errors, the ensuing penalties from HMRC, and methods to prevent them.

Common VAT Errors

VAT errors can range from:

  • Poor record keeping and lack of purchase invoices when claiming VAT
  • Confusion between net and gross figures
  • Inaccurate recording of ‘tax point’
  • Omission of sales
  • Duplication of invoices
  • Failure to charge VAT on non-standard transactions

Additionally, businesses often misinterpret VAT regulations by:

  • inaccurately entering figures in their records
  • attempting to reclaim VAT on fuel and cars when ineligible
  • failing to apply VAT on items or services that are non-standard and necessitate VAT.

HMRC Penalties and How to Avoid Them

HMRC enforces penalties for VAT errors, which can range from 0% to 30% of the additional tax owed if the inaccuracy is a result of a lack of reasonable care. Deliberate inaccuracies may result in higher penalties.

Late payments may also incur penalties, including:

  • 2% of the outstanding sum
  • Penalty points that accrue with each missed deadline
  • A £200 fine when a certain threshold is reached
  • Additional fines for subsequent missed deadlines.

To minimize penalties, businesses are advised to maintain accurate and up-to-date bookkeeping and to be vigilant about VAT-related pitfalls such as non-standard supplies, services from abroad, import VAT, VAT on deposits, and VAT on certain transactions.

Making Tax Digital: Adapting to the Digital Age

Adapting to Making Tax Digital

Introduced in 2015, Making Tax Digital (MTD), an HMRC initiative, has transformed how businesses manage their tax affairs by mandating VAT-registered businesses to electronically file their VAT returns.

This digital transition aims to enhance the accuracy of records, simplify the maintenance and access to digital records, and reduce the tax gap.

What is Making Tax Digital?

Making Tax Digital is an initiative introduced by HMRC to digitalise tax records and submissions. This initiative aims to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, and simplicity of tax administration for taxpayers. Making Tax Digital mandates that all VAT-registered businesses must submit their VAT returns digitally using MTD-compatible software.

By adopting Making Tax Digital, businesses can benefit from:

  • Simplified record-keeping
  • Avoidance of costly errors
  • The ability to make quarterly submissions instead of a single tax return
  • Access to real-time tax information
  • Support for the digitalisation of the tax system

How to Prepare for Making Tax Digital

Businesses must register for Making Tax Digital for VAT before their first return’s due date as automatic enrolment isn’t available for eligible businesses. It’s a mandatory requirement to comply with the regulations. HMRC provides a list of MTD-compatible software, including options such as:

  • BTCSoftware
  • Capium
  • Coconut
  • Dext Prepare

among others.

To comply with Making Tax Digital requirements, businesses need to utilise MTD-compatible software for maintaining digital records and submitting VAT returns electronically. While businesses are not required to keep digital copies of invoices and receipts, they need to digitally manage specific records and accounts.

Some businesses may qualify for exemptions from Making Tax Digital for VAT and Making Tax Digital for Income Tax, provided they meet specific criteria.


Whether you’re a new business owner or have been in the game for years, understanding VAT is crucial for the successful management of your finances. From grasping the basics of VAT to choosing the right VAT accounting scheme, every aspect of VAT plays a significant role in your business operations. With the advent of Making Tax Digital, VAT management has undergone a digital revolution, simplifying processes and enabling a more efficient tax administration. By avoiding common VAT errors and understanding the penalties for these errors, you can ensure your business stays on top of its VAT responsibilities and continues to thrive.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does VAT work in a small business?

VAT is included in the price of goods or services sold, and businesses may have to charge VAT to their customers. Small businesses can claim back the VAT they have paid on goods and services for their business.

How much can a small business earn before paying VAT?

A small business can earn up to £85,000 before needing to pay VAT in the UK, based on the VAT threshold set by HMRC until 31 March 2024.

Is it worth registering for VAT for small business?

Yes, it is worth registering for VAT for a small business, as it allows you to claim back VAT on your input if it exceeds your output. This can be beneficial when investing in expensive equipment.

What are the different VAT rates and categories?

VAT rates include the standard rate (20%), reduced rates, and zero rates, with some goods and services exempt from VAT.

What are the common VAT errors and how can they be avoided?

To avoid common VAT errors, ensure accurate and up-to-date bookkeeping and be vigilant about VAT-related pitfalls. This includes avoiding poor record keeping, ensuring purchase invoices are available when claiming VAT, and understanding the difference between net and gross figures.

Former lawyer, now building the future of SME finance.