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Stocks and shares ISAs: everything you need to know

A stocks and shares ISA protects your investments from tax on growth and income. If you are serious about investing then one of the best ways to boost your wealth in the UK is to build your portfolio inside an ISA.

ISAs are tax-efficient ‘wrappers’ created by the UK government to encourage saving. Any investment inside the ISA wrapper can grow tax-free as long as you don’t break the rules.

Stocks and shares ISAs are provided by high street banks, fund managers such as Vanguard, financial advisors, and specialist online brokers or platforms [1].

You get a new ISA allowance [2] every tax year. You can put the entire amount into a stocks and shares ISA if you wish.

£20,000 is the maximum amount of new money you can pay into a stocks and shares ISA during the tax year 2020-21. The tax year runs from 6 April to 5 April.

The ISA deadline is 5 April every year. That’s the last day of the current tax year you can use up your allowance. You get a new allowance from 6 April but you can’t roll over unused ISA capacity from the previous year.

If you’ve left things late then it’s enough to have the cash taken off your debit card and inside your ISA by close of business on 5 April. You don’t need to have actually invested the cash for it to qualify for tax-free protection.

Why open a stocks and shares ISA?

A stocks and shares ISA combines three critical features:

In short, ISAs are a private investor’s top tax-protection shield, along with pensions.

Which taxes are not paid in a stocks and shares ISA?

The main taxes that you do not have to pay on investments in a stocks and shares ISA are:

Investing in a stocks and shares ISA is a no-brainer, even if you think your holdings are too small to be caught up in the taxman’s net.

If you’re on a mission to achieve financial independence [10] before your minimum pension age1 [11] then stocks and shares ISAs will accelerate you towards your goal.

The best course for most will be to combine ISAs and SIPPs [12] to achieve the FI dream by using ISAs to bridge the gap between your FIRE date and minimum pension age.

The minimum pension age for accessing your personal pension is currently 55 but the government has confirmed [13] it will rise to age 57 at some point in 2028. Thereafter the minimum pension age is due to be set ten years before your State Pension age.

A stocks and shares ISA is also a great place to stash your pension’s 25% tax-free lump sum so that you can expand the amount of income you can take without being pushed into a higher tax bracket.

Investment ISA types

You can hold investments in the following types of ISA:

ISA providers call stocks and shares ISAs by various names including:

They’re all stocks and shares ISAs that have been given different marketing labels depending on how the provider is trying to appeal to consumers.

A stocks and shares ISA may also be a flexible ISA. This means you can replenish withdrawals without running down your ISA allowance.

You can invest in a stocks and shares ISA from age 18 onwards by opening an account with your chosen platform (bank, fund manager, IFA or similar).

We’ve put together a list of providers in our cheapest online broker [1] table. These providers enable you to invest in a DIY stocks and shares ISA. You can see who offers a flexible stocks and shares ISA in the left-hand column.

Stocks and shares ISA rules

You can have as many stocks and shares ISAs as you like, so long as you don’t put new money into more than one per tax year.

You can split money across a stocks and shares ISA, lifetime ISA, cash ISA, and innovative finance ISA, provided you don’t put in more than £20,000 between them,2 [17] nor open more than one of each type, in the same tax year.

You can transfer money from previous years’ ISAs (of any type) into multiple stocks and shares ISAs with any provider. And vice versa.

Transferring old ISA money or assets does not:

You can transfer any amount of your previous years’ ISA’s value. You can transfer the whole lot into one ISA, or transfer a portion of it into several ISAs, or any other combo you desire.

You must transfer the whole balance if you’re transferring your current tax year’s stocks and shares ISA

You can transfer it into a different type of ISA – provided you haven’t already opened one of that type this tax year. In that instance, you can also open a new stocks and shares ISA later that tax year. This is an exception to the one-type-of-ISA-a-tax-year rule.

Always transfer an ISA to retain the tax-free status of its assets. Don’t withdraw cash and plop it in a new ISA – doing so uses up your ISA allowance!

Transfer assets in specie (this avoids them being sold to cash) if you are given the option. In specie moves are also known as re-registration.

