Cash register receipt showing sales tax A sales tax is a tax, usually paid by the consumer at the point of purchase, itemized separately from the base price, for certain goods and services. The tax amount is usually calculated by applying a percentage rate to the taxable price of a sale.
A portion of the sale may be exempt from the calculation of tax, because sales tax laws usually contain a list of exemptions. Laws governing the tax may require it to be included in the price (tax-inclusive) or added to the price at the point of sale.
Most sales taxes are collected from the buyer by the seller, who remits the tax to a government agency. Sales taxes are commonly charged on sales of goods, but many sales taxes are also charged on sales of services. Advantages that a sales tax generally has over other forms of taxation are that it is difficult to avoid, and simple to calculate and collect.
A tax imposed on the sale of goods is depicted on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, which have been dated as far back as 2000 BC. These paintings describe the collection of tax for specific commodities, such as cooking oil.
Sales tax amounts, measured in drachmas at a rate of one percent, were recorded in a separate column of a record prepared for the auction of 16 slaves in Piraeus, Greece in 415 BC. Nearby Athens collected duties on the import and export of commodities, recorded at a rate of two percent in 399 BC. At that period of time, Athens did not rely on government agencies to collect its taxes; the responsibility was delegated to the highest bidder, a practice known as tax farming.
The Roman emperor Augustus collected funds for his military aerarium in AD 6 with a one percent general sales tax, known as the centesima rerum venalium (hundredth of the value of everything sold). The Roman sales tax was later reduced to a half percent (ducentesima) by Tiberius, then abolished completely by Caligula.
In the United States
Although the United States government has never used a general sales tax, an excise tax on whiskey enacted in 1791 was one of its first fund raising efforts. The unpopularity of this tax with farmers on the western frontier led to the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
Federal and state sales taxes in the United States remained selective, rather than general, through the 19th century. However, excise taxes were applied to so many specific commodities during the Civil War that they functioned collectively as a general sales tax.
The first broad-based, general sales taxes in the United States were enacted by Kentucky and Mississippi in 1930, although Kentucky repealed its sales tax in 1936. Twenty-two other states began imposing general sales taxes later in the 1930s, followed by six in the 1940s and five in the 1950s. Kentucky re-enacted its sales tax law in 1960. Eleven more states enacted sales tax laws during the 1960s, with Vermont as the last in 1969. Only five states currently do not have general sales taxes: Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana and Oregon.
The 2010 health care reform law imposed a 10 percent federal sales tax on indoor tanning services, effective July 1, 2010. Unlike previous federal excise taxes, this tax is collected directly from the consumer by the seller and based on the sale price rather than a quantity. However, the new tax is selective rather than general, applying only to a specific service.
Types of sales tax
A conventional or retail sales tax is charged only on the sale of an item to its final end user. To achieve this, a purchaser who is not an end user is usually required to provide the seller with a "resale certificate", which states that the seller is purchasing an item to resell it. The tax is charged on each item sold to purchasers who do not provide such a certificate.
Other types of sales taxes, or similar taxes, include:
Gross receipts taxes, levied on all sales of a business. This tax has been criticized for its "cascading" or "pyramiding" effect, in which an item is taxed more than once as it makes its way from production to final retail sale.
Excise taxes, applied to a narrow range of products, such as gasoline or alcohol, usually imposed on the producer or wholesaler rather than the retail seller.
Use tax, imposed directly on the consumer of goods purchased without sales tax, generally items purchased from a vendor in another state and delivered to the purchaser by mail or common carrier. Use taxes are commonly imposed by states with a sales tax, but are difficult to enforce on consumers, except for large items such as automobiles and boats.
Securities turnover excise tax, a tax on the trade of securities.
Value added taxes, in which tax is charged on all sales, thus avoiding the need for a system of resale certificates. Tax cascading is avoided by applying the tax only to the difference ("value added") between the price paid by the first purchaser and the price paid by each subsequent purchaser of the same item.
FairTax, a proposed federal sales tax, intended to replace the U.S. federal income tax.
Turnover tax, similar to a sales tax, but applied to intermediate and possibly capital goods as an indirect tax.
Most countries in the world have sales taxes or value-added taxes at all or several of the national, state, county or city government levels. Countries in Western Europe, especially in Scandinavia have some of the world's highest valued-added taxes. Norway, Denmark and Sweden have higher VATs at 25%, Hungary has the highest at 27%, although reduced rates are used in some cases, as for groceries, art, books and newspapers.
In some jurisdictions of the United States, there are multiple levels of government which each impose a sales tax. For example, sales tax in Chicago (Cook County), IL is 10.25% consisting of 6.25% state, 1.25% city, 1.75% county and 1% regional transportation authority. Chicago also has the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority tax on food and beverage of 1% (which means eating out is taxed at 11.25%).
For Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the tax is 9%, consisting of 4% state and 5% local rate.
