Guide to Spain's autonomo system

Information for autonomos and those thinking about becoming autonomo.

For prices and details of our services for autonomos click here

Other relevant articles :  Contracting in Spain Autonomo expenses guide


Autonomo basics - video guide

Categories of autonomo

Alternatives to autonomo

Retenciones or retentions of income

Different uses of the autonomo structure

Autonomo social security

Exemption from autonomo social security

Lower rates of autonomo social security

Spanish invoice requirements

IVA requirements for autonomos

Allowable autonomo expenses

Subsidies for autonomos

Autonomo basics


Categories of autonomo

The Spanish Tax Office (Agencia Tributaria - see their website here) makes a broad distinction between sole traders (empresarios individuales) and independent professionals (profesionales autonomos). The distinction is important when it comes to the "retencion" system of advance income tax (see below).

The Spanish Social Security Office (Seguridad Social - see their website here) and the Agencia Tributaria both require registrants to put themselves into a detailed category of autonomo when registering. Each category describes a type of work, profession or commercial activity and has a code number.

There are actually two lists of economic activities with differing code numbers. The social security office use the CNAE list issued by the Instituto Nacional de Estadisticos (INE):

List of Autonomo category codes in English (CNAE)

If you cannot find a suitable or obvious classification you can email us or look at this report:

Description of Autonomo category codes in English

The Agencia Tributaria use the activity categories and codes set up for business tax IAE (Impuesto sobre Actividades Econimicas) purposes. This site allows you to find the code most relevant to you by selecting the division, sub-division and grouping that you belong to:

IAE codes in four steps

Alternatives to autonomo

Most people starting a small business or setting themselves up in private practice opt to go autonomo because it is the quickest, simplest and cheapest way of registering a business. The most common alternative is the limited company ("Sociedad Limitada" or SL). The pros and cons to setting up an SL are discussed on our "Starting a Business in Spain" page.

A less common alternative is a "CB" or "Comunidad de Bienes" which is similar legally to autonomo but is a partnership of more than one individual. Like autonomo the CB is not a legal entity separate from the participants i.e. the owners are fully liable for its debts.

Retenciones or retentions of income

If a profesional autonomo invoices another Spanish autonomo or business for their services then that business must retain a tax retention of a percentage of the invoice value to pay to the Agencia Tributaria as advance income tax on behalf of the autonomo. Note that trading autonomos (empresarios individuales) don't have retentions. Also, if the autonomo is invoicing an private customer (not a company or an autonomo), or a business outside of Spain, no retention is applicable.

The standard retention rate is 15% in 2017. The rate is reduced to 7% for autonomos in their first three calendar years.

Note that these retained amounts are not lost to the autonomo. They are credited when the quarterly returns of income tax are made: 20% of an autonomo's net income for the quarter must be paid to the Agencia Tributaria but credit is given for retentions suffered.

If an autonomo's income is mainly (70%+) made up of sources which are subject to retention payments, they may choose not to report their profits quarterly.

Different uses of the autonomo structure

It is fair to say that the autonomo system is not well-loved by foreigners in Spain who are put off by the social security payment being at a flat rate regardless of income/profit. However it is quite a flexible option and can often be the solution to business problems:

Employment: Many businesses abroad (or in Spain) want to employ staff in Spain but do not want to have to register as employers with social security or give contracts which bind them into expensive commitments. If the worker is happy to become autonomo then this problem is circumvented, although it should be noted that there are risks associated with this approach. Spanish law since 2007 has forbidden the use of autonomo contracts as a way of employing people by the back door. The Tax Office has treated some autonomo arrangements (called autonomo falso) as if they were employment contracts and retrospectively hit employers with social security and other costs. Take advice.

Operating overseas business from Spain: many residents of Spain are economically active but with some or all of their business interests abroad. For example they return to the UK for some consultancy work, they have a company in the UK which they run from Spain or they have a home business in Spain with all the customers being from abroad. Autonomo can be a useful part of ensuring that these interests are legalised and properly constituted but tax efficient at the same time.

