Home > Accounting > Who is Exempt From VAT In The UAE?

Who is Exempt From VAT In The UAE?

Nov 21, 2023 | Accounting

Navigating the intricacies of the VAT exemption in the UAE can be a complex process for businesses and individuals alike. With a standard VAT rate of 5%, specific sectors and transactions within the Emirates are granted exemptions, offering relief from this tax to promote economic growth and affordability. These exemptions apply to various domains, including financial services, residential buildings, bare land, and local passenger transport, as well as offering refund opportunities for tourists.

We delve into the details of these exempt sectors. It outlines how partially exempt businesses can navigate input tax recovery methods approved by the Federal Tax Authority (FTA). Furthermore, we elucidate the distinction between zero-rated and VAT-exempt sectors, the documentation and procedures for claiming VAT exemption, and the implications of compliance and record-keeping for businesses operating within these frameworks.

UAE VAT Exempt Sectors

Financial Services

In the UAE, VAT exemptions for financial services are quite specific. They’re standard-rated at 5% when explicit fees, such as commissions or rebates, are charged. However, certain financial services are exempt when you’re compensated through an implicit margin or spread, meaning no explicit fee is involved. The issuance, allotment, or transfer of equity or debt securities, life insurance contracts, and re-insurance provisions for these contracts are exempt from VAT.

Financial services aimed at recipients outside the GCC are zero-rated, effectively reducing the tax burden to nothing and encouraging international business. For intra-GCC transactions, the VAT implications hinge on whether the recipient is VAT-registered in their GCC state.

Suppose the recipient is registered or should be registered for VAT in their GCC state. In that case, the supply is considered outside the scope of UAE VAT, and the recipient handles the reverse charge mechanism. The supply keeps its VAT liability in the UAE if the recipient isn’t registered or required.

If standard-rated within the UAE, financial services imported from outside the GCC are subject to the standard VAT rate.

Residential Buildings

The VAT treatment of residential buildings in the UAE is tailored to lighten the tax load on housing. The ‘first supply’ of a residential building, whether by sale or lease, is zero-rated if it happens within three years of the building’s completion, which encourages property development and helps make new homes more affordable.

But any supply after this period is exempt from VAT. This means the transaction doesn’t attract VAT, but the supplier can’t recover VAT on related costs.

Bare Land

Bare land in the UAE, without any completed or partially completed buildings or civil engineering works, is exempt from VAT. This exemption applies whether the land is sold or leased. It’s important to remember that if the land doesn’t meet the ‘bare land’ criteria, it’s treated as commercial land and is subject to the standard VAT rate.

As a supplier, you should know that VAT incurred on costs related to the supply of bare land needs to be recovered.

Local Passenger Transport

Local passenger transport services in the UAE are exempt from VAT, making travel more affordable for residents and visitors alike.

However, this exemption only covers services that are mainly for pleasure, like sightseeing tours or entertainment-focused trips, which are standard-rated.


Tourists in the UAE can benefit from a VAT refund system on purchases made during their stay, which aims to make shopping more attractive and competitive. To qualify, you must spend a minimum of USD 68 (AED 250) and request a tax-free purchase at the point of sale.

You’ll then need to validate the transaction at a designated point upon departure within 90 days of purchase. The refund process is facilitated through an electronic system, allowing tourists to claim their refunds up to a year from the date of export validation.

The refund amount is 85% of the total VAT paid, minus a nominal fee per tax-free tag, ensuring that tourists can get back a significant portion of the VAT they’ve spent on their purchases.

Screenshot Of MOFA Services Webpage For VAT Tax For Diplomatic Entities

(Source: https://www.mofa.gov.ae/en/Services?Category={23eb8a84-5909-48cf-926c-c7a36a38f3d6})

Partial VAT Exemptions In The UAE

Businesses in the UAE that provide a combination of taxable and exempt supplies may encounter complexities when recovering VAT. The FTA has introduced alternative apportionment methods and specific business guidelines, recognising that the default input-based apportionment method may not suit all operations.

