What is a stocks and shares ISA?

What's a stocks and shares ISA?
In this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know about stocks and shares ISAs. Learn what an ISA actually is, how these tax-efficient investment accounts work and what you can invest in.
Read on to see if ISAs are the right place for your savings.

Stocks and shares ISAs explained

A stocks and shares ISA, sometimes called an investment ISA, is a tax-efficient investment account. This means any money you earn from your investments will be free from UK taxes.  

Within a stocks and shares ISA you won’t pay:

  • Income tax on dividends or interest 
  • Capital gains tax if you sell your investments for a profit


With a stocks and shares ISA you can invest in a range of shares, exchange-traded funds, investment trusts and more. 

Before diving in, it’s important to understand that any tax treatment depends on your individual circumstances and may be subject to change in future. You also need to be comfortable with the fact that the value of your investments can fall as well as rise, so you might get back less than you originally invested.


How does a stocks and shares ISA work?

Who can open a stocks and shares ISA?

To open a stocks and shares ISA you must be: 

  • Aged 18 or over  
  • A UK resident for tax purposes
  • Comfortable that the value of investments can go up as well as down
  • Prepared to invest for at least 5 years

2021/2022 ISA allowance

Each tax year HMRC sets an ISA allowance. It’s the total amount of money you can put into ISAs each year. ‍

The ISA allowance for the 2021/22 tax year (which ends on 5th April 2022) is £20,000. 

You can invest all £20,000 in a stocks and shares ISA or spread it across different ISA accounts. 

Annual ISA allowance for the 2021/22 tax year
Annual ISA allowance for the 2021/22 tax year


What is the deadline for opening an ISA? 

The ISA deadline for this tax year is midnight on the 5th April 2022. To take full advantage of your ISA allowance you will need to have added money to your stocks and shares ISA by then. 

After the deadline, a new tax year has started so you will have a new allowance to make use of. You can’t carry forward your allowance, so you will lose it if you don’t use it by 5 April.


What can you put in a stocks and shares ISA?

Stocks and shares ISAs aren’t too fussy about what goes in them. That means they’re a good way to spread your investments across different things. 

Some of the things you can hold in a stocks and shares ISA:

What about cash? 

We think about cash in a stocks and shares ISA as on its way to somewhere else. 

That could be on its way to being invested or withdrawn to your bank account. 

So while you can hold cash in your stocks and shares ISA it’s important to point out that if you intend to use your ISA just to hold cash as savings, you might find a cash ISA more suitable. 

We’ve written in more detail about keeping cash in your investment account and we’ve also done something to help. Freetrade Plus members can earn 3% interest on cash, up to a max deposit of £4,000. Learn more here


Ready to invest?

If you’d like to brush up on some of investing basics before getting started, take a look at our guides: 

It’s important to understand that the value of investments can fall as well as rise and you may not get back what you originally invested.

What are the advantages of a stocks and shares ISA? 

Stocks and shares ISAs have two key benefits: 

  1. By investing, you have the opportunity to grow your savings 
  2. You can protect any investment growth from UK taxes

1. Opportunity to grow your savings

Keeping your savings as cash  

Cash savings are one way to save but when it comes to growing your savings, cash savings, whether that be in a bank, savings account or a cash ISA, might not be the best product to focus on. 

Unless the interest you receive on your savings is higher than the rate of inflation, left as cash, your money is likely to be worth less in the future. 

UK interest rates have been low and even near zero for a while now, so it’s worth double-checking what rate you are getting on your savings. Does it cover inflation?

Here’s an example of how inflation can hurt your spending power over the long run. 

The longer you leave it, the less your £2,000 is worth.

£2,000 in... Inflation
0.5% 1.5% 3.0% 4.5%
5 years £1,951 £1,857 £1,725 £1,605
10 years £1,903 £1,723 £1,488 £1,288
20 years £1,810 £1,485 £1,107 £829
30 years £1,722 £1,280 £824 £534
50 years £1,559 £950 £456 £221


Disclaimer: This table is just for illustrative purposes only and does not use real inflation rates.  

💡 Two steps to prepare your ISA for inflation. 


