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Self employed vs sole trader – what’s the difference?

2-minute read

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Simply Business Editorial Team

Simply Business Editorial Team

29 November 2022

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Is a sole trader the same as self-employed? Read on to find out what counts as self-employment, the meaning of sole trader, and your business responsibilities.

Can I be self-employed and a sole trader?

Yes. If you’re self-employed, chances are you’re considered a sole trader.

But what is a 'sole trader'? A sole trader is one of the main types of business structure, alongside ‘limited company’ and ‘business partnership’.

It’s the simplest business structure and there’s very little paperwork needed to get started.

As a sole trader, you’re responsible for paying tax on your profits and you’re personally responsible for any losses that your business makes. Read our guide on how to pay tax when self employed for more information.

Meanwhile, a limited company is when you incorporate your business and it becomes its own legal entity.

What is the sole trader meaning?

A sole trader is someone who's self-employed and the sole owner of their business.

Unlike a limited company, a sole trader doesn’t have to register with Companies House or have a director.

For example, if you’re a freelance copywriter, you’re self-employed and would need to register as a sole trader.

This applies to many types of business, whether you’re running an online shop, doing freelance consultancy work, or working as a self-employed plumber.

Can a sole trader have employees?

Yes, sole traders can have employees as long as they remain the sole owner of the business.

If you’re a sole trader and you want to hire employees, you won’t need to set up a limited company. However, you’ll need to register as an employer with HMRC and submit a PAYE registration form.

Lots of sole traders have people working for them, but make sure you know the difference between a freelancer, employee, and worker as they have different rights. The government website explains the differences between employment statuses.

What counts as self-employment?

The definition of ‘self-employed’ for employment law and tax purposes can be a little complicated. As a rule of thumb, you count as self-employed if you’re responsible for the success or failure of your business, and you decide what work you do and when and how you do it.

This means you pay tax through Self Assessment rather than PAYE and you don’t get sick pay or holiday pay.

If you’re self-employed, you can work for more than one client and you usually submit invoices to your clients to get paid.

How do you register as a sole trader?

Registering as a sole trader is quick and simple. All you need to do is tell HMRC that you’re self-employed so that they know you need to pay tax through the Self Assessment process.

Bear in mind that you must register for Self Assessment even if you have another job or you’re only doing part-time freelance work.

If you have a side hustle, you’ll need to register to pay tax if you earn above £1,000 a year. Read our guide to second job tax to get started.

What responsibilities do you have if you’re self-employed?

You should tell HMRC you’re self-employed as soon as possible. You’ll then be responsible for:

  • completing a Self Assessment tax return by 31 January each year
  • paying National Insurance contributions and income tax on the profit you make
  • registering for VAT if your VAT taxable turnover exceeds £85,000

Meanwhile, it’s a good idea to keep your business-related receipts throughout the year so that you can deduct any allowable expenses from your profits when you complete your tax return.

If you hire one or more employees, you’re usually legally required to have an employers’ liability insurance policy.

Other insurance covers to consider if you’re self-employed include:

Although these aren’t required by law, you should check your client contracts and your regulatory body to see if they require you to have a certain level of cover.

Is there a difference between being self-employed and being a sole trader?

In summary, there’s not really a difference between being a sole trader and being self-employed.

‘Sole trader’ describes your business structure, while ‘self-employed’ is a way of saying that you don’t work for an employer or pay tax through PAYE.

Both terms are often used interchangeably: if you’re self-employed then you’re basically running a business as a sole trader.

Do you have any unanswered questions about the difference between being self-employed and a sole trader? Let us know in the comments below

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Photograph: David Pereiras/
Simply Business Editorial Team

Written by

Simply Business Editorial Team

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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