How do I complete a VAT return? 

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VAT is one of the most confusing taxes. Here, AAT tutor Samantha Perkin provides a step-by-step guide to understanding VAT and completing a VAT return.

Step 1:  Understand what VAT is 

Value added tax (VAT) is a tax added to most products and services sold by VAT-registered businesses. Any business with a turnover of £85,000 that sells taxable supplies must register for VAT (businesses under this threshold can register on a voluntary basis). In the UK, VAT is charged at three rates: either 0%, 5% or 20%. 

Step 2:  Register with HMRC 

All VAT is now filed through Making Tax Digital (MTD). To register a business, head to Once you’re registered, HMRC will send an email with critical VAT information on it. You’ll need this to file, so don’t delete this email!  

Step 3: If you’re filing a VAT return for a client, get authorised first 

If you’re an accountant filing on behalf of a client, you’ll need to register as an agent with HMRC first and be authorised to file through MTD for that client. You should have an agent services account with HMRC that gives access to services such as MTD. Log in to your account and select ‘authorise a client’ (make sure you have the following info handy: your client’s VAT number, postcode and the date their VAT registration became effective). HMRC will then send a link to share with the client – they’ll need to sign in with the Government Gateway to authorise it. 

Step 4: File the tax return using MTD-compatible software 

This is done with approved software such as Xero, QuickBooks, Sage or FreeAgent, which should have a link to connect with HMRC. 

Step 5:  Check the boxes 

On the VAT return, you’ll notice there are nine boxes to complete: 

  • Box 1: VAT due on sales and other outputs. This is where a business enters all the VAT collected on behalf of HMRC on every sale of taxable supplies. 
  • Box 2: VAT due on intra-community acquisitions of goods made in Northern Ireland from EU member states. For businesses in England, Scotland and Wales this will normally be ‘Nil’. 
  • Box 3: Adds boxes 1 and 2 together – this is the total VAT to be reclaimed. 
  • Box 4: VAT reclaimed on purchases and other inputs. This is the total VAT paid by the business in the course of their trade. 
  • Box 5: Net VAT to be paid to customs or reclaimed by you (difference between boxes 3 and 4). HMRC automatically calculates this for you. 

These five boxes are the critical boxes for calculating VAT and should be completed to the penny. Boxes 6-7 cover the total value of sales and other outputs, while boxes 8-9 are for those businesses trading in Northern Ireland only. 

 Step 6: Don’t forget… 

  • Entertaining can be confusing on VAT returns. No VAT can be reclaimed for entertaining for the purpose of trade. You can claim VAT on staff entertaining. 
  • VAT on car expenses is complex. You’ll need to know how to apply fuel scale charges. HMRC’s website has good guidance on this. 
  • There are also complicated rules around buying and selling to the EU. You may need specialist VAT support from an export specialist. 
  • Penalties are charged to the client, not the accountant. You’ll receive points for late submission.  

Your AAT studies 

VAT returns are studied at AAT Level 3 in both AQ2016 and AQ2022. The indirect tax assessment is typically studied towards the end of Level 3. 

Further reading:

Hannah Dolan is AAT Comment’s Content Editor.

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