Investing your savings 

As cash, your money is not going to experience the short term ups and downs of the stock market. £2,000 today is likely to be worth a similar amount in a year.

With investing, however, you are buying things that can go up and down in value and could lose their value altogether. 

In exchange for taking on this risk and the potential ups and downs of the stock market, investors have historically been rewarded with a higher rate of return on their cash and an opportunity to grow their savings. 

Stocks and shares ISA returns example

Let’s say you invested £2,000 in the global stock market 10 years ago, your £2,000 would now be worth just under £5,000. If you’d invested 20 years ago, that would be closer to £6,000. 

Graph: £2,000 invested in the global stock market 10 and 20 years ago. Source: MSCI All Country World Index, Bloomberg, 27/08/2021


These may be attractive numbers but it’s important to recognise they are based on past performance and are not a reliable indicator of future results. 

You’ll also see from the chart that the growth didn’t happen overnight, there were ups and downs along the way. 

When you’re investing, the longer you can leave your investments, the better. A good rule of thumb is to be prepared to keep your money invested for at least five years.


2. Tax benefits of a stocks and shares ISA

In a stocks and shares ISA, any money you earn from your investments will be free from UK taxes. That means: 

  • No capital gains tax if you sell your investments for a profit
  • No income tax on dividends or interest
Tax What's taxed The scenario Basic rate tax payer Higher rate tax payer Additional rate tax payer ISA investor
Capital gains tax Your gains You make a profit on the sale of your investments in a year, that's above the the £12,300 tax-free allowance. 10% 20% 20% 0%
Dividend tax Your dividends You're paid over £2,000 in dividends in a year. 7.5% 32.5% 38.1% 0%
Interest income Interest from cash savings, corporate bonds and other fixed interest products You earn interest on your cash savings or you're paid income from bond investments. 20% (interest over £1,000) 40% (interest over £500) 45% 0%


Disclaimer: This table assumes you have used your personal allowance. Comparisons are based on our understanding of the
gov.co.uk  information as at 31 August 2021. For confirmation of up to date information, you should visit the gov.co.uk website. Please note that tax treatment depends on the individual circumstances of each client and may be subject to future change. 

Capital gains tax >>

What’s taxed?

If you sell an investment for more than you bought it for, the government might charge you tax on your profit (in tax terms your ‘gains’).

The catch?

Each year the government sets an amount that you can earn from selling investments and a few other assets without paying tax. At the moment this allowance (the ‘CGT allowance’) is £12,300.

Things to think about:

You might not think you’ll go above the £12,300 anytime soon but if you’re adding to your investments each year and growing them over the next five, ten years and beyond, you might reach it sooner than you think.

When there’s £20,000 to be invested tax-free each year, why take the risk at all?

Capital gains tax example:

Here we compare the taxes owed with a GIA (general investment account) and a stocks and shares ISA.

Capital gains tax
Bought shares £5,000
Sold shares £25,000
Profit minus CGT allowance (£12,300) £7,700
Tax owed with GIA
Basic rate tax payer - 10% £770
Higher rate tax payer - 20% £1,540
Additional rate tax payer - 20% £1,540
Tax owed with ISA £0

Dividend tax >>

What’s taxed?

If you earn over £2,000 in dividends from shares, investment trusts or ETFs in a year you’ll have to pay tax on this. How much tax depends on whether you are a basic, higher or additional rate taxpayer.

The catch?

Dividend income is treated a bit like your wages, so if you’ll earn less than the standard personal allowance amount of £12,570, any dividend income will fall into your personal allowance and you won’t have to pay income tax. There are circumstances when the personal allowance changes so it’s best to check directly.

Things to think about:

£2,000 in dividends might seem a bit of a stretch but if you keep investing regularly, over a number of years it could become more of a reality.

Dividend tax example:

Here we compare the taxes owed with a GIA (general investment account) and a stocks and shares ISA. We’ve assumed you’ve already used up your personal allowance.

Dividend Tax
Dividends paid £5,000
Dividends minus dividend allowance (£2,000) £3,000
Tax owed with GIA
Basic rate tax payer - 7.5% £225
Higher rate tax payer - 32.5% £975
Additional rate tax payer - 38.1% £1,143
Tax owed with ISA £0

Tax on savings >>

What’s taxed?

