What Is Indirect Tax? Sales Tax, VAT, and GST Explained

What Is Indirect Tax? Sales Tax, VAT, and GST Explained

Discover indirect taxes, what they are, how they differ from direct taxes, and why this matters to businesses.

Indirect taxes affect individuals and businesses alike. They not only play a significant role in generating revenue for governments, but also impact consumer behavior and the overall economy. In this post, we'll delve into the intricacies of indirect taxes, including sales tax, VAT, and GST, and explore their role in the economy, the challenges businesses face in complying with their regulations, and the strategies to simplify indirect tax compliance.

Short summary

  • Indirect taxes, including sales tax, VAT, and GST are collected by businesses on behalf of governments.
  • Businesses must manage various compliance difficulties when operating across borders or offering digital products/services.
  • Using tax automation software and seeking professional assistance can simplify indirect tax compliance.

Types of indirect taxes

The primary distinction between direct taxes and indirect taxes lies in the way they're collected. While direct taxes, such as income tax and capital gains tax, are paid directly to the government by individuals or organizations, indirect taxes are collected by businesses on behalf of governments.

Indirect taxes, such as sales tax, value-added tax (VAT), and goods and services tax (GST), vary based on location, product categories, and jurisdiction. These taxes play a vital role in generating revenue for governments, allowing them to fund public services and infrastructure projects.

For instance, in Texas, cowboy boots are exempt from taxation, while hiking boots are not. In Ireland, children’s footwear is exempt from taxation, but adult footwear is subject to tax. These are examples of consumption tax trends that reflect the complex nature of indirect taxes.

Value Added Tax (VAT)

Value Added Tax is a consumption tax levied on the value added at each stage of production or distribution. The origins of VAT date back to the 1950s, and the concept is simple: businesses collect VAT on the difference between the price of their output and the cost of their inputs. The final consumer ultimately bears the burden of the tax. VAT rates vary considerably from country to country and in the EU the standard VAT rate can be anything from 16% (Luxembourg) to 27% (Hungary).

VAT operates on a multi-stage collection process. Let's imagine a scenario where a manufacturer sells goods to a retailer. The manufacturer charges VAT on the selling price. When the retailer sells these goods to the consumer, they charge VAT on the final selling price, but they can deduct the VAT they paid to the manufacturer. This way, the VAT is calculated only on the value added at each stage of the supply chain.

Goods and Services Tax (GST)

Goods and Services Tax is similar to VAT in that it's a consumption-based tax applied to goods and services. The key difference lies in its unified structure. GST combines multiple taxes, such as excise duty, service tax, and sales tax, into one comprehensive tax system. This simplifies the tax structure, reduces inefficiencies, and eases administrative burdens.

Just like VAT, GST is collected at each stage of the supply chain. The tax liability is passed on to the next stage until the product reaches the final consumer. This cascading effect of multiple taxes is eliminated under the GST system, promoting a more transparent and efficient tax mechanism. The implementation of GST can be complex, though, requiring businesses to adhere to relevant regulations and demonstrate the capability to accurately monitor and report their GST payments.

Sales Tax

Sales tax is another form of indirect tax, but it's typically applied at the point of sale to the end consumer. Unlike VAT and GST, sales tax doesn't take into account the various stages of production or distribution. Instead, it's a percentage added to the retail price of a product. The responsibility of collecting and remitting the sales tax falls on the seller, and ascertaining the correct sales tax rate to collect can be complex in the US, as numerous states have hundreds of tax jurisdictions.

Sales tax rates can vary widely depending on the jurisdiction and the type of goods or services being sold. Some states or countries have exemptions or reduced rates for certain essential items to lessen the impact on lower-income individuals. In the United States, sales tax varies from state to state and can range from 2.9% to 7.25%, with many states also having local sales taxes that can average more than 5%.

The role of indirect taxes in the economy

The role of indirect taxes in the economy

Indirect taxes, also known as indirect taxation, play a crucial role in generating revenue for governments. However, they also have significant regressive effects on the distribution of income, as indirect tax is generally imposed on goods and services regardless of the consumer’s income. The effect is that indirect taxes are actually higher for individuals with lower incomes.

Despite this, indirect taxes have been a primary source of revenue for many years and will likely remain so in the future due to the substantial funding requirements of governments.

Revenue generation

Indirect taxes, including VAT and sales tax, are applied uniformly on the purchase of goods and services, thereby enabling the government to generate revenue. This revenue has an important role in financing public services and infrastructure projects, as well as alleviating the burden of direct taxes, such as income tax, by providing an alternate source of revenue.

Businesses often encounter a variety of compliance difficulties when it comes to indirect taxes, including cross-border transactions, digital products and services, and the need to remain up-to-date with evolving regulations. In order to navigate these challenges and ensure accurate tax compliance, it's a good idea for businesses to utilize tax automation tools and seek professional assistance.

Consumer behavior

Indirect taxes can be used to promote or discourage certain consumer behaviors by establishing varying tax rates for different products or services. For instance, governments may impose higher taxes on products deemed to be detrimental to human health, such as cigarettes, or lower taxes on products believed to be safer for the environment, such as electric cars.