In California, sales taxes are made up of various state, county and city taxes. The state tax is "imposed upon all retailers" for the "privilege of selling tangible personal property at retail."  Strictly speaking, only the retailer is responsible for the payment of the tax; when a retailer adds this tax to the purchase price, the consumer is merely reimbursing the retailer by contractual agreement. When consumers purchase goods from out-of-state (in which case the seller owes no tax to California) the consumer is required to pay a "use tax" which is identical to the sales tax. Use tax is levied upon the "storage, use, or other consumption in this state of tangible personal property."  Consumers are responsible for declaring these purchases in the same filing as their annual state income tax, but it is rare for them to do so. An exception is out of state purchase of automobiles, in which case use tax is collected by the state as part of registering the vehicle in California.
The trend has been for conventional sales taxes to be replaced by more broadly based value added taxes. Value added taxes provide an estimated 20 percent of worldwide tax revenue and have been adopted by more than 140 countries. The United States is now one of the few countries to retain conventional sales taxes.
Sales taxes are often seen as good tax systems for economic growth, savings, and investment. Economists at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development studied the effects of various types of taxes on the economic growth of developed nations within the OECD and found that sales taxes are one of the least harmful taxes for growth.
Some people consider sales taxes to be regressive; that is, they believe that the tax imposes a greater burden on low-income families than wealthy families. However, it has been suggested that any regressive effect of a sales tax could be mitigated, e.g., by excluding rent, or by exempting "necessary" items, such as food, clothing and medicines.
Enforcement of tax on remote sales
In the United States, every state with a sales tax law has a use tax component in that law applying to purchases from out-of-state mail order, catalog and e-commerce vendors, a category also known as "remote sales". As e-commerce sales have grown in recent years, noncompliance with use tax has had a growing impact on state revenues. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that uncollected use taxes on remote sales in 2003 could be as high as $20.4 billion. Uncollected use tax on remote sales was projected to run as high as $54.8 billion for 2011.
Enforcement of the tax on remote sales, however, is difficult. Unless the vendor has a physical location, or nexus, within a state, the vendor cannot be required to collect tax for that state. This limitation was defined as part of the Dormant Commerce Clause by the Supreme Court in the 1967 decision on National Bellas Hess v. Illinois. An attempt to require a Delaware e-commerce vendor to collect North Dakota tax was overturned by the court in the 1992 decision on Quill Corp. v. North Dakota.
The Internet Tax Freedom Act of 1998 established a commission to study the possibility of internet taxation, but the commission did not make any formal recommendations. In a report in 2003, the Congressional Budget Office warned of the economic burden of a "multiplicity of tax systems, particularly for smaller firms".
In an effort to reduce the burden of compliance with the tax laws of multiple jurisdictions, the Streamlined Sales Tax Project was organized in March 2000. Cooperative efforts in this project by 44 state governments and the District of Columbia eventually produced the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement in 2010. This agreement establishes standards necessary for simplified and uniform sales tax laws. As of December 2010, 24 states had passed legislation conforming with the agreement. Whether the Streamlined Sales Tax can actually be applied to remote sales ultimately depends upon Congressional support, because the 1992 Quill v. North Dakota decision determined that only the U.S. Congress has the authority to enact interstate taxes.
Sales tax avoidance
Businesses can reduce the impact of sales tax for themselves and their customers by planning for the tax consequences of all activities. Sales tax avoidance often includes the following:
- Designing invoices to reduce the taxable portion of a sale transaction. In Maryland, for example, a delivery charge is exempt from the tax when stated separately from handling and other taxable charges.
- New facilities. Jurisdictions with no sales tax or broad exemptions for certain types of business operations would be an obvious consideration in selecting a site for a new manufacturing plant, warehouse or administrative office.
- Delivery location. For a businesses operating in several jurisdictions, choosing the best location in which to take delivery can reduce or eliminate the sales tax liability. This is particularly important for an item to be sold or used in another jurisdiction with a lower tax rate or an exemption for that item. Businesses should consider whether a temporary storage exemption applies to merchandise initially accepted in a jurisdiction with a higher tax rate.
- Review of company purchases to determine whether tax was paid in error for equipment and supplies qualifying for exemptions, especially in jurisdictions with broad manufacturing exemptions. Some jurisdictions allow refunds as long as three or even four years after the tax was paid.
- Periodic review of record-keeping procedures related to sales and use tax. Proper supporting detail, including exemption and resale certificates, invoices and other records must be available to defend the company in the event of a sales and use tax audit. Without proper documentation, a seller can be held liable for tax not collected from a buyer.
In the United States, online retailers who have no physical presence in a given state can ship goods to customers there without collecting that state's sales tax, because as of 2011, there is no federal sales tax. Amazon.com has been criticized for not collecting sales tax, and has intentionally disaffiliated itself from businesses in certain states to continue doing so legally.
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