Your Taxes: Tax tips for exporters to and from Israel

Here are a few tips to check out for minimizing taxes and optimizing the profits of Israeli exporters and foreign exporters to Israel.

shekel versus dollar 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
shekel versus dollar 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Companies export for one reason only: to make a profit, net of all taxes. Here are a few tips to check out for minimizing taxes and optimizing the profits of Israeli exporters and foreign exporters to Israel. You should do so regardless of whether you deliver your products physically or over the Internet, or provide services.
Customs duties
Israel has free-trade agreements with a number of countries, including the European Union, the United States, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), Canada, Mexico, Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), Jordan, Turkey and Egypt, but none with South Africa or Australia.
For example, the Israel-EU free-trade agreement (also known as an Association Agreement) should reduce or eliminate customs duties originating in the EU for delivery to Israel and vice versa.
Briefly, your goods should qualify under the agreement if they undergo processing that results in the finished product having a different customs product code from all the imported raw materials, at the four digit product-code level. The processing should also meet the Annex 2 of Protocol of the Agreement. See Protocol 4 and consult your customs agent for more details in theory and in practice.
The Israel-US free-trade agreement generally applies to any article if: (a) that article is wholly the growth, product or manufacture of a party, or is a new or different article of commerce that has been grown, produced or manufactured in one of the two countries; (b) that article is imported directly from one country into the other; and (c) the sum of (i) the cost or value of the materials produced in the exporting Party, plus (ii) the direct costs of processing operations performed in the exporting country is not less than 35 percent of the appraised valued of the article at the time it is entered into the other country.
Other free-trade agreements have similar but not identical “source rules” for qualifying products.
What about Value Added Tax?
Never underestimate VAT. The standard rate of VAT is 16% in Israel and even higher in some other countries; for example, 20% in the UK. These rates are on your sales price, not just on profits! VAT on imported goods is normally collected by the Customs authorities. Each country has complex rules to catch the VAT due in the area of services and e-commerce.
For Israeli and other non-EU exporters who supply services to EU business customers (B2B, or business to business), most services will be treated as supplied in where the business customer is established – i.e., an EU country – and the business customer will itself account for VAT under a reverse charge (selfbilling) mechanism.
In the case of B2C (business to consumer), the Israeli/non-EU supplier should account for any EU VAT due. In the case of electronically supplied services to EU consumers, the Israeli/non-EU supplier may opt to use a special scheme.
Subject to certain conditions, the special scheme offers Israeli and other non-EU businesses the option of registering electronically in a single EU Member State of their choice. They can then account for VAT on their sales of electronically supplied services to all EU consumers on a single quarterly electronic VAT declaration that provides details of VAT due in each Member State. This is submitted with payment to the tax administration in the Member State of registration, which then distributes the VAT to the Member States where the services are consumed.
You cannot recover VAT on purchases using the special scheme.
However, you may reclaim any VAT that you have paid on goods and services used for the purpose of your taxable activities falling under the special scheme from the Member State where that VAT was paid, under the terms of the EU 13th Directive. (For more details see the UK’s HMRC Notice 741A among others.) In the case of non-Israeli service suppliers, they should in theory account for 16% Israeli VAT on services supplied to Israeli residents.
In practice, enforcement is weak if the service supplier doesn’t do business in Israel. If it does do business in Israel, it should register for Israeli VAT purposes and appoint an Israeli resident fiscal representative within 30 days.
What about income/corporation tax?
Exporting usually follows an evolutionary process. For a novice exporter, it may be sufficient to make a sale from his own country and to ship his product to a distributor abroad. The distributor should know his own local market conditions best. The exporter will not have to pay corporation tax in the other country if it can avoid having a “permanent establishment” (PE) as defined in the relevant tax treaty.
Israel has tax treaties with 50 other countries, including the US, Canada, South Africa, most EU countries, but none with Australia.
In practice, a PE generally it means a “fixed place of business” (a branch) or a “dependent agent” (agent with few other customers and/or concludes sales on behalf of the exporter). In the case of electronic commerce, the OECD indicates that a smart server that does deals, and not only gives out your address, is a PE.
Where a PE exists, corporate income tax is due on profits attributable to the PE. The standard rates of corporate income tax (company tax) are 24% in Israel, 35% federal income tax in the US (plus state and city taxes where applicable), 20%-26% in the UK and so forth.
Foreign residents must appoint an Israeli resident fiscal representative, which can be the same as their VAT representative.
In practice, exporters often move on from distributors to setting up their own dedicated subsidiary company. Israeli exporters often use a US subsidiary to sell across North America and a UK subsidiary to sell into EU markets. We are waiting patiently and hopefully for non- Israeli exporters to use Israel as a hub into other Mideast countries.
Transfer pricing
Most global trade is conducted via multinational groups. This is because a local subsidiary can sell products to the local market better than the foreign exporter. Israel and most other countries have detailed rules requiring multinational group members to transact with each other on arm’s-length terms. This is meant to prevent tax planning but usually has the opposite effect.
Withholding tax
Companies are often surprised to find that tax is withheld at source from cross-border payments relating to items such as dividends, interest, royalties, software license payments, franchise fees, capital gains and so forth. The banks in Israel are obliged to withhold 25% from outbound payments unless advance written clearance is obtained from the Israel Tax Authority; e.g., pursuant to a tax treaty.
The US-Israel tax treaty specifies the following withholding tax rates: dividends – 12.5%/15%/25%; interest – 17.5% or regular tax on the interest spread; royalties – 10%/15%; capital-gains tax – regular rates in most cases, except share sales by investors with under 10% of the investee company’s voting power.
The UK-Israel tax treaty specifies the following withholding tax rates: dividends and interest – 15%; royalties – 0% or 3.6%; capital gains – 0%, except for real-estate deals.
As always, consult experienced tax advisors in each country at an early stage in specific cases.
Leon Harris is a certified public accountant and tax specialist at Harris Consulting & Tax Ltd.