You can’t invest new money in a workplace ISA and a stocks and shares ISA.

You can invest £9,000 per tax year in a JISA for each of your children. This doesn’t reduce your own ISA allowance.

Most stocks and shares ISAs have minimum required contributions. They are often as low as £50.

Replacing cash withdrawn from a flexible stocks and shares ISA does not use up your ISA allowance. However you can’t replace the value of shares, or other investment types, that you moved out of the account.

It’s worth checking your ISA’s T&Cs whenever you choose a product. Not all of the government’s ISA rules are mandatory and ISA managers do not have to support all features.

Best ISA funds

The main investment vehicles that you can include in a stocks and shares ISA are:

The government maintains a comprehensive list [22] of the complete menagerie.

If you are new to investing then our passive investing HQ [23] can explain more.

Remember that all of these assets above are riskier than cash [24] – you can get back less than you put in.

See here to help gauge how much risk [25] you might be able to handle as you build your investing portfolio.

Index trackers are an investment vehicle that combine simplicity and affordability and are recommended [26] by some of the best investors in the world. Here’s a list of some particularly useful index trackers [27].

The Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) provides some investor compensation [28] should your ISA or investment manager go belly up. Do take a look at the link – the scheme is convoluted to say the least.

Stocks and shares ISA costs

You can expect to pay stocks and shares ISA investment fees [29] that cover:

All fees should be transparently laid out by your ISA provider and investment fund managers.

Charges that can be paid from monies held outside of your ISA, if your provider agrees, include:

Charges that must be paid from funds held within the ISA include:

A flexible ISA doesn’t enable you to replace the cost of ISA charges against your allowance.

Beware of transfer fees that can rack up when your provider charges you ‘per line of stock’. For example, they might charge you £15 per company stock and investment fund that you own.

Tax efficiency

You can’t transfer most unsheltered assets straight out of a taxable account and into your stocks and shares ISA wrapper.

You generally have to sell the assets first and buy them again inside your ISA. This is colloquially, if not popularly, known as Bed and ISA [30].

Selling an unsheltered investment can cost you capital gains tax on your profits but you can duck that by staying within your capital gains tax allowance and defusing your capital gains [31].

You can transfer employee share save scheme shares [32] directly into an ISA in some circumstances.

If you want to invest more than you can squeeze into your annual ISA allowance, then research tax efficient investing [33] to avoid building up a capital gains tax time bomb.

Inheriting a stocks and shares ISA

Check that the T&Cs of your stocks and shares ISA allow for it to remain tax-free and invested after your death.

The main wrinkle [34] that applies specifically to stocks and shares ISAs is that you can only receive assets in specie by transferring them to the same provider as your spouse or civil partner held them with. You can transfer the assets to another manager once they are held in your name.

The other clause is that assets transferred in specie must be the ones held on the date you were told of the death of the investor. (Some might see this rule as pretty heartless. However I don’t know about you but the very first thing I want to know after hearing the news of my partner’s death is the list of non-cash assets they’ve got tucked in their ISAs. Let’s cut to the chase!3 [35])

In specie transfer must be made within 180 days of the assets passing into the beneficial ownership of the surviving spouse / civil partner.

Some wealth managers and platforms market AIM ISAs [36] that twin the advantages of a stocks and shares ISA’s tax efficiency with the inheritance tax-elusiveness of Alternative Investment Market [37] (AIM) shares.

Some but not all AIM shares qualify for inheritance tax relief under peculiar government rules that are subject to change. An AIM ISA is:

The links are there if you need ‘em.

Stocks and shares ISAs aren’t just for the rich

Many people think ISAs are a rich person’s concern, since very few have experience of paying capital gains tax, or even income tax on share dividends. But modest savings can really add up to a big portfolio in a bull market, at which point the tax protection is invaluable.

Shielding your investment returns from tax [38] like this can make a huge difference to your end result from investing.

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

  1. The moment you can first crack open your personal pension. [ [41]]
  2. Or more than £4,000 in the case of the lifetime ISA. [ [42]]
  3. Sarcasm. [ [43]]