Interest earned on your cash savings or interest you’re paid from bond investments.

The catch?

If you are a basic or higher rate taxpayer you have a Personal Savings Allowance of £1,000 and £500, which means you won’t be taxed on any interest until you go over these amounts.

Things to think about:

With interest rates so low, tax on interest income might not seem a big risk but keep in mind the tax-free allowances are also lower.

Savings tax example:

Here we compare the taxes owed with a GIA (general investment account) and a stocks and shares ISA.

Tax on savings
Interest earned £1,000
Tax owed with GIA
Basic rate - 20% (interest over £1,000) £0
Higher rate - 40% (interest over £500) £200
Additional rate - 45% £450
Tax owed with ISA £0


Stocks and shares ISA taxes 

There are a few taxes stocks and shares ISAs won’t protect you from. 

  1. Stamp duty (SDRT)
    This is a 0.5% charge, paid and deducted at the time you buy a UK stock, with the exception of AIM stocks and some ETFs. You do not pay stamp duty on US stocks. 
     
  2. Withholding tax on US dividends
    The US Government charges non-US residents a 30% tax on any income received from US investments. Thanks to an agreement between the UK and the US, UK residents can generally reduce this tax to 15%. 

    To do this you’ll need to fill in a W-8BEN form, which declares you’re not a US tax resident. If you’re a Freetrade customer we’ll prompt you to fill it in in-app.

What are the risks of a stocks and shares ISA?

Investment risk

ISAs themselves don’t necessarily carry risk - they are just the accounts. It’s the investments you put in your ISA that carry the risk. 

The risk (known as investment risk) is the risk that your investments could end up being worth less than they were when you started. 

The good news is there are lots of things you can do to reduce investment risk. Take a look at our guide on investment risk and how to combat it. 

Your ISA provider goes out of business

This risk is to do with the investment platform or provider going out of business rather than your investments losing value themselves. 

The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) exists to protect customers of financial services firms, such as banks, insurers or investment firms if the firm goes out of business. 

If the provider in question has protection, the scheme will cover and pay back your funds up to £85,000.

💡 How we keep your money safe at Freetrade

How to build a high-performing stocks and shares ISA

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to a high-performing portfolio. It all comes back to what you are trying to do. 

  • Are you just looking for growth or would you like an income from your investments? 
  • Do you want to stay invested for 10 years or 20 years? 
  • How do you feel about risk? 

And while we can’t give you an exact recipe for your portfolio investment performance, we can suggest a few core ingredients: 

🌍 Think global 

Spread your investments across different countries, sectors and companies. This way your portfolio isn’t reliant on one thing to make it grow and if one area is not performing so well, other investments could help to offset this. 

For more info, take a look at our guide on how to diversify your portfolio

🗓 Invest regularly  

Stock markets are meant to move up and down as they take in more information. 

Rather than waiting for the right moment to invest, investing regularly means you won’t miss out on the most important growth ingredient - time. 

It also means you can worry less about the price you pay, as you’ll likely pay slightly higher and lower prices over time. 

⏳ Stay invested  

This is the one to remember. By staying invested you give your investments the best chance to grow and you can worry less about any short term market movements. You’re also less likely to miss out on any growth periods due to mistimed decisions. 

How long should you stay invested? That’s up to you. But you shouldn’t really be investing if you need your money back in the next five years. 

With investing, the longer you can stay invested, the better. 

💡 Learn more:
Saving vs investing: which is better when?
A realistic guide to becoming an ISA millionaire


Choosing the best stocks and shares ISA provider for your needs 

The best stocks and shares ISA will be the one that suits your needs the best. 

We all have different investing goals but we also have different expectations and requirements for what we want from our ISA provider. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when comparing stocks and shares ISAs: 

  • How much does the platform charge to hold your investments? 
  • How much does it cost to place a trade? 
  • Does it have what you want to invest in? 
  • How user-friendly is the platform? 
  • Do they keep you up to date on the investment world and tips for investing?

How much does a stocks and shares ISA cost?

