How are my investments taxed?

Our guide to all things investment tax.
September 2, 2020

Tax doesn't have to be taxing.

That's what HMRC has been telling us anyway. Sadly, it can often feel like the reverse is true.

Luckily for us, investment tax rules are not too complicated. But they do have lots of little nuances that all investors should be aware of.

Understanding them won't just mean that you know what you're going to have to end up paying — it's also the best way to make sure any money you make from investing is as tax-efficient as possible.

So without further ado, here is our brief guide to UK investment tax.

Stamp duty (reserve tax)

Paid when: you buy a UK stock

Headache level: None


The charmingly named yet irritating tax that applies to UK-based shares bought electronically. It’s a standard 0.5% sales tax paid on all UK-listed stocks, but not overseas shares or ETFs listed on UK exchanges but domiciled overseas (that’s the case for most UK-listed ETFs).

You pay at the point of purchase and it’s transparently applied to the total transaction cost. You don’t really need to worry about this, but if you’re allergic to extra tax, you can go for ETFs or overseas stocks.


Capital gains

Paid when: you realise a gain (i.e. you sell the stock or ETF at a profit)

Headache level: None (with an ISA or SIPP), high with a GIA (general investment account)


The main tax on investment is capital gains tax.

Capital gains tax (CGT) is tax on the return of an investment from when you bought it. Any investment — stocks, art, property (that isn’t your primary residence).

In the UK, we’re blessed with a relatively simple capital gains tax system. Check out the equivalent in the US if you want to go insane and fall asleep at the same time.

To stress again, CGT only taxes gains on investments, not the total value of your holding. It applies to investments held in GIAs, but not ISAs or SIPPs (more on this later).

And the tax is only incurred when you realise the gain by cashing in the investment.

E.G. You invest £10k into an ETF through a GIA — it gains by 10% and you now have an £11k position. If you sell the investment only the £1k gain is potentially liable for capital gains tax.

Only the gain at the time of sale is relevant. If you waited longer to sell and the ETF goes down, reducing your gain to £500, only that £500 would be liable.

The CGT rate varies a bit depending on your income taxpayer status, but on stock market investments it usually applies as:

  • 10% on gain for basic rate taxpayers (unless your gain is over the basic rate income level)
  • 20% on gain for higher rate taxpayers


There are other limitations for whether CGT applies.

In the UK, we have a threshold before you pay capital gains tax. This is called the AEA (annual exempt allowance) and it’s a universal standalone allowance for all your investment returns across the year from any kind of investment.

Your CGT allowance includes all the realised gains you make across any investments you’ve sold that year (i.e. stocks and funds, but also rental properties, art etc).

If your total net capital gain for the year is within the allowance (£12,300 in 2020–2021), it’s tax-free and there’s no need to report it.

Significantly, any capital losses you’ve realised that year (i.e. investments you’ve sold at a loss) count against your gains, which could keep you under the allowance.

If in a year, you sell one investment at a £20K gain and another at a £10K loss, your net CGT is £10k and under the allowance.

Around £12,300 in gains seems like a lot of money, and unless your portfolio is large or you’re an investing genius, it’s unlikely you’ll make those sorts of gains in a single year.

However, CGT is calculated on the gain from the original date of purchase not the growth of your portfolio year-to-year.



If you’re planning to invest long-term, either as a Buffett-esque investor or for retirement/financial freedom, through the magic of compounding £11k starts to become a very achievable gain on comparatively small initial investments.

The S&P 500 has grown by c.4.7% per annum over the last 20 years. At that rate of return an investment would have doubled in 16 years and triple after 24 years. Suddenly a c.£11k allowance doesn’t look so large!

So if you’re investing for the long-term, it’s worth seriously considering a stock and shares ISA — the you of 2048 may be incredibly grateful!


Dividend tax

Paid when: dividends are paid on stocks you own

Headache level: None (with an ISA or SIPP), high with a GIA (general investment account)


A dividend is a proportion of the net profits of a company you own as a shareholder. Some companies reinvest all their profits into the business and don’t pay dividends. But many still do.

Dividends are taxed as income, not capital gains. There’s a £2000 tax-free allowance for dividend income per tax year.

After that, any more dividend income stacks onto your overall income and is then taxed at different rates, depending on your income tax status.

After your allowances, the biggest factor on the tax you pay on investments is the account you use to invest.




In the UK, the three main investment accounts are:

  • GIA (general investment account)
  • Stock and shares ISA (individual savings account)
  • SIPP (self-invested personal pension)

You can have multiple different accounts open at the same time and each have unique benefits and deficits. 

Let’s dive into the essentials.


GIAs

GIAs  — general investment accounts — are the most simple type of investment account offered by brokers. They generally let you invest in most types of tradable assets.

These accounts have no tax relief: they’re exposed to capital gains tax and you’ll incur tax on any gain or dividend over your total allowance.

