Mobile phones are ubiquitous – they are also subject to a tax exemption which enables employees to enjoy a mobile phone provided by their employer without suffering a benefit in kind tax charge. However, as with all exemptions there are conditions to be met for the exemption to apply.
Nature of the exemption
The exemption applies where an employer provides an employee with a mobile phone for his or her use. However, ownership of the phone must not be transferred to the employee. The exemption covers the use of the phone and the cost of all calls, including private calls. It also applies to the provision of a SIM card for use in the employee’s own phone.
The exemption is limited to one phone or SIM card per employee. Phones or SIM cards provided to members of the employee’s family or household by virtue of the employee’s employment are treated as if they were provided to the employee.
If the employee is provided with more than one mobile phone or SIM card, second and subsequent phones or SIM cards are taxed as a benefit in kind (as an asset made available for the employee’s use).
If the exemption does not apply, the employer can meet the cost of business calls without triggering a tax charge.
Contract between employer and supplier
While the end result may seem to be the same if the employer contracts with the phone supplier or if the employee takes out the contract and the employer either pays the bill or reimburses the employee, from a tax perspective the outcome is very different.
The mobile phone exemption only applies if the contract is between the employer and the phone supplier. If the contract is between the employee and the phone supplier and the employer meets the cost, the employer is meeting a personal bill of the employee rather than providing the employee with a mobile phone. This is an important distinction and can mean the difference between the exemption being available and the employee suffering a tax hit.
The exemption applies to smartphones. To count as a phone, the device must be capable of making and receiving voice calls. Tablets, such as iPads, do not qualify (even if calls can be made via What’s App or similar services). The fact that a device has telephone functionality does not in itself qualify it as a mobile phone. As a general rules, devices that use Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) systems will not qualify.
Beware the OpRA rules
The exemption is lost if the mobile phone is made available to the employee under a salary sacrifice or other optional remuneration arrangement (OpRA). Where this is the case, the alternative valuation rules apply and the benefit is valued by reference to the salary foregone instead.