Different platforms charge customers in different ways. When looking at which platform to invest with, the charges to look out for are:

  • Platform charges
  • Trading commission
  • Foreign exchange fees
  • Ongoing charges for products like ETFs, investment trusts and funds
  • Exit charges

Charges can have a real impact on your investments especially if investment performance is not doing enough to offset them, so it’s important to check if your ISA is good value. 

Our investment fees calculator compares charges across different platforms and could help you work this out. 


💡 Find out more about Freetrade’s stocks and shares ISA charges

Opening a Stocks and Shares ISA 

Opening a stocks and shares ISA is easy. 

As long as you don’t already have a stocks and shares ISA for the current tax year, you’re 18 or over and a UK resident for tax purposes, you are ready to go.  

Find out more about opening a stocks and shares ISA with Freetrade.

Transferring your stocks and shares ISA to a different provider

There are many reasons why you might consider transferring your ISA. 

You could have built up a few ISAs over the years with different providers or perhaps your needs have changed and you’ve found a provider that suits you better. 

One of the main reasons we hear about is that it’s easier to keep track of how investments are performing if everything is in one place. 

It’s also easier to keep track of how much you are being charged. If you have different ISAs with a few providers, you’re likely to be paying different charges for all of them. 

Whatever your reason, it’s important to make sure an ISA transfer is right for you before you make the move. Our guide to ISA transfers should help here. 

💡 Find out more about transferring ISAs to Freetrade

How is a stocks and shares ISA different from other ISA accounts? 

Stocks and shares ISAs stand out from other accounts for a few reasons: 

  • You can spread your money across a range of investments
  • You can use the whole ISA allowance
  • You can withdraw your investments at any time but if you do, you will lose your tax-free allowance
  • Any investment growth is tax-free

To help you decide which ISA account is right for you, here’s a summary of the different types. 

ISA type This ISA is for... What can you put in it? Who can open this ISA? How much can you pay into this ISA? Benefits of this ISA Drawbacks of this ISA
Stocks and Shares ISA Investments and savings Stocks
Investment Trusts
ETFs
Funds
Bonds
Cash
You must be 18 or over and a UK resident for tax purposes. Up to £20,000 each year. Tax-free growth
No UK tax on income
Tax-free withdrawals
Returns are not guaranteed.
Investments can go up and down in value.
Cash ISA Savings Cash
Some NS&I products
You must be 16 or over and a UK resident for tax purposes. Up to £20,000 each year. Savings interest is tax-free
Capital protection
Easy access and fixed term accounts available
Cash savings are not risk-free.
The value of your cash could drop if the savings rate you recieve is lower than inflation.
Lifetime ISA Investments and savings Stocks
Cash
You must be 18 or over but under 40 to open a Lifetime ISA.
UK resident for tax pruposes.
You can top up your Lifetime ISA until you're 50.
Up to £4,000 each year. Tax-free growth
Government pays 25% annual boost on up to £4,000
You can only withdraw money from your Lifetime ISA if you're buying your first house, over 60 years old or terminally ill.
Innovative Finance Investments Peer-to-peer loans (loans you give to people or businesses without using a bank)
Cash
You must be 18 or over and a UK resident for tax purposes. Up to £20,000 each year. Can offer higher rates of interest than a traditional savings account. Riskier investment, meant for experienced investors.
Peer-to-peer platforms are not always protected by the FSCS scheme.


Disclaimer: Comparisons to ISA accounts are based on our understanding of the
gov.co.uk  information as at 25 August 2021. They are shown for illustrative purposes only. For confirmation of up to date features, you should visit the website.


Stocks and shares ISA rules

Who can open a stocks and shares ISA? 

You must be 18 or over and a UK resident or a Crown servant (e.g. foreign diplomat or civil service) if you do not live in the UK.  


How much can you invest in a stocks and shares ISA? 

For the tax year 2021/2022 you can put up to £20,000 in a stocks and shares ISA.

What can you put in a stocks and shares ISA? 

You can invest in a whole range of investments. 


When can you get your money back?

There is no fixed time limit on how long you need to hold a stocks and shares ISA. That said, when you invest you should be ready to leave your money alone for at least five years. 