Autonomo social security

One of the main criticisms of the autonomo system is that all autonomos, regardless of the their income, are required to join the social security system under the Special Regime for Autonomous Workers ("RETA"). The government site in connection with this is here:

Regimen Especial Trabajadores Autonomos

There are various rates and options open to autonomous depending on their circumstances and economic activity classification. Unfortunately however the standard social security cost is €285 a month (2017), (but see exception below).

Employees do not have a minimum and if they are low paid or part time they will pay much less than this. Thus some people think that setting up a company ("SL") to employ themselves will avoid the high social security minimum. The problem with this approach is that companies cannot just have employees; they are required to have at least one director ("administrador") who is obliged to join the RETA and thus pay a fixed social security contribution. From 2015 this type of social security payment has also been increased above the standard autonomo amount. Setting up a one-man company is therefore a not an option for reducing social security cost.

When you join social security you are offered extra cover to augment the basic minimum. For example if you so choose you can pay more than the minimum to secure a higher pension or pay additional amounts to get extra insurance cover in case of accident or illness at work. Most people decline the extras - the accident cover for example only covers accidents at work (not while for example skiing) and provides only limited benefits.

See also article - benefits of paying autonomo social security

Exemption from autonomo social security

The only people who are exempt from paying social security are those that the law recognises as neither employed nor self-employed, in the sense of regularly offering their services as a main occupation. These are people paid for an irregular occasional activity or a one-off event.  An example might be an academic on a salary, who is paid for occasional speaking engagements outside the university.

No one earning more than the Spanish minimum wage or Salario Minimo Interprofesional or "SMI" (€9,080 in 2015) can avoid paying social security and it should be noted that:

- if you don't pay into the system you won't get the benefits

- the key point is irregular : if you are demonstrably not an occasional autonomo (e.g. you open a shop or office or your service is permanently on offer) it is not possible to claim an exemption however low your income.

Lower rates of autonomo social security

While exemption from social security is very rare, there are some autonomos who pay less than the normal minimum. Some of these situations are as follows:

> Autonomos that are less than 30 years old (men) or 35 years old (women), can receive a discount of 30% on the minimum contribution for the first 30 months.

> Alternatively, new autonomos that have not been registered as autonomo in the past five years (expected to change to two years in 2018) may apply for a discount of 80% for six months, followed by 50% for six months, followed by 30% for six months. For those below the age of 30 (men) or 35 (women) the 30% discount is also extended for a further 12 months. (It is also expected that the initial six month discount will be extended to 12 months in early 2018.)

> Women returning to autonomo following a maternity break are be entitled to a 100% deduction of the minimum social security payment for 12 months.

> People who work "venta ambulante" (literally means peddling, but in reality normally refers to people who work on market stalls and similar) can chose to pay a lower rate of social security.

> There is a also a regime for people who work on their own account in agriculture who pay a specially reduced rate. You have to be registered as such and show you have been working and been paid by official agricultural employers to get this. You cannot just claim to be an agricultural worker by virtue of working on your own land.

Spanish invoice requirements

Autonomos must issue and retain copies of invoices for the work they have done. Additionally, if they want to deduct expenses from income for tax purposes they must hold of a properly constituted receipt. In most cases this will be an invoice (factura).

A proper receipt always has the name of the autonomo or business, the identification number of the business (CIF if a company, or the NIE or DNI of the individual if an autonomo), date, description of product/service, invoice amount and VAT (IVA) applicable.

It is normal when issuing an invoice to put your address as and contact details such as phone number, email address and website. It is also a good idea to put the terms of payment and how the invoice can be settled (for example "bank transfer" with your account details).

Being in English does not invalidate an invoice. But being in Spanish will make things much easier if you should receive a tax office enquiry. Many British businesses in Spain issue dual-language invoices.

IVA (VAT) requirements for autonomos

There are no minimum threshold in Spain for small businesses to not charge IVA. The general rule is that everyone must charge IVA however low their turnover is. However some autonomos only offer goods or services which are exempt from VAT (exento). Examples would be educational or insurance-related supplies, which are often exempt. Also, autonomos who only invoice businesses abroad may not charge IVA to their clients, depending upon various factors (see new VAT rules).

