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How to get a VAT number in the EU

How to get a VAT number in the EU

If you want to expand abroad and sell your digital products in the EU, chances are you need to get a VAT ID number. (If you already sell in the EU and haven't registered for EU VAT yet, this is urgent! Okay, keep reading.)

The good news is that the VAT registration process is pretty simple. The tricky part is: once you get a VAT number, you must comply with all the VAT rules. How do you keep track of all the different VAT rates and apply the correct one to each sale?

Today we'll learn about how to register for an EU VAT number, and we’ll offer solutions for everything else at the end. :) Here's how to get a VAT number if your business isn't based in the EU!

Does your business need an EU VAT ID number?

If you sell digital products to EU consumers, you might be required to register for VAT and apply VAT taxes to all of your EU sales. 

Actually, it’s possible to voluntarily register, too, even if you don’t meet the requirements. In our experience working with online businesses from all over the world, we've learned that there are some benefits to registering for VAT which we’ll explore later!

First, let’s better understand VAT and why a VAT ID number is necessary by answering the question, what is VAT?

What is VAT?

VAT is the abbreviation for “value-added tax” in the EU and around the world. It’s a consumption tax that’s charged incrementally throughout a product’s path to market, based on the total value added at each stage. In the EU, it’s levied as a destination-based tax, meaning the exact tax rate is based on the location of the buyer.

VAT works in two ways, B2C and B2B.

First, a consumer is taxed on the purchase of a product or service in the EU. The VAT tax appears as a separate line item on an invoice or receipt. (This is legally required!) Then the seller collects the VAT from the customer, and holds onto it until tax season, when they pay it forward to the appropriate tax agency.

Second, a business is charged VAT on input materials and services. When it’s time to file a tax return, the business receives a credit for VAT taxes already paid. This reduces the business’s overall tax burden. With B2B transactions between VAT-registered businesses, there’s also a special tax scheme called the reverse-charge mechanism.

But in order to receive these benefits of VAT tax reduction, companies need to have a VAT number.

What is a VAT registration number

Also known as a VAT identification number, a VAT registration number allows governments to track the tax activity of registered businesses. These activities include taxes paid, credits earned, and VAT charged and collected from customers. We provide a more detailed breakdown of what a VAT number exactly is here.

VAT ID number format

VAT ID numbers usually start with an ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country code, followed by two or more characters, up to thirteen. Though VAT numbers usually consist of numeric digits only, some western countries have VAT numbers that also contain letters. (Also, fair warning, foreign countries outside of the EU may have a VAT number starting with “EU.”)

Requirements for a VAT registration number

The determining factor for whether your business must register for EU VAT is whether you sell to businesses or private consumers.

  • If you only sell digital products in B2B transactions, then you do not need to register for EU VAT.

  • If you ever sell digital products B2C in Europe, even just once, then you need to register and get your business a VAT number!

There are many benefits to obtaining a VAT registration number. After reading about them below, you might decide that it’s best to just go ahead and register your business for EU VAT!

Top benefits of applying for a VAT number as a non-EU business

There are many benefits of registering for a VAT number. If any of the below interest you, it may be a good idea to get a VAT identification number and start charging a VAT tax.

Avoid financial penalties

It’s not uncommon for a small business’s taxable turnover to inch above the VAT threshold. If this happens to you and you don’t know it, you’ll be slapped with fines and penalties. It’s better to apply for a VAT ID number before you actually need it.

Increase your company profile

Perhaps you've got a small business in the United States and are looking to expand into international sales. You might be wondering whether or not you should invest in registering for an EU VAT number for your US-based company. Well, did you know that a lot of international companies aren’t willing to do business with small companies that aren’t VAT-certified? To give your business validation and the perception of scale, apply for a VAT number. It will help you do business with larger firms, so if you're looking for how to get a VAT number in USA, this article also applies.

Receive EU VAT refunds!

VAT-registered companies can claim VAT taxes on goods and services they purchased for their business. This reduces your company’s taxable income in the EU and saves you money.

How to register for a VAT ID Number in the EU as a foreign company

Each country within the EU has its own VAT systems. Each of these systems generates a VAT number that covers sales within Europe but outside the country where your business is headquartered.

To help you better understand the VAT registration process, we’ve outlined the 6 steps of the VAT application process for any business to get a VAT number, using Ireland as an example:

  1. Choose a specific EU country and register through their national VAT OSS. For most foreign businesses, the Irish VAT OSS is the best choice, because it’s all in English with an easy-to-use design. (You have the right to register in any of the 27 member states. For example, if your business is based in South America, you might like to register in Spain, where all resources are published in Spanish. There’s a risk, though, that these other countries have a complicated OSS portal.)

  2. Add your company information and bank account details.

  3. Then enter your personal contact information.

  4. From there, you’ll be asked about your company’s VAT history.

  5. After this, the portal will send you to a summary page where you can review all the information you entered. Make sure it’s all correct!

  6. Submit. And that’s it!

That’s the whole application process.

How long does it take to get a VAT ID number?

Once you submit the application, you could receive your VAT registration number anywhere from 2-8 weeks afterward. It varies from country to country. You’ll receive your business VAT number either electronically or by mail. And voilà -that's how you get a VAT number if your business isn't based in the EU!

What happens next?

If you’re a non-EU business, you’ll need to apply for a VAT ID number in order to do business in any of the 27 member states.

So, make sure you understand how a value-added tax works, as well as how to get a VAT number, and then apply for your number using the example above.

What happens after you have your business VAT ID number? Well, as a registered business, you must start adding VAT tax to every sale. There are special rules depending on whether the transaction is B2B or B2C. And probably the most complex part: every country has their own VAT rates. So when you sell to a customer in Hungary, you must apply the Hungarian VAT rate, etc. Not to mention, you'll also need to manually stay on top of any VAT rate changes that may happen.

Finally, if you do choose Ireland’s VAT OSS for your VAT registration, then circle back when tax season rolls around! We have a quick guide on how to submit an Irish VAT OSS return as a non-EU business.

Feeling completely overwhelmed? That's normal, don't worry. Try out the Quaderno tax compliance software for free for 7 days, no credit card required. Alternatively, you can test out our Quaderno Sandbox and play around without worrying about breaking current workflows.

Note: At Quaderno we love providing helpful information and best practices about taxes, but we are not certified tax advisors. For further help, or if you are ever in doubt, please consult a professional tax advisor or the tax authorities.