If you need to take money out of your stocks and shares ISA, you can do so at any point. If you do take any money out it’s important to remember you will lose your tax-free allowance.

Here’s an example of what we mean by losing your tax-free allowance. Let’s say you’ve added £16,000 to your ISA this tax year and you withdraw £2,000. While the amount left in your ISA is now £14,000, the remaining amount you can put into your ISA this year is still £4,000. That’s because for most ISAs once you’ve used your ISA allowance once it’s gone. 

Stocks and shares ISA FAQs 

What happens to an ISA when you die?

If you die your ISA and its tax benefits will end. This doesn’t happen immediately but when your executor closes your ISA or the administration of your estate is completed. If neither happens your provider will close it 3 years and 1 day after your death. 

Your ISA provider can be instructed to sell the investments in your ISA or transfer them to your surviving spouse or civil partner if they are with the same ISA provider as you. 

There won’t be any income tax or capital gains tax to pay up to this date, but your ISA investments will form part of your estate for inheritance tax purposes. You can leave your ISA for anyone you wish to in your will. Your spouse or civil partner can also inherit your ISA’s tax-free status as a one-off boost. 

For example, if you have an ISA worth £40,000. When you die, your spouse or civil partner will get an additional one-off ISA allowance of £40,000 as well as the standard ISA allowance (which is £20,000 this year). 

What happens to an ISA when you move abroad?

When you move abroad and are no longer a UK resident you’re not allowed to keep putting money in your ISA. This doesn’t happen straight away but starts when the next tax year kicks in.

Say you left the UK in December when the new tax year starts on 6th April the following year, you wouldn’t be able to add any money to your ISA. 

You must let us know as soon as you stop being a UK resident. Head to contact us


Can I transfer my ISA to another person?

You are not allowed to transfer your ISA to another person. 

Can I have more than one stocks and shares ISA? 

You can only open or add money to one stocks and shares ISA each tax year. However, you may have old stocks and shares ISAs you’ve opened with other providers in previous tax years and these are fine to hold on to. 

It’s worth noting that you could combine old ISAs by transferring them all to one provider. Before doing so it’s important to check if you’ll be charged any exit fees for leaving your current provider and whether your current provider allows transfers in. 


Can you withdraw money out of stocks and shares ISA?

This is maybe one of the biggest misunderstandings around ISAs. They are readily accessible and, unlike a pension, you can take your money out whenever you like. But if you do take any money out of your ISA it’s important to remember you will lose your tax-free allowance.

Here’s an example of what we mean by losing your tax-free allowance.

Let’s say you’ve added £16,000 to your ISA this tax year and you withdraw £2,000. While the amount left in your ISA is now £14,000, the remaining amount you can put into your ISA this year is still £4,000. That’s because for most ISAs once you’ve used your ISA allowance once it’s gone. 

How often should you invest?

Regular investing, as opposed to waiting for the ‘right time’ to jump into the stock market, can be very beneficial. When you invest in regular intervals you’ll catch both the highs and lows of the market.  That tends to average out over time and, critically, makes sure your cash is put to work.

Most people find monthly investing to be helpful, in line with their pay schedule.


Is there an incentive to invest bulk lump sums e.g. £5,000?

Sometimes, where high fixed trading fees are involved, it can make sense to invest large sums at a time rather than small ones regularly.
But on investment platforms with low trading fees, this doesn’t exist. You can invest what you can afford and as regularly as you like, rather than saving up to then invest.
It’s always a good idea to calculate annual ISA fees to make sure your costs are under control



Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future returns.

Discrete calendar year performance
Investment 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 2020-21
MSCI World 14.4% 9.6% -3.3% 16.0% 24.9%


Source: Bloomberg, as at 31 August 2021. Basis: bid-bid in local currency terms with income reinvested.


Important Information

This should not be read as personal investment advice and individual investors should make their own decisions or seek independent advice.

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.

Eligibility to invest in an ISA and the value of tax savings depends on personal circumstances and all tax rules may change.

Before transferring an ISA you should ensure you will not lose valuable guarantees or incur excessive transfer penalties. ISAs are usually transferred as cash so you will be out of the market for a period.

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).

Different ways to invest

Download the app and start
investing now.