How to register as a sole trader

Setting up as a sole trader is the fastest and easiest way to become your own boss. With little in the way of paperwork and full control over how you work, you can get your new business up and running straight away.

Once you’ve decided to become self-employed you’ll need to choose a legal structure for your new business. This will affect how you run the business and how you pay tax. Most people take the sole trader route as it’s the quickest and easiest way to go into business by yourself.

Being a sole trader means lots of flexibility – you can choose to work full or part time or even on a casual basis while still working as an employee. It’s a great way to test out a business idea or grow your start up until it generates enough income to support you.

Registering as a sole trader is easier than setting up a limited company. There’s no paperwork, your business affairs remain private and you can keep all the profits you make after tax. However, as a sole trader you’re liable for any debts that your business incurs, which means your savings, home and other possessions are at risk from creditors. If the nature of self-employment means you’re likely to build up substantial debts then consider setting up a limited company instead.

Read our guide on private limited companies

How do I pay tax when setting up as a sole trader?

As a sole trader you’ll need to pay income tax based on your business profits, along with National Insurance contributions (NICs). This is done through a process called self-assessment, which involves submitting a form each year to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to calculate what you owe in tax and then paying the required amount. Once you’re registered as self-employed you’ll get a letter, usually in April, telling you when you need to complete your first self-assessment form.

You can check your National Insurance contributions by asking for a National Insurance statement online.

Can I employ people as a sole trader?

Being a sole trader doesn’t mean you have to work alone. As soon as you employ staff you will have to notify HMRC and collect income tax and National Insurance contributions from your employees’ monthly salaries as well as run a Pay As You Earn (PAYE) payroll scheme. Read our guide to new employer responsibilities.

Naming your sole trader business

The first step in setting up as a sole trader is to pick a name for your business. You can trade under your own name or select a specific business name. Be aware that if you opt for a business name you must make sure that your business stationery shows your own name as well as the trading name of the business.

Don’t pick a name that’s the same or too similar to that of an existing company – you could end up with a legal dispute. Research online for businesses with similar names in your local area and check the register at Companies House to see if a limited company with that name already exists.

Other rules apply when naming your business. Be careful not to include offensive words nor sensitive words such as like Royal or British, which may mislead your customers.

Read our guide on how to choose a name for your new business >>

How do I register as a sole trader?

Setting up as a sole trader is straightforward. You need to register with HMRC within three months of becoming self-employed – even if it’s on a part-time basis. Fail to do this will mean paying a £100 penalty.

Call the HMRC ‘Newly Self-Employed Helpline’ on 0300 200 3500 or register at HMRC online. Alternatively, download and complete HMRC’s CWF1 form and post it to the address given on the form. You’ll need to provide the HMRC with your name; date of birth; address; telephone number; National Insurance number; name and type of business and start date.

Sign up for self-assessment

You or your accountant must complete a self-assessment form each year for HMRC detailing your income and business expenses for the last tax year.

As a sole trader running a small business you can use a cash accounting method, which means you’ll have to pay tax only on the money that actually comes into and out of your business during the tax year. You can deduct business expenses such as the cost of vehicles, computers, stationery as well as day to day running costs like electricity to reduce the amount of income tax payable.

Any money owed for the tax year ending in April must be paid by January 31 the following year. HMRC may ask you to make a payment on account for the current tax year, in which case you’ll need to do this by July 31.

You can complete a paper self-assessment form to be submitted by 31 October or an online version by 31 January the following year. With its later deadline, filling in the online form is best and you’ll see instantly how much you’ll have to pay.

An online account for your self-assessment is set up automatically when you register as self-employed. You’ll be sent a Unique Tax Reference (UTR) number which you’ll need when completing your self-assessment and for all correspondence with the HMRC.

As a sole trader you must pay Class 2 National Insurance contributions (NICs). This is collected at the same time as your tax payment via self-assessment. You may need to pay Class 4 NICs if your annual profits exceed £8,060 but this will be calculated automatically when you fill in your annual self-assessment form.

Do I need to register for VAT as a sole trader?

You don’t have to worry about VAT until your annual business turnover exceeds the VAT threshold, currently £85,000 (from April 1, 2017) – although you can choose to register for VAT at any time. Once registered for VAT, you must charge VAT to all your customers. You can then claim back the VAT you’ve paid on business purchases.

What business records should I keep as a sole trader?

It’s important you stay on top of your business paper work to be a successful sole trader. Store a paper record of every business transaction including invoices issued to customers, receipts for payments made, payments into and out of your bank account, receipts for business expenses and PAYE records if you employ people. If you use traditional accounting methods you’ll also need to have records of money you’re owed but haven’t received yet and money that you’re committed to spend but haven’t yet paid.

It’s easier to gather and store paperwork as you go rather than try to piece everything together later when you or your accountant are filling in your annual self-assessment. If paperwork is missing be sure to inform HMRC that you’re using estimated rather than actual figures.

Keep your paperwork for at least five years after the 31st January submission deadline of the relevant tax year as HMRC may also ask to see them to check you’re paying the right amount of tax.

As a sole trader you don’t need a separate business bank account, although it can make your business admin and bookkeeping easier if you do.

HMRC has a useful video that gives an overview of the records you need to keep as a sole trader:

Sole trader insurance policies

Consider getting a business insurance policy to protect against the risks you may face as a business owner. As soon as you take on staff you’re required by law to take out employers’ liability insurance to protect your employees if they fall ill or are injured in the course of their work. If you fail to do so you could be fined up to £2,500 per day.

Other forms of insurance aren’t legal requirements but offer protection should your business or products harm others. For example it’s a good idea to have public liability insurance if members of the public come to your premises or could be injured as a result of your business. Some professions may require policies such as professional indemnity insurance that’s designed to protect your business against the cost of settling or defending a customer’s claim that your work was inadequate or caused them to lose money.

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