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What is a sole trader? The ultimate guide to this business type

Tillie Demetriou
28 Jun 2024

If you've ever researched going into business for yourself and becoming self-employed, you may have come across the term “sole trader.” You might ask yourself what does this mean and how can it affect me? 

In short, a sole trader is a self-employed person who is the sole owner of their business. As a term, it can be used interchangeably with sole proprietorship and generally refers to the structure of a business. If you chose to register as a sole trader, you and your company would become one legal entity in the eyes of the law and you would be entitled to all your profits after tax. 

Thanks to the relative ease with which one can become a sole trader, it has become a very popular option for self-employed people. According to the UK Gov website, there are an estimated 3.1 million sole traders running a business in the United Kingdom and if you’re planning to open a small business it might be the right option for you.

What is a sole trader business?

A sole trader, also known as a sole proprietor or sole proprietorship, is a straightforward business structure where one individual operates and owns the entire business. It's one of the simplest ways to start a business because it doesn't require formal incorporation. In this setup, the sole trader has complete control over how the business operates and retains full autonomy in developing the business's identity and brand.

Usually, the sole trader is the sole worker in the business they've established. However, they can hire employees, in which case they need to register as employers and set up a PAYE (Pay As You Earn) system for managing payroll and taxes.

Advantages of a sole trader

As a small business owner, there are many benefits to structuring your company as a sole trader.

For many, the freedom to work for yourself is the biggest benefit. Sole traders have complete control of their company. This means they’re free to run it exactly how they want and make decisions as they see fit. 

Depending on the industry, sole traders have little to no start-up costs. This, combined with the fact that there are very few annual accounting costs, means that you’ll be able to keep a much firmer grip on your overheads. This financial freedom extends to your profits where you alone get to keep everything after tax. 

Sole traders are also able to take advantage of a great degree of financial privacy. Unlike a limited company, where anyone can access their information on the government’s Companies House website, sole traders are able to keep their finances strictly private. No member of the public is able to see a self-employed person's finances unless they choose to share them themselves.

Drawbacks of sole trading

While there are undeniable advantages to becoming a sole trader, there are several downsides. As long as your business keeps running smoothly, you should be able to avoid any of these adverse effects. 

Unlimited liability refers to the fact that as a sole trader, you are personally liable for any and all of your business’ debts and losses. For sole traders, there are no distinctions between personal and business assets. If worse comes to worst and you suffer a big financial hit, debtors could come for assets such as your house,ccar, or anything else in your name.

Due to unlimited liability, some sole traders may have difficulty getting access to finance. The private nature of your finances and the inherent risk of being self-employed means that lenders may be reluctant to offer as much as they would to a limited company. In turn, this can contribute to credibility issues where your company is perceived as less prestigious than a limited company. Some traders try to get over this problem by emulating the practices of successful businesses.

Being legally one and the same as your company can sometimes lead to complications when you try to sell it or transfer ownership to someone else when you retire. The process of separating personal and business assets means that some people choose to transfer their business to a limited company. As a limited company is owned by its shareholders, the personal and business assets of the CEO are separate making the transfer of ownership much easier.

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Examples of sole traders

Lots of small shops and businesses are set up as sole proprietorships. Here are some common examples:

  • Tradespeople: These are folks like builders, gardeners, landscapers, carpenters, and handymen. 
  • Freelancers: People who work independently in digital and creative fields (freelancers) often operate as sole traders. This includes jobs like graphic designers, web developers, writers, marketers, and social media experts.
  • Gig economy workers: These are the ones who work flexible gigs, sometimes alongside another job. Think taxi drivers, couriers, delivery folks, and tutors.

How to set up as a sole trader

Now that you've got a good understanding of what a sole trader is, let's talk about setting up as a sole trader. Here are some simple steps:

Choose a business name

As the sole proprietor of your business, it’s up to you to come up with a suitable name for your company. Choosing a business name is an important step in legitimising yourself as a sole trader, so you must make sure to do it properly.

Your business name can be almost anything you want. Some sole traders choose to keep it simple and use their own name, some go for something professional-sounding, and some even choose to make their name a catchy phrase or a witty joke. Whatever name you choose, make sure it’s a good representation of who you are as a self-employed person and what your company does.

There are a few guidelines that you must follow when naming your business: 

  • Names that are rude or offensive will not be accepted 
  • Sole trader business names can’t include the words limited, Ltd, Limited Liability Partnership, LLP, public limited company, and plc - these terms could give the impression your company is incorporated
  • Names can’t use registered trademarks - this opens you up to legal action from the owner of the copyright. You can check registered trademarks on the Gov website.

If you’re unsure about whether or not your name would be in breach of any of these guidelines, it’s safer to err on the side of caution and choose a different name.

Register for self assessment

To register as a sole trader, you absolutely must register for Self Assessment. You'll need to register if:

  • you earn more than £1,000 in a tax year (from 6 April to 5 April)
  • you need to prove you’re self-employed (for example if you need to claim Tax-Free Childcare)
  • you want to make voluntary Class 2 National Insurance payments to help you qualify for benefits and State Pension

If you register late, or if you don't register at all, you'll likely have to pay a penalty.

Becoming a VAT-register sole trader 

Depending on your business and how much you earn, you might want to think about registering for VAT (Value Added Tax). You'll need to do this if:

  • Your total VAT taxable turnover over the last 12 months exceeded £90,000. You also need to register if you expect your turnover to surpass £90,000 in the next 30 days.
  • You're based outside the UK but supply goods or services to the UK (or plan to within the next 30 days), you must register for VAT.

NOTE: Even if your turnover is under £90,000, you can choose to register for VAT voluntarily. This might be beneficial if you want to reclaim VAT on business expenses.

If everything you sell is exempt from VAT, registration is not required, but you won't be able to reclaim VAT on your business expenses.

Once registered, you must pay any VAT you owe to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) from the date of registration.

Sort out your National Insurance Contributions

As a sole trader, you'll need to pay National Insurance Contributions (NICs) on your profits. It's like paying into your pension and benefits fund. You might need to pay Class 2 NICs weekly or annually, depending on your earnings. Class 4 NICs are based on your profits and are calculated when you do your Self Assessment tax return.

You can usually set up a direct debit to pay your NICs automatically. Make sure to keep up with these payments to stay on track with your benefits and pension contributions.

Set up a business bank account

It's smart to keep your personal and business finances separate. Opening a business bank account makes it easier to track your income and expenses. Plus, it shows you're serious about your business.

Most banks offer business accounts with features like free transactions, accounting software integration, and sometimes even perks like discounts on business services. To get started, bring your ID, proof of address, and business registration documents.

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Working as a sole trader and tax responsibilities

Sole traders don't pay corporation tax. Instead, they pay the following:

Pay income tax

As a sole trader, you've got to pay income tax on the money you make. It's calculated after you deduct your business expenses from your earnings. Every year, you need to tell HMRC how much you've earned and what you've spent to figure out how much tax you owe.

National Insurance (NI) contributions

You'll also chip in for National Insurance. These contributions go towards things like your state pension and other benefits. There are different types depending on how much you earn from your sole trading gig.

Self assessment tax return

This is where you lay it all out for HMRC. You fill out a Self Assessment tax return each year. It's how you report your income, claim any tax deductions, and make sure you're paying the right amount of tax and NI contributions. It's super important to get this done on time to avoid any fines.

Business insurance

To keep yourself covered, think about getting business insurance. It can protect you if something goes wrong, like if a client claims against you or there's an accident at work. It's a good idea to check out different types of insurance, depending on what your business does.

Make being a sole trader easier 

Becoming a sole trader is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you do decide to go down the self-employed route, it’s important to make sure you have the tools you need to run your business the way you want to. 

With its state-of-the-art technology, Epos Now offers POS systems with cloud-based modern POS software that will help you run your business easily and efficiently. Using an innovative cloud-based system, you’ll be able to control all the vital aspects of your business from one easy-to-use point of sale system.

Our systems can integrate with thousands of popular apps to make the process even simpler. 

FAQs about a sole trader business in UK

How much tax do you pay as a sole trader?

As a sole trader, you pay income tax on your profits. This means you'll calculate how much tax you owe after deducting your business expenses from what you've earned. You also chip in for National Insurance contributions based on what you make. Keep good records of your income and expenses so you can tell HMRC the right amount each year.

What’s the difference between self-employed and sole trader? 

Being self-employed means working for yourself, which is a big umbrella term. When you're a sole trader, though, it's a specific kind of self-employment where you're the only boss of your business. That means you're the one responsible for everything it does.

How to register as a sole trader?

To sign up as a sole trader, just let HMRC know you're going solo in business. You can do this online through their website. Have your National Insurance number handy and decide on a business name if you want one. After that, you'll need to do a Self Assessment tax return each year.

Can a sole trader have employees?

Absolutely! If you hire people to work for you, you'll need to register as an employer with HMRC. They'll sort out things like payroll taxes through PAYE (Pay As You Earn). It's a bit more admin, but it's doable if you're ready to expand your business.

Is it good to be a sole trader?

Being a sole trader has its perks, like making your own decisions and keeping all the profits. It's simpler to set up and manage for smaller operations. Just remember, you're personally responsible for any debts or legal costs, so weigh the pros and cons based on your business plans and how comfy you are with the responsibility.