Many governments across the world have increased taxes on cigarettes to discourage people from smoking, whereas taxes have been reduced on electric cars with the aim of encouraging more people to give up their petrol cars and go electric. These examples demonstrate the power of indirect taxes in shaping consumer behavior and promoting desired outcomes.

Indirect tax compliance challenges for businesses

Businesses face various challenges in adhering to indirect tax regulations, particularly when managing cross-border transactions and digital products or services. For instance, the UK now has a distinct VAT registration process that is separate from Europe’s VAT OSS following Brexit.

In this context, businesses are required to collect taxes in any location where they have customers, regardless of their own geographical location. In order to do so, businesses must first register with the state or country in which they have met the registration threshold.

Cross-border transactions

Cross-border transactions refer to the exchange of goods or services between two or more countries. In order to comply with relevant tax regulations and thresholds in different countries, businesses must navigate intricate tax rules and regulations and monitor tax compliance in different jurisdictions. This complexity is further compounded by the necessity to ensure that indirect taxes are applied accurately to cross-border transactions.

To simplify indirect tax compliance, it's often a good idea for businesses to use tax automation tools and seek professional guidance. Thankfully, more and more governments are starting to implement reforms and upgrades to their tax compliance systems, including digitization of indirect taxes and real-time reporting, making the entire process easier for businesses.

Digital products and services

Digital products and services, such as software, music, videos, and e-books, are subject to different tax regulations in various jurisdictions, adding complexity to tax compliance. It's important to do your research so you can have a clear idea as to when indirect tax is applicable to a sale and in which jurisdiction.

As businesses continue to expand their digital offerings, understanding and complying with these varying tax regulations becomes increasingly important. If you're unsure, it's best to get the advice of a tax professional who can guide you and see that your business remains tax compliant.

Strategies for simplifying indirect tax compliance

Simplifying indirect tax compliance is essential for businesses operating in an increasingly globalized economy. By using tax automation software and enlisting the help of tax professionals, businesses can more effectively navigate complex tax regulations and ensure compliance.

Tax automation tools

Tax automation tools help businesses calculate, collect, and remit indirect taxes accurately and efficiently. These tools not only save time and resources, but also reduce the risk of errors in tax calculations and filings.

Taxually and Lumatax, for example, offer tax compliance software solutions that can ease the burden on businesses and streamline their tax compliance processes. This makes it easier to adhere to complex tax regulations and reduces the likelihood of costly penalties or fines due to non-compliance.

Professional assistance

Seeking professional assistance from tax experts is another effective strategy for simplifying indirect tax compliance. Tax professionals possess in-depth knowledge of complex tax regulations and can help businesses with the intricacies of indirect taxes, ensuring compliance and optimizing tax savings.

They can also help businesses stay current on the latest tax laws and regulations, ensuring accurate tax compliance, and reducing the risk of penalties and fines.

Indirect tax reforms

Indirect tax reforms

Recent reforms to indirect tax systems include the digitization of tax processes and the adoption of real-time reporting systems. These reforms aim to modernize taxation, improve tax compliance, and reduce tax evasion, ultimately bolstering the overall economy of a country. By staying informed of these trends, businesses can better adapt to the evolving tax landscape and ensure compliance with the latest regulations.

Digitization of indirect taxes

The digitization of indirect taxes offers several benefits, including:

  • Simplified tax compliance.
  • Reduced need for paper-based processes.
  • E-invoicing eliminates the requirement for paper-based invoices, allowing businesses to generate, transmit, and receive invoices electronically.
  • The ecommerce VAT package introduced by the European Union ensures a more equitable environment for businesses and enhances the collection of VAT on online sales.

By embracing digitization, businesses can easily keep on top of their tax compliance processes, reduce errors, and adapt to the rapidly changing tax landscape.

Real-time reporting

Real-time reporting systems increase transparency and reduce non-compliance in tax transactions. These systems require businesses to report their tax transactions to the tax authorities in a timely manner, promoting accurate tax compliance and reducing the risk of penalties or fines due to non-compliance. Real-time reporting can be time-consuming for businesses, though, which is why tax software is so advantageous. It can help facilitate real-time reporting, saving businesses time and money.


Understanding indirect taxes and their implications is essential for businesses operating in today’s global economy. By familiarizing themselves with the various types of indirect taxes, such as sales tax, VAT, and GST, and by staying informed about the latest changes to tax regulations, businesses can better navigate complex tax regulations and ensure compliance.

Do you need help with your VAT compliance? Book a free call with one of our VAT experts to find bespoke solutions for your business, optimize your VAT costs, and reach millions of new potential customers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are indirect taxes in the UK?

In the UK, indirect taxes such as Value Added Tax (VAT) and excise tax on cigarettes and alcohol are levied on goods and services to raise revenue.

National Insurance is not considered a tax.

Is VAT an indirect tax?

Value Added Tax (VAT) is a form of indirect taxation that is applied to goods and services during the production and distribution process. It's part of a broader scope of taxes, including customs and excise duties.

What does indirect tax mean?

An indirect tax is a type of taxation imposed on producers of goods and services that is ultimately paid for by the consumer.

Common examples of indirect taxes include Value Added Tax (VAT), excise duties, and import taxes.

What is the main difference between direct and indirect taxes?

Direct taxes are paid directly to the government by taxpayers, while indirect taxes are collected by businesses and then passed on to the government.

April 18, 2024
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