The default apportionment method, which is based on input tax, may need to accurately reflect the use of goods and services for businesses in sectors such as banking, life insurance, real estate, or passenger transport. The FTA allows businesses to apply for alternative apportionment methods to remedy this.

Introduced in December 2018, these alternative methods include the output-based, transaction count, floorspace, and sectoral methods. Designed to align more closely with the actual consumption of goods and services, these methods facilitate a more equitable approach to VAT recovery. Businesses can apply these methods retrospectively after the end of the tax year or for each taxable period upon receiving approval from the FTA.

Without timely application for an alternative method, businesses may be prioritised for a comprehensive VAT audit in the following year. Discrepancies found during an audit between the recovered input tax under the default method and what could have been reclaimed using a more precise method may indicate improper use of the default method, prompting further scrutiny from the FTA.

Only partially exempt businesses should assess whether the default method accurately represents their use of goods and services for taxable activities. Delaying the application for an alternative method could result in complications, including the possibility of an extensive VAT audit.

The introduction of these alternative methods and the FTA’s advisories emphasise that businesses must ensure their VAT recovery processes are compliant and reflective of their actual operations. Securing an FTA-sanctioned method can provide assurance that VAT recovery practices are accurate and compliant.

Difference Between Zero-Rated And VAT-Exempt Sectors In The UAE

Understanding the nuances of the VAT system in the UAE is essential for both businesses and consumers. One important aspect of this system is the distinction between zero-rated and VAT-exempt sectors. Although both categories involve a certain level of non-collection of VAT, they’re governed by different rules and have varying consequences for businesses.

Zero-rated VAT applies to the supply of taxable goods and services at a rate of 0%. No VAT is charged to the final consumer, but the transaction is still considered a taxable supply. This is significant for VAT-registered businesses because it allows them to claim input tax credits on their expenses related to the production of these zero-rated supplies. As a result, businesses can recover the VAT they’ve paid on their inputs, which can significantly affect their overall costs and pricing strategies.

VAT-exempt sectors involve the supply of goods or services that aren’t subject to VAT at all. When a business provides an exempt supply, it can’t charge VAT to the customer, nor can it reclaim any input VAT incurred in the process. Therefore, businesses offering exempt supplies might face higher operational costs, as they have to absorb the VAT on their inputs without the chance to offset it against their outputs.

The Federal Decree-Law Number 8 of 2017, which regulates VAT in the UAE, lists only a select number of items that are exempt from VAT. These exemptions reduce the tax burden on certain essential services and sectors. For instance, specific financial services detailed in the Executive Regulation of the Decree-Law are exempt from VAT. This includes certain bank transactions and financial products that are key to the economy’s infrastructure.

Another major exemption is for the supply of residential buildings, whether through sale or lease, except for those that are zero-rated according to specific clauses of the Decree-Law. This exemption is aimed at making housing more affordable for residents by not adding an extra tax cost to the price of homes.

The supply of local passenger transport is exempt from VAT. This exemption includes the transport of passengers within the UAE by various modes of transportation. By not imposing VAT on these services, the government encourages the mobility of its residents and visitors, ensuring that public transport remains an affordable option for commuting and travel.

The Process of Applying for VAT Exemption

Required Documentation for VAT Exemption

Initiating the VAT exemption process in the UAE necessitates certain documents. Diplomatic entities are required to submit a Diplomatic Note and provide copies of their Diplomatic ID Card and Passport, adhering to the principle of reciprocity.

International organisations and their regional offices must comply with the terms of their Seat Agreement when seeking VAT exemptions. For businesses, the required documentation may vary by sector. A valid trade licence and identification documents, such as a passport or Emirates ID for authorised signatories, are typically necessary. Proof of authorisation, contact information, and a bank letter verifying account details are also required. Additional documentation, such as financial statements, revenue projections, and supporting financial records, may be requested depending on the nature of the exemption.

The Submission Procedure for VAT Exemption

The exemption application is primarily conducted online. Diplomatic missions and their members must submit a registration request through the MoFA portal to initiate the VAT recovery process. Following submission, the Ministry acknowledges receipt and begins processing the request. Successful registration is confirmed upon approval, enabling the mission to apply for a tax refund.

For other entities, the procedure involves registering on the FTA’s portal and activating an account through EmaraTax. Applicants must then create a new profile and furnish all required details and documents.

Timeframe and Approval Process

The duration for processing VAT exemption applications varies. Diplomatic missions can expect their VAT refund requests to be processed within approximately 21 working days. The FTA typically processes refund requests within a minimum of 25 working days upon receipt of all necessary documentation.

For other applicants, applying takes about 45 minutes, with the FTA aiming to complete the review within 20 business days from receipt of a complete application. Refunds are issued quarterly, and the minimum value for a single invoice is set at USD 54 (AED 200).

Refunds for missions are transferred directly into a designated local bank account, as cash refunds are not provided. The approval process ensures all documentation is thoroughly verified. The applicant is notified once an application is approved and the exemption or refund is processed. It is essential for applicants to be aware of the specific requirements and timeframes to facilitate a seamless application process.

Screenshot Of Amara Tax From FTA Webpage

(Source: https://tax.gov.ae/en/emaratax.aspx)

VAT Compliance and Exemption Implications

Record-Keeping for VAT-Exempt Transactions

Since the implementation of VAT, it has been imperative for businesses to maintain comprehensive records of all financial transactions, including those that are not subject to VAT. This meticulous documentation is crucial for transactions in Designated Zones, which may have unique VAT treatments, particularly for goods. Services in these zones are typically subject to VAT. All transactions, exempt or otherwise, must be accurately recorded.

Businesses must preserve tax invoices, credit notes, and any other pertinent documents that substantiate the provision or receipt of goods or services. Records must also include goods and services consumed for personal use, detailing the taxes incurred on these items.

Maintaining those records is equally essential for expenses where input tax was not reclaimable. Any modifications or rectifications to accounts or tax invoices must be meticulously documented to maintain financial transparency and precision.

Audits and VAT Exemption

The FTA’s self-assessment system necessitates audits to confirm voluntary compliance. The FTA may thoroughly examine records and documents, scrutinise tax returns, request third-party information, and review any data pertinent to a tax audit.

The FTA requires detailed accounting records and commercial books to establish an audit trail substantiating tax liabilities. The statute of limitations for the FTA to conduct an audit is typically five years, extendable by up to four additional years if an audit or assessment notice is issued before the end of the initial period. Audits may be initiated due to various factors, such as discrepancies in tax positions, unpaid taxes, or inconsistencies in returns.

The FTA’s system identifies exceptions and irregularities that may indicate non-compliance, essential for preserving the tax system’s integrity and ensuring businesses fulfil their tax responsibilities.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

Non-adherence to VAT regulations can result in significant penalties. The FTA imposes fixed and proportionate penalties for record-keeping or VAT compliance lapses. An initial failure to maintain the necessary records can attract a penalty of USD 2723 (AED 10,000), escalating to USD 13,615 (AED 50,000) for subsequent lapses.

These fines underscore the importance of precise and readily available VAT-related documentation. Businesses must ensure their ERP and accounting systems are updated to manage VAT processes effectively and avoid the substantial fines associated with non-compliance. The FTA’s rigorous enforcement of regulations, including penalties for errors or omissions, serves as a deterrent and compels businesses to adhere to a high standard of VAT compliance.

Navigating VAT Exemptions with Confidence

Navigating the complexities of VAT exemptions in the UAE requires a keen understanding of the regulations and an attentiveness to compliance. Businesses and individuals must diligently maintain accurate records, stay informed about the latest guidelines, and utilise the resources available to optimise their VAT position. Understanding the distinct rules for exempt and zero-rated sectors is crucial for economic efficacy, whether you’re dealing with financial services, residential properties, or local passenger transport.

Remember, the FTA’s frameworks support economic activity while ensuring fairness in the tax system. With careful consideration and proper application of the exemption processes, stakeholders can confidently manage their VAT obligations and focus on what they do best – growing their business and enjoying the dynamic UAE marketplace.

Contact Us

Start your business today