Work trips are never quite as simple as you'd hope. From planning and booking, to tracking payments and saving receipts, corporate travel always means more admin for the company and travelling employee alike.
But in the UK, one aspect has been simplified: per diem rates for travellers. For most companies, these are standardised. The employee should always know how much they're entitled to - regardless of the company they work for.
Of course, it sounds easy. But understanding the scheme takes a little bit of research.
Thankfully, we've done this for you. In this article, we explain how HMRC's meal allowance rates work, to whom they apply, and a few exceptions you need to know about.
Scroll down to learn more.
What are meal allowance rates?
Meal allowance rates are essentially a standardised version of a per diem. HMRC itself refers to them as "scale rate payments," but you'll also see the phrase "subsistences expenses" online.
The concept is simple: if employees travel often, it's easier to assign a set amount they can spend on food and lodging each trip, rather than on a case-by-case basis.
So in short, meal allowance rates are the amount that employees can spend while on work trips for meals and accommodation. And to make these simple, HMRC has suggested specific amounts for travel to different locations worldwide.
Why are these rates important?
Business expenses are not subject to tax or National Insurance fees. So if you can show that certain costs were business expenses, you’ll save on tax and insurance payments each year.
And travel expenses are almost always business expenses. (The one exception is if they occur in the employee’s own car). So tracking these closely is important.
Two forms of scale rate payments
Companies have two choices if they want to offer employees per diems free of tax. If you do a large amount of travel, it may be best to agree on a custom scale rate with HMRC directly. If successful, you may be able to offer higher rates to employees than normal.
(To create custom rates, you'll have to show HMRC that your travel expenses are typically higher than allowed, and provide proof).
Otherwise, you can use the scale rates provided for meal allowances. We've put a long list of these at the bottom of this article.
These rates are standardised depending on the locations visited, and reflect the fact that different countries tend to be more or less expensive than one another.
What happens if you go over these amounts?
Spending within scale rates is free of tax. Which means, of course, that anything over this limit is subject to tax and National Insurance Contributions (NICs).
Companies may choose to allow employees to go over these limits, but they'll have to pay tax every time they do.
When do these per diem rates apply?
Obviously, these rates are designed to apply specifically to travel expenses. Here are HMRC's conditions for using scale rate payments for meals and accommodation:
Benchmark scale rates must only be used where all the qualifying conditions are met. The qualifying conditions are:
- the travel must be in the performance of an employee’s duties or to a temporary place of work
- the employee should be absent from their normal place of work or home for a continuous period in excess of 5 hours or 10 hours
- the employee should have incurred a cost on a meal (food and drink) after starting the journey
A major change to subsistence expenses from 6 April 2019
A common complaint in the past about meal allowances and expenses was the need to provide receipts for every cost. Which also meant that businesses had to check these receipts to ensure that they were valid.
As of April 2019, this is no longer required. Instead, the employee will just need to prove that they’re on a business trip when the expenses were incurred.
A few things to note:
HMRC's meal allowance rates: domestic
For travel within the UK, HMRC has set its scale rates as follows:
Of course, the conditions stated above still apply here. Employees must be performing their normal duties, be out of the office for a continuous period of 5+ hours, and must actually incur meal after travel begins.
HMRC also states that the employee should keep proof of purchase for any meals - even if the company likely won't need to provide these at tax time.
Meal allowance rates overseas
HMRC has also issued a fairly extensive list of countries and the rates that apply to each.
If you're staying more than 24 hours, you can be reimbursed for the 24 hour rate plus the room rate (as listed below). The 24 hour rate includes the cost of lunch, dinner, a drink, and public transport to the office. (You can see the full breakdown in HMRC's guide at the bottom of this article.)
Here are the rates for many major destinations. (Each currency is that of the host country, unless otherwise stated. RR = Room rate.)
And if the whole country is missing, find the nearest city geographically and use the rates that apply to it. Here's the full list from HMRC. If you don't see the particular city you're travelling to, the guidance is to use the rate that applies to the nearest city you do find on the list (within the same country).
Take travel expenses seriously
These scale rates make setting up clear per diems a little easier for businesses. But there's more to smooth and successful company travel than meal allowance rates.
Companies need an easy way to book travel, manage payments on the road, and calculate travel budgets. This has long been a complicated task, adding more work for finance teams and travel managers.
If you could use a hand managing travel spending, take a closer look at Spendesk. And check out this great guide to spending while travelling for work:
More articles dealing with HMRC's rules and regulations: