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VAT for your small business

Value added tax (VAT) is one of the most important areas of business tax to get right.

Not only can it be a big challenge in terms of accounting, but it can also affect your competitiveness and your profit margins.

Handling VAT effectively is, therefore, a fundamental part of running any successful small business – it’s not just about keeping HMRC happy.

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What is VAT?

The standard rate of VAT is 20%, although there are other rates on some products and services.

VAT is a tax on most goods and services, levied at the point of sale. This increases the retail price of anything that is liable for VAT.

As a business, most goods and services that you buy from suppliers will have VAT added to the price.

You may also have to charge VAT to your own customers.

Managing VAT is a juggling act as you must work out how much VAT customers pay you, how much you pay to suppliers, and how much you need to pay (or reclaim from) HMRC.

Should I register my business for VAT?

You can only reclaim VAT if you are VAT registered – and if you are, you must also charge it.

If your business turns over more than £85,000 of VAT-able goods or services (i.e. those not exempt or zero-rated), then you must register.

If you turn over less than this, then you can still choose to register for VAT.

There are upsides and downsides to doing this, so you will need to weigh these up to see which option is best for your business.

The advantages of being VAT-registered

Registering your small business for VAT, even if it’s below the £85,000 turnover threshold, can have several benefits.

Firstly, if you buy a lot from suppliers who charge VAT, you can claim this money back against the VAT that your own business charges.

For example, if you buy £10,000 of stock and services you have to pay VAT on from your suppliers, you’ll pay £12,000 in total – £2,000 of which is VAT.

If you then make sales of £12,000 that are eligible for VAT to your customers, £2,000 of this will also be VAT. In this example, your net VAT bill would be zero.

Of course, you’d hope to make more in sales than you spend on suppliers, so your VAT bill should be a positive figure, but being able to reclaim VAT may lower your overall costs.

The second potential advantage of being VAT registered is that other businesses may prefer doing business with you, as it gives the impression of being larger and more established even if you’re just starting out.

The disadvantages of being VAT-registered

There may be a few drawbacks to being VAT-registered if your taxable turnover is under £85,000.

The most obvious one is that you’ll have to charge VAT on your taxable products or services, which will either make them more expensive or reduce your margins (or both).

A small business whose main selling point is low prices may, therefore, benefit by not being VAT registered (though you would still have to pay it when buying stock you need to pay VAT on).

The other downside to being VAT-registered is the administrative burden.

You will have to submit quarterly VAT returns, and to ensure these are accurate, you will probably need an accountant.

What are the different VAT rates and what do they mean?

The standard rate of VAT is 20%, but some products and services have a lower rate of VAT, a zero rate, or are fully exempt.

VAT rate


Applies to



Most goods and services



Selected goods and services, such as children's car seats



Selected goods and services, such as most food and children’s clothes



Selected goods and services, such as financial and property transactions, as well as postage stamps

What is the difference between zero-rated and exempt from VAT?

You may wonder how a product zero-rated for VAT differs from an exempt product

The difference lies in whether or not your business can register for VAT and reclaim it.

If a business only sells products or services that are exempt from VAT, it cannot register for VAT (and so can’t reclaim the VAT charged by its own suppliers).

However, if your business sells zero-rated products or services, you can still register for VAT and reclaim any VAT charged by your suppliers, even though you won't charge any VAT to your own customers.

If your business offers a mix of goods and services, some of which are zero-rated and some of which are exempt, VAT accounting for these can get quite tricky.

An accountant will have to establish how much VAT you can reclaim on goods and services bought from your suppliers, based on the extent to which these help deliver your own products that are subject to VAT.

For example, you couldn’t reclaim VAT on sporting goods that enabled you to deliver a sports class, as the sports class would be VAT-exempt.

Some businesses may offer a wide range of products that are standard rate, reduced rate, zero rated and exempt from VAT.

All will need to be carefully accounted for so that the right amount of VAT is reclaimed.

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How to register for VAT

You can register for VAT online at the government’s website. Remember that you must do this if your VAT-taxable turnover is over £85,000.

Once registered, you’ll receive a VAT registration certificate, confirming your VAT number and when your first return and payment are due.

How long does it take to register for VAT?

Once you've submitted your application, you can expect to receive your certificate in around one month.

However, you must start accounting for VAT on the date that you submit your application, so keep careful records during this month (and from then on!).

Can I reclaim VAT on purchases made before I registered?

You can make backdated VAT claims on products or services you bought before registering for VAT.

You can reclaim VAT from up to four years before the date of your registration, provided it was paid on goods you still own or that were used to make goods you still own.

For services, there is a shorter deadline, as you can only reclaim VAT for services bought up to six months before the date of your registration.

All such goods or services must be for the purposes of the business that you have registered for VAT.

It is best to reclaim them on your first VAT return and ensure you still have all relevant invoices and receipts, along with information as to how these purchases relate to your business.

Do I need an accountant to handle my VAT?

Unless your business is very small, VAT accounting can become burdensome very quickly.

In particular if y,ou are over the £85,000 taxable turnover threshold, you will want to ensure that your VAT returns are as accurate and efficient as possible.

At best, mistakes can reduce your margins, and at worst, they can trigger an investigation from HMRC.

An accountant can ensure that the whole process goes smoothly. You can find the perfect accountant via Unbiased today.

Get accounting advice
We’ll find a professional perfectly matched to your needs. Getting started is easy, fast and free.

About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.