If you do go over the dividend or CGT allowance in a GIA account, you’ll have to sort out the tax yourself through an annual self-assessment return. 😒

You also have more of a reporting burden; you have to report large stock sales (c.£45,000+) regardless of what you gained or loss.

Stocks and shares ISAs

Stocks and shares ISAs are special tax-wrapped accounts.

There are limits on how much you can add to an ISA each tax year (£20,000 right now).

However, all the returns you make on the money inside are tax-free and don’t use up any of your total CGT allowance. You could potentially make a £500,000+ tax-free gain in your ISA and still have your full allowance for any gains you make outside the ISA. Dividends paid on ISA-owned stocks are also tax-immune. 😀

If you’re planning to hold long-term, this is where ISAs start to become essential. Over many years, it’s very easy for a pretty small portfolio to have compounded far beyond the CGT threshold. You definitely don’t want to incur tax on that return and ISAs keep the whole gain tax-free.

It’s a gift from past you to future you!

There are also some limits on what assets you can own in ISAs, but you can own the vast majority of popular stocks and funds.

SIPPs 

Self-invested personal pension (SIPPs) are pension plans where the holder controls and selects the investments. Like all pensions, you can’t withdraw the money until you reach a certain age: 55 currently or 57 from 2028 onwards.

You can invest in a huge range of assets with a SIPP, including physical gold and hotel room leases.

Like ISAs, all investments and dividends in SIPPs are tax-free and don’t use up any CGT allowance. 

Furthermore, as it’s a pension, you also get extra tax relief from the government on your contributions. This means the government will add 25% of what you invested into the SIPP. If you’re a higher rate taxpayer, you’ll get an additional tax rebate.

Again like ISAs, there’s a limit on how you add into a SIPP annually (£40,000 in 2020–2021).

However, this limit varies a bit depending on factors like income and your other pensions.

Unlike an ISA, when you withdraw there is likely to be an income tax burden on the money you take out, despite the lack of capital gains tax. Most people can remove 25% of the pot tax-free, after which any more withdrawal will be taxed as regular income (but not CGT).

Let’s sum up!

General Investment Account


• Tax-liable holdings
• No limit on what you can add each year
• Can invest in most securities/tradable assets, but not all investments


Stocks and shares ISAs


• Tax-wrapped holdings
• Limit on amount you can add each year
• Can invest in most securities but with a bit more limitation than a GIA


SIPPs


• Tax-wrapped holdings, additional tax relief and potential rebate
• Limit on amount you can add each year
• Huge range of assets you can own in the SIPP, you can invest in anything from securities to property to physical gold
• May incur an income tax burden on withdrawal


OK, so what should I do?

If you’re certain your annual total capital gains will never go above the threshold, only want to invest short-term and don’t expect to receive much dividend income, it might suit you to only use the GIA, since they’re free at Freetrade. 💸

However, if you’re investing even slightly long-term, the likelihood is that the ISA will prove much more efficient for most investors.

If you don’t want to worry or think about investment tax at all, ISAs are an ideal option.

ISAs are also great if you plan to build a large portfolio over time (you should be). Due to the annual limit on ISA contributions, you might not be able able to transfer in a big portfolio you built outside the ISA in one go.

If you expect to build up a long-term portfolio that will eventually produce returns over the capital gains threshold, it’s definitely worth doing it in the ISA. It’ll also keep your dividends tax-free.

They also offer the most flexibility and simplicity; you can withdraw your money whenever you want without incurring any tax at all.

Overall for a combination of flexibility, simplicity and tax efficiency, stocks and shares ISAs are best. 💪

Finally, if you want to be as tax efficient as possible, get free money from the government, are happy not to touch the money invested for a (very) long time and then withdraw it very conservatively, then SIPPs can be like ISAs on crack. Patient, prudent crack. 👴

There! We managed a comprehensive post on investment tax while maintaining some level of clarity. At moments, it looked in danger of becoming horribly complicated, but I do believe we steered it back!

I’d like to thank our team and, of course, HMRC, for making it a challenge. 🎉


This should not be read as personal investment advice and individual investors should make their own decisions or seek independent advice. This article has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is considered a marketing communication.

When you invest, your capital is at risk. The value of your portfolio can go down as well as up and you may get back less than you invest. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

Freetrade is a trading name of Freetrade Limited, which is a member firm of the London Stock Exchange and is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England and Wales (no. 09797821).
“Tax doesn’t have to be taxing."

So says everyone’s favourite advert from HMRC. Well, it doesn’t have to be, but they’re making a good go of ensuring that it is.

Well, it doesn’t have to be, but they’re making a good go of ensuring that it is.

Contrary to their claim, tax is a complex subject. 🙄

However, there are a number of factors that make tax on stock market investments a bit more simple and much less burdensome than other types of tax.

This is great: we generally like to simplify and clear up information asymmetry as much as possible. And it means you have a number of ways to keep more of your sweet, sweet gains.

Thank you! Please check for your confirmation email.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Sign up to get stories first

You're all signed up!