Tax havens

Find out more about tax havens, how they work and why companies and individuals choose to use them.

Key points

  • Tax havens are used by companies and wealthy individuals to store or invest wealth
  • The usual reason for this is to circumvent taxation
  • The UK government has made attempts to crack down on tax avoidance and in 2015 introduced a diverted profits tax to discourage the practice

A tax haven is a country or territory which offers foreign companies and individuals a place to store their wealth with differing tax liability and regulations to their home nation.

Businesses often base their headquarters in tax havens to avoid paying larger amounts of tax.

Tax havens provide little or no financial information to other foreign tax authorities, which is known as financial secrecy.

While it's generally legal for companies to take advantage of this, it's often seen as ethically questionable and there have been repeated attempts to introduce global legislation to crack down on the practice and to avoid double non-taxation.

Double non-taxation is where tax is avoided, either deliberately or unintentionally, due to the tax arrangements and agreements between countries.

You don't have to put your money in a tax haven to be affected by tax havens - simply shopping online or drinking a coffee in a popular chain could mean giving your money to a company that uses tax havens.Loans: A wad of notes

Examples of tax havens include Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein and the Isle of Man.

A 2012 report from the Tax Justice Network estimated that between USD $21 trillion and $32 trillion is sheltered from taxes in unreported tax havens worldwide.

How do tax havens work?

Tax havens work in a number of different ways and don't always involve directly investing your wealth.

Personal and corporate residency

'Google tax'

    From April 2015 multinational companies such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks have had to pay a new levy if they artificially move around profits in an attempt to reduce the amount of tax they pay.

    The diverted profits tax, or so-called 'Google tax', should see firms charged 25% on profits artificially moved offshore.

Individuals or corporations domicile themselves in tax havens to reduce the amounts of tax they pay, but also to benefit from the legislation and regulation (or lack of) in those regions.

Asset holding

Asset holding involves using an offshore trust or company to hold assets, which can include a portfolio of investments, including physical property.

By changing the ownership of the assets to a trust or company resident in a tax haven, they cease to be subject to the rules of the investor's domiciled country.

Asset holding means you don't have to put your money itself in the tax haven, but instead allow your wealth to be owned by a company based in one.

Trading and other business activity

For companies that can exist anywhere in the world, many choose to be resident in tax havens so their business activity and trading is subject to a lower level of tax.

Financial intermediaries

Did you know...?

Many individuals use an intermediary to deposit savings and investments such as their life insurance, pensions and funds in a tax haven.

The intermediary then invests the money on their behalf.

Offshore bank accounts

Offshore bank accounts are bank accounts held in a different country, usually tax haven locations.

Offshore bank accounts can be used to make transactions in a foreign currency and can be useful if you're paid in a different currency to the one where you reside.

These accounts can be held in a number of different currencies, including sterling, dollars and euros.

Offshore accounts don't mean you can evade tax.

You're still subject to the tax regulations of your country of residence and will need to declare all interest earned for tax purposes.

These days, offshore accounts are generally used for transactions in various currencies rather than as a way to avoid tax.

By Emily Bater