Visits by VAT officers

VAT officers are responsible for the collection of VAT for the government. They check businesses to make sure that their VAT records are up to date. They also check that amounts claimed from or paid to the government are correct. They examine VAT records, question the business owner or the person responsible for the VAT records and watch business activity.

Each visit will take from a couple of hours to several days, depending on the complexity of the business. This guide explains why VAT visits are necessary, how they are arranged and what happens during a visit. It also explains what you need to do to prepare for a visit and what happens afterwards.

On this page:

Your responsibilities

If your business is VAT-registered, you are responsible for accounting for VAT correctly. You are also responsible for making any VAT payments due on time.

To keep proper VAT accounts, you need to keep various documents you have issued or received - including receipts and suppliers' invoices. You do not have to keep records in any set way, but they must be complete and up to date. They must also be easy for VAT officers to check, and the figures that you have used to fill in your VAT Return must be easy to reconcile. Usually, you can adapt your normal business records quite easily to provide this information.

Read our guide on keeping records and accounting for VAT

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Why HMRC makes VAT visits

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) makes VAT visits as part of their checks to make sure that you are paying the correct amount of VAT. VAT officers also use their visits to make sure that your accounting and record keeping is accurate and up to date.

VAT officers can give you help and guidance during their visit. You shouldn't hesitate to ask them questions on anything you're unsure about. There is no need to wait for a visit to do this - you can contact HMRC at any time.

Contact HMRC with your VAT questions

In some cases, a VAT officer may not need to visit you, but instead will contact you by telephone or in writing to resolve specific queries about your VAT. They may ask you for further information, such as your annual accounts, or ask you to fill in a questionnaire and might give you a time limit in which to respond.

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Practical aspects of visits

How often VAT officers visit depends on the size and complexity of your business and your past record of meeting VAT requirements. If you have previously submitted late or incorrect VAT payments or declarations, then VAT officers may visit you more often.

Visits vary in length. If you have a small business, your visit might only last a few hours. If you have a large or complex business, it might take two or more days. The majority will be completed within one day. Providing the relevant records and assisting VAT officers to understand them will help to speed things up, particularly if there is anything special or unusual about your business

Generally one officer will visit, but may be accompanied by a colleague to speed the visit up, or to cover a different area of VAT. Occasionally the officer may be accompanied by a colleague who is undergoing training.

You may also be visited at a later date by a more senior officer who will check that the first officer carried out their duties correctly.

Who the VAT officer will want to meet

When a VAT officer visits, they will want to talk either to you or to the person responsible for your VAT. If there is another responsible person who can answer any questions and provide further information about VAT, then you will not need to be present throughout the visit. However, at the end of the visit, the VAT officer will discuss their findings with you - see the section in this guide on what happens after a visit.

If you have a professional adviser who helps with your business, then you need to decide whether they should be present during a visit. If they are the best person to explain your business accounts, or deal with a difficult problem, then it would be helpful if they could be present. They may charge you for attending.

Where the VAT officer will want to visit

VAT officers normally visit you at your main place of business. This allows them to:

  • get a better understanding of your business
  • answer any queries you have
  • check your records with as little disruption as possible

If you do not keep your VAT records at your main place of business, you should tell HMRC when they make the appointment for the visit. The VAT officer can then tell you which records they need to see, or agree to examine them somewhere else. Even if the VAT officer examines your records in a different place, they may still want to visit you at your main place of business to discuss your business and see your premises. This won't always be necessary - if, for example, your principal place of business is your home, and your work is that of a computer consultant or similar, the VAT officer may agree to meet you at your accountant's premises instead.

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How visits are organised

Before a visit, HMRC will confirm the following details with you:

  • the person the VAT officer wants to see
  • a mutually convenient appointment date and time
  • the name and contact number of the officer carrying out the visit
  • which records the officer will need to see, and for which tax periods
  • how long the visit is likely to take
  • any matters you are unsure of, so that the officer can be better prepared to answer your queries

HMRC will confirm all the above information in writing unless the time before the visit is too short to allow it. They will generally give you seven days notice of any visit unless you want an earlier one, for example to get your claim paid more quickly.

If you need to postpone a visit, please give as much notice as possible so HMRC can make alternative arrangements. In some cases, VAT officers will visit without making an appointment. If they do they will explain why when they visit you.

What happens during a visit

When a VAT officer arrives, they will identify themselves by name, produce their ID card and explain why they're there. They'll be quick and efficient to keep the disruption to your business to a minimum.

First, they'll discuss the various aspects of your business with you. Then they'll examine your business records and, where appropriate, inspect the premises and any goods on the premises.

They will also take some details of supplies made to, or by, you. This is so that they can cross-check the correct tax treatment in your suppliers' or customers' records. On some occasions, this will be the main purpose of the visit. If this is the case, the VAT officer will tell you when making the appointment.

At the end of the visit, the VAT officer will:

  • review with you the work carried out during the visit
  • explain any areas of concern they have identified, discuss them with you and agree any future action needed
  • explain any adjustment they need to make to the VAT payable, agree it with you as far as possible and explain how it will be made
  • tell you if you have overpaid or underpaid

Where there is anything you need to pay, or any payment due to you, HMRC will confirm this with you in writing - generally a few days later. If you disagree with a decision, first discuss it with the visiting officer. In any case, they'll tell you how to get a review of the decision or how you can appeal if you disagree with it.

Remember that even if a VAT officer does not find any mistakes in your records during a visit, you must not assume that this means you are accounting for VAT completely correctly. The officer will not normally have time to examine all of your records, so it will still be your responsibility to ensure that correct accounts are kept and that the correct payments are made.

Read about appealing against decisions made on your VAT

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What happens after a visit

Afterwards, if you or HMRC think it's necessary, HMRC will write to you with a summary of the visit, along with any rulings, agreements or recommendations. If there are any unresolved matters HMRC will give you a reasonable amount of time to provide further information. If you disagree with any decisions, or wish to appeal on other grounds, you may appeal to an independent tribunal.

If you think that an officer has exceeded his or her authority or acted improperly, you can ask for an explanation. If you're not satisfied you may wish to make a formal complaint.

Find out how to make a complaint to HMRC

Read the complaints factsheet (PDF 67K)

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How you can help

During the visit, please help the VAT officer understand your business and records and co-operate fully with them. If you refuse to show the VAT officer the records they want to see they can use legal powers to obtain relevant records. If you want further explanation, you should contact the officer's manager. The officer will provide their manager's contact details if you ask for them.

Apart from that, the best way of helping is:

  • keep your records, accounts and payments up to date
  • contact HMRC whenever there's anything you're unsure about
  • provide HMRC with the information they request within the specified time

Read about accounts and records for your VAT

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