What Is a Use Tax? Definition, Purpose, and Difference from

Taxation is the process by which governments impose compulsory levies on individuals and entities. It’s a practice observed in nearly every country worldwide, primarily aimed at generating revenue for government […]

Taxation is the process by which governments impose compulsory levies on individuals and entities. It’s a practice observed in nearly every country worldwide, primarily aimed at generating revenue for government expenditures. However, taxes also serve various other purposes.

In today’s economies, taxes stand as the cornerstone of government revenue. They possess distinctive characteristics compared to other revenue sources: they are obligatory, unrequited payments. Unlike fees exchanged for specific services, the sale of public assets, or government debt issuance, taxes are mandatory contributions. While taxes ostensibly serve the collective welfare of taxpayers, the liability of an individual taxpayer is detached from any particular benefit received.

Nevertheless, there are notable exceptions. Payroll taxes, for instance, are commonly imposed on labour income to fund retirement benefits, medical expenses, and various social security programs—a connection that offers potential benefits to taxpayers. In some cases, these payments are termed “contributions,” as seen in the United States. However, they remain compulsory, and the correlation between payments and benefits can be relatively weak. Another example involves taxes on motor fuels, which are loosely tied to funding road construction and maintenance. These services are predominantly enjoyed by consumers of taxed motor fuels.

Categories of Taxes

Taxes, a central theme in public finance literature, have been categorized in various ways based on payers, ultimate bearers, transferability of the burden, and other criteria. The most common classification divides taxes into two categories: direct and indirect. Examples of direct taxes include income tax, while sales tax falls under the category of indirect taxes. However, defining direct and indirect taxes remains a topic of debate among economists, especially when it comes to taxes like corporate income tax or property tax. In general, direct taxes are those that cannot be shifted by the taxpayer to another party, whereas indirect taxes can be.

Direct Taxes

Direct taxes predominantly target natural persons, such as individuals, and are typically determined by the taxpayer’s capacity to pay, assessed based on income, consumption, or net wealth. Here, we outline the primary types of direct taxes:

  • Individual Income Taxes: These taxes are typically imposed on the total net income of the taxpayer, which could be an individual, a couple, or a family. They are applied to income exceeding a specified minimum threshold. Income taxes often consider factors influencing the taxpayer’s ability to pay, such as family size, the number and age of dependents, and financial burdens caused by medical expenses. Tax rates are often progressive, meaning they increase as income rises. Personal exemptions can create income ranges subject to a zero-tax rate.
  • Taxes on Net Worth: These taxes are assessed based on a person’s total net worth, which is calculated as the value of their assets minus their liabilities. Like income taxes, these taxes can take personal circumstances into account.

Indirect Taxes

Indirect taxes are imposed on the production, consumption of goods and services, or various transactions, including international trade activities like imports and exports. Examples encompass general and selective sales taxes, value-added taxes (VAT), levies on various manufacturing or production aspects, taxes related to legal transactions, and customs duties.

  • General Sales Taxes: These taxes apply to a significant portion of consumer spending. They can be uniform, with the same tax rate applied to all taxed items, or vary, with different rates for different categories of goods (e.g., food or clothing). Single-stage taxes are collected at the retail level (as done in U.S. states) or at a pre-retail stage, like manufacturing or wholesale, which is common in some developing nations. Multistage taxes are levied at multiple stages of production and distribution. The VAT, a widely adopted tax in the latter half of the 20th century, often allows taxpayers to deduct a credit for taxes paid on purchases, offsetting their sales tax liability.

Sales Tax in a Nutshell

Sales tax is a levy imposed on the sale of goods and services. Typically, it’s a percentage of the purchase price, added to the final cost of the product or service. Sales tax rates vary by location, with individual states and localities setting their own rates. Notably, in the United States, sales tax isn’t a federal tax but a state and local one. The revenue generated from sales tax fuels various government programs such as education, transportation, and healthcare.

Companies collect sales tax during the retail sale of goods and services when they reach the final stage of the supply chain. Retail sales taxes constitute a vital revenue stream in the United States, with 45 states and the District of Columbia implementing statewide sales tax. Additionally, 38 states impose local sales taxes, which can, in certain cases, exceed state rates.

State-level sales tax systems frequently feature multiple tax rates. Necessities like groceries may have a lower tax rate or even be exempt to provide relief for low-income individuals. Conversely, some states may apply higher taxes to items and services often used by tourists, such as hotels and rental cars.

Furthermore, many states incorporate local sales taxes that often apply to the same items covered by state sales tax. Calculating the total sales tax usually involves adding the state rate to the local rate and multiplying it by the cost of taxable items. This variance in sales tax rates can influence consumer behaviour, prompting them to shop across borders or turn to online purchases in search of lower rates.

What is a Use Tax?

A use tax is a mandatory levy imposed on goods and services when sales tax was not collected during the purchase. If your local tax authority applies a sales tax based on a percentage of the purchase price, this tax is still owed even if the seller didn’t collect it. Essentially, when you buy a product from an out-of-state seller that doesn’t collect tax, you’re responsible for calculating the use tax and paying it directly to your state and local tax agencies.

Key Features of Use Tax

  • Use tax is applied to goods or services that would typically be subject to sales tax but weren’t collected.
  • This tax often comes into play for online or out-of-state purchases when sales tax isn’t collected or is under-collected based on local or state tax regulations.
  • Responsibility for reporting and paying use tax generally lies with the purchaser rather than being collected by the seller on behalf of tax authorities.

