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How to Set Up a Business in the UK

So you’re ready to go it alone and set up a business! You know what you want to do, but now you’re wondering what steps you need to take to make things legal in the UK. You also might be thinking when to register with HMRC and how to get paid by your customers. Not to mention all things tax-related!

Well, you’re in the right place, whether numbers are your thing or not.

I put this guide together to answer all common questions I’ve been asked in my past life as an accountant and still see regularly online. I’ll also show you where you can find more information to start taking your knowledge of business structures and finances to the next step!

There’s no jargon, I promise! But there is quite a lot of information, so you may want to bookmark this page. You can come back to it as you work through each stage of setting up your business.

Friendly Disclaimer: Whilst I am an accountant, I’m not your accountant. The information in this article is legally correct but it is for guidance and information purposes only. Everyone’s situation is different and unique so you’ll need to use your own best judgement when applying the advice that I give to your situation. If you are unsure or have a question be sure to contact a qualified professional because mistakes can result in penalties.

1. Create a Start Up Budget

If you aren’t planning to put together a full-on business plan, then creating a start-up budget is a must-do! A start-up budget is a financial plan for getting your business off the ground. This will ensure there is enough cash to pay bills, including yourself until it starts running at full capacity.

You need to include all the costs it takes to get set up in business. You’ll also need to put aside a contingency for the unexpected and plan how you’ll cover overheads until you can find enough work to cover all your costs consistently. You should give yourself peace of mind that:

  • Your business idea is viable
  • How much money you need to start your business
  • How much you need to sell (sales target)
  • What you’ll earn per hour

Take a look at my start-up budget template and a step-by-step guide to filling it in.

2. Choose Your UK Business Structure

Once you’ve got an idea of how much money you are going to be making, it’s time to decide which business structure is right for you. The most common types of UK business structures, which you’ve no doubt heard of, are:

  1. Self-employed (or sole trader)
  2. Private Limited Company
  3. Partnership
  4. Limited Liability Partnership

The quickest way to get started is to register as self-employed and get a UTR number. However, depending on your earnings and if you have a business partner, forming a Limited Company can save you tax. It can also offer you certain legal protection as well as formalise ownership between you and your business partner(s).

Need a hand deciding? This guide about Sole Trader or Limited Company contains access to a free tax calculator to help you work out which business structure will help you to pay less tax.

Owning a Limited Company has more reporting requirements so I recommend you hire an accountant to help you. They’ll manage your returns, avoid penalties and calculate the most tax-efficient way for you to pay yourself. Generally, accountants do not recommend forming a Limited Company until your business profits reach £30,000. This is because below this threshold, there are no real tax savings to offset their fees.

3. Register Your Business

Once you’ve decided which business structure is right for you, it’s time to formalise things! The way you register your business and the deadline depends on which legal structure you have chosen. Whichever one you pick, you’ll need to choose a name to trade under. Don’t forget to check whether the social media handles and domain is available to make your brand complete. Even if you don’t plan set up a website immediately, you must consider buying the domain so it’s ready for you to use in the future.

Here’s how to do get registered for the most popular business structures: self-employed (sole trader) and Limited Company.

3.1 When to Register as Self-Employed

You are legally required to register as self-employed once your turnover (not profit) goes over £1,000. Despite this tax break, many people choose to register regardless of their turnover for different reasons. For example, they expect their business to grow beyond this soon or they want to record a tax loss. The main benefit of tax losses is that you can use them against profits you make in future tax years.

The deadline for telling HMRC that you have set up a business is the 5th October in your businesses second tax year. A tax year runs from 6 April to 5 April. Therefore, if you started your business on 1 January 2020, then you would need to let HMRC know by 5 October 2020.

Despite this deadline, I would advise you to register as self-employed as soon as possible. HMRC prefer to know sooner rather than later and you reduce the risk of receiving an automatic £100 penalty if you forget to do it.

3.2 When to Register a Limited Company

If you plan to operate through a Limited Company, then you’ll need to register your Ltd before or as soon as you begin trading.

You’ll need to send out invoices, open a business bank account and take our insurance/permits in the name of your Ltd. And, in some cases, you’ll need to provide the Companies House registration number of your business to complete applications. So, don’t delay forming your Limited Company.

4. Open a Business Bank Account

If you choose to register as self-employed then you are not legally required to open a business bank account, but HMRC does recommend it. It also makes running your business, budgeting and managing your taxes a lot easier. If you’ve decided to form a Limited Company, then you are legally required to open a business bank account.

Try Starling – it’s award-winning mobile banking for sole traders and Limited Companies. Plus, it’s free for one month.

5. Apply for Insurance, Permits and Licences

Being in business is not without financial risk and insurance offers you protection in the event something doesn’t go quite as you planned. Business insurance requirements vary from business to business but there are 7 main types:

  1. Professional Indemnity
  2. Public Liability
  3. Product Liability
  4. Business Equipment Insurance
  5. Business Interruption Insurance
  6. Employers Liability
  7. Business Motor Insurance

You’ll need to spend some time researching which ones you need. You can choose to go direct to an insurer. Alternatively, to save time and hassle, you can try an online insurance broker like Simply Business. They can help you decide which cover you need and send you quotes online from lots of different insurance companies for you to pick from.

You may also want to consider taking out life insurance. Depending on the policy you choose and the amount you pay, it can offer you income protection in the event you are unable to work due to illness or worse. It’s a version of death in service which is only offered to people who are employed designed to protect people who work for themselves instead.

6. Understand Tax and VAT

Setting up a business means it’s all down to you to work out what types of taxes you need to pay. You also have to consider how much you need to pay and if you have to register for VAT. This is unless you plan to hire an accountant who will guide you through all this.

The types of taxes you’ll need to pay depends on your business structure and how much you earn. Therefore, it’s important you understand exactly which ones you are liable for so you can set money aside for them and get your hourly rate and pricing right.

6.1 Taxes if You Register as Self-Employed

Unlike when you are employed, when you become self-employed you can deduct expenses from your income. That reduces the amount of tax you have to pay. You can’t deduct all your expenses. There are certain ones which HMRC do not let you deduct, even if you paid for them as part of your business. These are known as Allowable and Disallowable Expenses.

You’ll also receive a deduction for your personal allowance (the amount you can earn tax-free). You’ll then pay tax according to how much money you have made after these deductions. The more you make the more tax you’ll pay.

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As a self-employed business owner, you’ll also need to pay Class 2 and Class 4 National Insurance. Again, the amount you pay is based on your business profits.

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Once a year, by the 31st January, you’ll need to declare your earnings to HMRC by registering for self assessment and filling in a tax return. One tax return covers one tax year. So, a tax return for 6 April 2018 to 5 April 2019 needs to be with HMRC by 31 January 2020.

You can choose to use an accountant to fill it in on your behalf or do it yourself. It’s entirely up to you. But, whichever way you choose, it’s your responsibility to get the form in on time. Remember, there are automatic penalties starting at £100 for missing the deadline.

If you choose to do it yourself then the easiest way is to go online. Not only is it quicker, but HMRC will calculate your taxes for you.

6.2 Taxes for a Limited Company

If you choose to form a Limited Company for your business then you’ll pay corporation tax at 19% on the first £300,000 of business profits.  

Then, depending on how you pay yourself, there will be additional taxes to pay on your income. Typically Limited Company directors pay themselves through a tax efficient combination of PAYE salary and dividend.

6.3 Registering for VAT

VAT is a tax charged on most goods and services supplied in the UK. It stands for Value Added Tax and the current standard rate is 20%. There are three different types of VAT rates. These are applied depending on the goods or service being sold.

RateGoods & Services Rate Applies to:
Standard Rate 20%Most goods and services
Reduced Rate 5%Electricity, gas, carrycots, children’s car seats, maternity pads, sanitary protection products, nicotine patches
Zero Rate (0%)Books, newspapers, children’s clothing, certain food & drink, household water
VAT Rates

If your business’ taxable turnover exceeds £85,000, then you are legally required by HMRC to register for VAT. If that applies to you, then once you go VAT registered you must:

  • Charge VAT at the correct rate on everything you sell;
  • Deduct VAT you paid to your suppliers from the VAT you charged your customers;
  • Pay the difference on VAT paid and received to HMRC, normally quarterly;
  • Submit VAT returns following the rules of making tax digital;
  • Keep VAT receipts.

Being registered for VAT carries more administration and reporting to HMRC. That said, some businesses choose to voluntarily register for VAT because it brings tax and cash flow benefits. This is especially true when combined with certain VAT schemes.

7. Note Down Tax Deadlines

There are automatic penalties for missing tax and filing deadlines. Therefore, depending on the ones you miss, there can be multiple types of penalties which increase as time goes by. It’ll help to put all your tax year dates in the diary so you give yourself plenty of time to get your paperwork filed and taxes paid on time.

If you have a Limited Company, then it is most likely you’ll need to meet the above deadlines as a Company Director, as well as:

  • Filing company accounts 9 months after year-end
  • Filing a corporation tax return 12 months after year-end
  • Paying corporation tax 9 months after year-end.

8. Learn What To Include on Invoices

Invoices are a legal document between you and your client/customer. Therefore, it’s important you have all the right information on them to create a binding agreement that gets you paid.

There are certain pieces of information such as your business name, VAT and company registration number that you’ll need to include on your invoices by law. Getting your invoices ready as part of setting up your business, will mean you’re ready to start billing your clients as soon as you can. Slow invoicing is one of the biggest contributors to cash flow problems for the self-employed. However, it is entirely avoidable.

I’ve put together invoice templates you can copy and keep for your business or at least use to check you’re including the right information on yours. The one you’ll need depends on whether you are registering as self-employed or have a Limited Company.

9. Setup Bookkeeping Processes

In my past life as an accountant, I met many new business owners who were completely overwhelmed by the concept of bookkeeping. Some were new business owners who were so confused their bookkeeping was completely behind or, worst of all, others had buried their heads in the sand and were facing HMRC penalties.

If you are just starting out it’s totally understandable that you may not be sure what you need to keep or even what bookkeeping is. The best tips I can give you to make your bookkeeping quick and easy are:

  1. Open a separate business bank account
  2. Set up a bookkeeping system, if you are just starting out then a simple spreadsheet will do.
  3. Keep all your business receipts

10. Set Up a Pension Plan

When you work for someone, they are responsible for deducting money every time they pay you to put into your pension. This is in addition to making an extra contribution to top you up. It’s easy because you don’t have to think about making pension contributions. But when you set up a business, it’s up to you to organise a self-employed pension.

Regardless of employment status, all UK residents are entitled to the full new State Pension, as long as they have paid sufficient National Insurance during their lifetime. For the tax year 2020/2021, the state pension is £175.20 per week, paid monthly. That means you’ll get £9,110.40 per year from the age of 65. £9,000 a year isn’t really enough for anyone to live off when they stop working! You definitely need a plan in place to top up this money when you stop working. Therefore, you’ll need to set up a private pension and start setting money aside to make sure you hit your retirement income goals.