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Published:December 20, 2021

How does VAT work?

How does VAT work?

VAT is one of the most common and important taxes in the world. But how does VAT actually work? Let’s take a closer look at what VAT is and how it functions in the real world. We’ll dig into how VAT works, how it applies to ordinary consumers, and why managing VAT is crucial for businesses.

What is VAT?

Value Added Tax (VAT) is an indirect tax applied to products and services. VAT is a very common tax that applies to a broad range of transactions. 

For a registered business, managing VAT is a critical accounting function. If businesses do not meet their VAT obligation, they risk serious fines and other penalties. However, good VAT management is not simply about avoiding penalties. Businesses can also reduce the cost of business and improve cash flow by optimising their VAT processes. 

What are examples of VAT?

Broadly speaking, people encounter VAT in two ways: as consumers and as a taxable person (in this case, an individual or entity registered for VAT).  Let’s consider each in turn. 

VAT for end-use consumers

Most consumers will likely be familiar with VAT on goods or services 

Items you buy in the shops are usually subject to VAT. And, when you hire a company to perform a service, such as cleaning your carpets or providing financial advice, VAT is included in your invoice. 

In such cases - an individual acquiring goods or services for their personal use - VAT is functionally similar to sales tax. The obvious difference is that VAT is usually already included in the price of goods. The seller doesn’t usually add an extra VAT charge at the till. 

For instance, if you buy a television for $1000 and the local VAT rate is 20%, then $200 of that cost is VAT. However, for practical purposes, all the consumer needs to know is that the total cost of the TV is $1000.

However, even at the consumer level, there is a difference between VAT vs sales tax, though it may not be apparent to casual observers. Sales tax is applied to the total value of the taxable item. On the other hand, VAT is applied throughout the value chain. VAT, therefore, generally does not inflate the price of an item to the same extent as Sales Tax.

VAT throughout the value chain

For a registered business, VAT is a little more complex. As VAT is applied at each point in the value chain, when a company purchases items for its core business activities, it pays VAT on those goods. 

So if a company produces shoes, it pays VAT on the leather and other materials it acquires for use in the manufacturing process. The shoe manufacturer in turn charges VAT when selling the completed footwear to retailers. 

Fortunately, the VAT paid on items used for business purposes can be reclaimed. However, the correct procedures need to be followed to maximize VAT reclaim opportunities. In some cases, opportunities to recover VAT are overlooked because operations occur outside of the direct oversight of the finance department. For instance, many businesses neglect to recover the import VAT to which they are entitled, increasing shipping costs significantly. 

In the ordinary course of business, companies generally both pay and collect VAT on various transactions. When a business submits its regular VAT returns, it will account for input VAT (VAT paid on goods and services by the company) and output VAT (the VAT charged by the business on its goods and services). The company can claim back the sum of input VAT that exceeds output VAT. 

Where businesses make taxable supplies in more than one market they may be required to file for VAT registration and figure out how to get a VAT number in multiple countries. 

Why accurate VAT invoices are so important for VAT recovery 

Obviously, when submitting their regular VAT returns, businesses need to ensure they accurately reflect their input and output VAT over the relevant period. Incorrect filing can result in penalties (in the case of repeat offenses, these penalties can be very severe) or audits. 

In order to accurately substantiate VAT recovery claims, businesses also need to ensure all the relevant support documentation is complete and accurate. 

In some cases, the process is straightforward enough. However, in many scenarios, the administrative burden of managing all the relevant invoices and other documents is deemed too high, and businesses miss out on opportunities to claim back the VAT tax to which they are entitled. 

Travel and entertainment expenses, incurred both domestically and in the course of overseas business travel, are a case in point. 

Reclaiming VAT on T&E expenses requires employees to consistently and accurately collect, retain and file all applicable invoices. Subsequently, all the invoices must be centrally processed. Given the expense and the high risk of error, many companies simply neglect to recover much of the T&E VAT to which they are entitled, even though these can be considerable sums. 

Fortunately, companies now have to option to use services such as VAT IT’s technology-driven outsourced VAT reclaim service, which maximizes VAT recovery, simplifies invoice management, and eliminates human error.

When the customer is the supplier (for VAT purposes)

As explained in the section above, when a business acquires taxable goods from another company it must pay VAT tax on those goods. However, there is an exception that applies in a limited number of cases. 

Tax authorities may declare that certain transactions are subjected to something called the VAT reverse charge mechanism. So, what is a reverse charge VAT invoice? When VAT reverse charge applies, the customer accounts for the VAT itself, which it pays directly to the relevant tax authority. 

In such cases, a reverse charge VAT invoice must be issued, stating that the customer is to account for VAT.

The reverse charge mechanism has benefits for businesses. For example, when selling abroad, you may not have to register for VAT in the country to which you supply goods if the customer accounts for the applicable VAT. The mechanism also helps tax authorities deter VAT fraud.

What determines the VAT rate?

Each country sets its own VAT rates. However, the local VAT rate may also be affected by regional agreements. For example, EU Member States need to comply with EU VAT rules and guidelines and therefore have limited leeway over their domestic VAT rates.  

Countries often have more than one VAT rate. There may be a standard rate and a reduced rate for essential goods and services such as food, education, and medicine. Some items may be exempt from VAT (they are zero-rated for VAT). 

Which countries use VAT?

VAT is a very widespread tax and an important generator of revenue. According to the OECD, as of November 2020, 170 countries and territories implemented a VAT system. All EU countries have VAT. 

Note that in some countries, the system functionally equivalent to VAT is known as GST. For example, New Zealand GST is a consumption tax that is effectively VAT by another name. 

The most notable exception to global VAT adoption is the United States. In the US, Sales Tax applies rather than VAT. US Sales Tax is not set federally. Each state determines its own Sales Taxes rate. 

Customized VAT compliance and recovery solutions

VAT is a complex system of indirect taxation with complicated regulations and compliance procedures. Fortunately, there’s a simple and effective way to ensure total VAT compliance in every country you do business in. VAT IT’s technology-driven outsourced VAT solution maximizes VAT recovery, enhances cash flow, and reduces the cost of a trade. It’s an integrated centralized VAT service that makes doing business in new markets simple. 

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