Understanding the Difference: Sales Tax vs. Use Tax

Dealing with sales tax and use tax can become difficult as a business expands, and evolving tax regulations can add complexity. It’s crucial to grasp the distinctions and commonalities between these two forms of indirect taxation to ensure compliance and gain insights into a company’s financial obligations.

Both sales tax and use tax fall under the category of indirect taxes, meaning they can be shifted to others. Although both involve paying taxes to the government on the purchase of goods or services, differences emerge in their collection and payment methods.

These taxes serve as significant revenue sources for governments, and in states where sales tax exists, use tax is also imposed. The purpose is to prevent residents from evading sales tax by purchasing items online. To delve deeper into the contrast between sales tax and use tax, let’s explore each one of them.

The Purpose of Use Tax

Use taxes share the same objectives as sales taxes and value-added taxes (VATs). They contribute to funding various state and local initiatives, including infrastructure development, government administration, financial programs, and elderly care. In certain regions, sales and use taxes constitute a significant portion of the government’s annual revenue.

When to Fulfill Your Use Tax Obligations?

The timing for paying use tax varies by state, with many allowing residents to remit it once per calendar year. For example, in California, residents can pay their use taxes on April 15, aligning with federal and state income tax return deadlines. Additionally, California permits residents to pay any owed tax each time they make a purchase, simplifying record-keeping for some buyers. Specific regulations may apply depending on your state, so it’s advisable to consult your state’s tax department for precise information.

How Use Tax Operates?

Use tax obligations can apply to both individuals and businesses, with the onus of reporting and paying this tax typically falling on the purchaser.

For instance, when you buy something online from an e-commerce seller located in another state, and they either charge a local sales tax rate lower than yours or no sales tax at all, you may find yourself owing use tax. In many cases, use tax is reported and settled when you file your annual state tax return. Alternatively, you may have the option to make the payment at the time of purchase.

However, for high-value items subject to specific regulations, such as vehicles, use tax may need to be paid closer to when you bring the item into your state. Registering a vehicle with your state’s Department of motor vehicles (DMV), for instance, might require you to pay use tax at that juncture.

Implications of Use Tax for Individuals

Understanding the use taxes is vital to ensure you meet your tax obligations accurately and budget effectively for various purchases. For instance, if you’re contemplating buying relatively expensive items, such as furniture or vehicles, from online sellers who don’t charge sales tax, you might assume you’re getting a great deal. However, be aware that you could still be responsible for paying use tax in your jurisdiction.

Therefore, it’s crucial to budget for this potential tax liability, and upon factoring in use tax, you may discover that purchasing these items from an in-state retailer, where you pay sales tax during the purchase, is a financial sounder choice.

Sales tax and use tax share some similarities, but they also have distinct differences


  1. Taxable Property: Sales tax is levied on the sale of tangible personal property, meaning physical goods like electronics or clothing. Conversely, use tax is imposed on the use of such property within a state, particularly when sales tax was not collected at the time of purchase.
  2. Collection Responsibility: Typically, the seller charges and collects sales tax during the transaction. Use tax, on the other hand, is usually the responsibility of the purchaser to self-assess and pay when the seller hasn’t charged sales tax.
  3. Application: Use tax frequently applies to goods bought from out-of-state or online retailers, which are then brought into the purchaser’s state for use.


  1. Revenue Generation: Both sales tax and use tax serve as revenue sources for state and local governments. They contribute to funding various public services and initiatives.
  2. State Collection: Both taxes are collected by state tax authorities, ensuring compliance and enforcement.
  3. Aim: Both taxes aim to tax the consumption of goods and services, albeit through different mechanisms.
  4. Exemptions: Similarities also extend to exemptions and exclusions, which may apply to certain purchases like groceries, medications, or specific types of equipment, offering relief from taxation in both cases.


In conclusion, understanding the concept of use tax is crucial in today’s online shopping landscape. It’s a tax that ensures fairness in taxation, especially when sales tax isn’t collected upfront. Knowing when and how to calculate and remit use tax is essential for responsible financial planning. If you ever encounter questions or confusion about use tax or related matters, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from our experts. We’re here to help you navigate the complexities of tax obligations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Use Tax, and How Does It Differ from a Sales Tax?

A Use Tax is a levy on goods or services that would typically be subject to sales tax, but the sales tax wasn’t collected at the point of purchase. Unlike sales tax, which sellers collect and remit to tax authorities, buyers are generally responsible for reporting and paying use tax.

When Do I Owe Use Tax?

You owe use tax when you make purchases from out-of-state sellers who do not collect sales tax or if the collected sales tax is less than what your local or state tax laws require. It’s typically paid during your annual state tax filing, but for some items like vehicles, it may be due when you bring the item into your state.

What’s the Purpose of Use Tax?

Use taxes serve the same purpose as sales tax or value-added tax (VAT). They fund state and local initiatives such as infrastructure development, government administration, lending programs, and elder care. In many regions, sales and use taxes constitute a significant portion of annual government revenue.

How Do I Calculate Use Tax?

To calculate use tax, determine the purchase amount of the taxable items and apply your local or state use tax rate. If you’ve already paid some sales tax on the item, you may be eligible for a credit against your use tax liability.

What Happens If I Don’t Pay Use Tax?

Failure to pay use tax when owed can result in penalties and interest charges. State tax authorities may audit and assess the use tax liabilities on purchases, potentially leading to additional financial burdens.

Can Use Tax Be Avoided?

Use tax obligations cannot be avoided if you make purchases that should have incurred sales tax but didn’t. It’s essential to understand your local tax laws and budget accordingly when making online or out-of-state purchases to ensure compliance with use tax requirements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Call Now+1-800-596-0806