Businesses that provide exempt services don't have to submit a quarterly IVA return (see below) and they cannot recover IVA on their costs.

To reclaim IVA charged on your costs, proper VAT invoices are a legal requirement (see below).

IVA is reported every quarter using form or "modelo" 303 (plus a modelo 390 at the year end). Just as in the UK, the Spanish tax authorities play it pretty tough when it comes to IVA. When you issue an invoice and charge IVA you are merely collecting the government's money and must pass it on to them - less any IVA you are entitled to reclaim on allowable expenses - within 20 days of the month end. Late payment of IVA can open you up to severe fines and penalties. The authorities can and will go after your personal assets, including your home, if debts remain unpaid. See Late Reporting Requirements and Penalties here.

IVA rebates for autonomos will be made if the amount of IVA on your expenses exceeds the IVA you have collected on your income. The refund amount is calculated annually not quarterly. So, for example, if you have a lot of expenses in the first quarter of the year and the tax office therefore owes you IVA, you will not get it back at the end of the quarter. Rather, they will accumulate the rebate with subsequent quarters when maybe you will owe them money to offset it. If at the end of the year you are still in deficit and are due a rebate it will be made, but it will take several months to arrive.

IVA on capital purchases like office equipment or a vehicle is reclaimable if the purchase is exclusively for use in the business.

IVA/VAT on crossborder purchases and sales is quite a large and complex topic and the rules for cross-border VAT on services within the EU have changed over recent years (see HM Revenue & Customs guide here). As a rough rule of thumb you don't charge VAT on exports of goods and shouldn't be charged it on imports. In terms of services you will mostly not put VAT on services if the customer is a VAT-registered business in another country in Europe, but you will if the service is provided to a consumer or a non-VAT-registered business. If you buy a service from a European business and have not been charged VAT you may still have to account for IVA on it under the "reverse charge" mechanism. There are special rules for certain types of service like hotels, transport and communications.

This can get rather complicated and you may wish to take advice on your particular situation if you are an autonomo with cross-border transactions.

Allowable autonomo expenses

Keeping complete and accurate records of all your autonomo expenses is vital for two reasons: to feed into your IVA returns to get the IVA back, and also to calculate your net profit for income tax purposes.

We have produced a separate guide to autonomo expenses - what is and what is not allowable, under each of the main categories. Essentially an expense is allowable if it is necessary to carry out the business or profession but take a look at the item by item guide.

The golden rule is OBTAIN AND KEEP PROPER INVOICES. This might seem patronising, particularly if you are not new to business, but it is worth emphasising. Even if you are not sure whether something is allowable or not it is worth retaining an invoice and asking.

Nothing can be claimed without a proper VAT invoice with your name and NIE on it. A shop receipt or a delivery note, even if it has the correct amount on it and VAT will not do, it has to have your details and NIE on it. If you are buying from a shop it is generally necessary to take your till receipt to Customer Service and ask for a proper invoice (a factura) in your name.

Subsidies for autonomos

It is not possible to be definitive about the subsidies available for autonomos starting out because there are so many programs, they change all the time and are usually timing and funding limited (meaning that programs are available for limited periods and even then can be withdrawn because the funds allocated to them have been exhausted). In addition much of the funding is at least in part local or regional so what's available depends where you are.

As an example of the kind of things on offer you may wish to look at our report Subsidies for the newly self-employed

Often business subsidies have an angle to them e.g. encouraging businesses that employ people or advance some cause or other (female participation in business, technology, the environment). Often there is a requirement that the business has to stay open for a set period, say three years, or else the subsidy has to be repaid. There is a lot of bureaucracy and applications can be time-consuming with no guarantee of success at the end of it.

For these reasons there are companies that specialise in subsidy applications either for a fee or for a percentage of the subsidy they get. It may be better to go to the local business advice centre. These are government sponsored, free and objective in their advice. They may have other assistance and advice available besides grants and will know what's available in your area.

In Andalucia these are called Centro de Apoyo al Desarollo Empresarial ("CADE") and this is a link to all the CADE offices: