For many US companies looking for international growth, the United Kingdom is an attractive first foothold in overseas markets. A government keen to attract inward investment, a shared business and civil culture and the English language as well as geographic (if not political) proximity to mainland Europe all make the UK a logical choice for a base for overseas expansion.
You’ll need to understand the British legal and commercial environment, which does differ from the USA in several important respects. It’s also important to understand that the United Kingdom actually comprises four separate nations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. England and Wales can still be thought of as a single legal jurisdiction, while Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own clear separate legal systems. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not technically considered to be part of the UK and they too have their own systems. In this article, our advice generally applies to England and Wales, unless otherwise stated.
Setting up in the UK
There are several issues to consider when deciding how you will enter the UK market, not least of which is, given the increase in home/remote working, do you even need a physical presence there? For most companies, ‘boots on the ground’ are essential, so deciding what company structure should be, depending on the size and permanency of your planned UK operation, is the start point.
Joint ventures or distributorship arrangements can be attractive. Operating a branch would be another option, but this is not a separate legal entity. The overseas parent company would be directly responsible for the operations, liabilities, and obligations of its UK establishment. Buying an existing UK company may not be an attractive financial option. For most US companies aiming to do business in the UK, setting up a subsidiary is probably the best option. A UK subsidiary company is a separate legal entity, distinct from its shareholders and directors, which can enter into contracts directly. This status also offers the US parent some protection from the subsidiary’s liabilities.
Incorporating a private company limited by shares is a straightforward process and Motion Paradox experts can help with completing the required forms and filing with the Registrar of Companies. A UK private company will also require articles of association (which govern the company’s administration) and can have just one director, who need not be a UK national. There must be an official UK address (the ‘registered office’). If you’re based or operating in England, the registered office must be in England. If in Wales, the registered office address must be in Wales.
A UK private company does not need to have a company secretary, but it pays to consider appointing one as company secretaries must ensure compliance with all statutory filing and reporting requirements. This too is a role where Motion Paradox can help.
Intellectual Property Issues
Protecting the integrity of the brand you have worked hard to establish and other intellectual property (IP) implications are the most frequent issues US businesses, who are thinking about expansion overseas, ask the Motion Paradox team to consider. Understanding the impact of the UK leaving the EU (Brexit) and how this affects the range of IP rights available to you is equally important. Before entering the UK market, it’s advisable to audit your IP to identify any areas that could not only be bolstered by additional protection but also how these valuable assets could be used to attract investment or perhaps licensed to provide an active revenue stream.
The main types of IP rights in the UK includes copyright, which protects original works against copying, sharing, selling, renting, or lending. Copyright in the UK is automatic. There is no need to register and the protection usually lasts 70 years from the death of the author. The UK courts will enforce the vast majority of foreign copyrights, provided they meet certain criteria in the jurisdiction where they were created. There are also a number of international laws dealing with copyright and the USA participates in a range of them. Materials created by nationals of one signatory country will automatically be protected in all signatory countries according to their national laws.
Trademarks (words, names, images, sounds, slogans, and logos) can be registered in the UK and can be renewed indefinitely (subject to renewal fees). It is possible to rely on unregistered trademark protection in the UK, known as “passing off”, however this not as strong as registered trademark protection which is usually the better option in all circumstances. Since Brexit there have been changes to the registered trademark system across the UK and the EU. If trademark protection is required, two separate applications will need to be made to the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) and to the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). These separate applications involve different forms and attract different fees and costs.
It is possible to register designs in the whole of the UK, protecting the overall visual appearance of a product or part of a product. Registration with the Intellectual Property Office is required and can last 25 years (subject to payment of renewal fees). You can protect the texture, color, shape, or material and that protection is not limited to the product to which it was originally applied. Brexit has resulted in a number of changes to registered design rights. If registered design right protection is needed in the UK and the EU, then separate applications will need to be made, or an international registration that designates both the UK and the EU could be filed under the Hague Agreement.
Contracts, Compliance, and Data Protection
Companies dealing with other businesses in the UK are free to agree the terms of their trading contracts as they think fit. However, consumers have greater protections by UK law than in the US. It’s important to ensure any trading contracts with consumers comply with these legal requirements, which extend to all advertising, marketing, and sales promotions as well as rights concerning defective goods and services. To ensure contract terms are enforceable, it is important to review your standard form contract documentation before doing business in the UK.
There are a number of other important general compliance issues any UK company must satisfy concerning data protection and privacy. All providers have to comply with these data protection rules, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which is one of the toughest privacy and security laws in the world. Everyone responsible for using personal data has to follow strict data protection principles, especially if your company participates in the UK’s ‘Open Banking’ initiative, instigated in 2017 by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) following its market investigation into retail banking.
Of particular importance for any firm in the financial services sector is compliance with regulations concerning ‘operational resilience’, defined by the regulators (Bank of England, Prudential Regulation Authority and Financial Conduct Authority) as the ability to prevent, adapt, respond to, recover, and learn from operational disruption.
HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is the taxation authority in the UK responsible for the administration and collection of all UK taxes, including value added tax and customs and excise duties. Responsibility for the administration and collection of taxes is devolved thru the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to Revenue Scotland and the Welsh Revenue Authority.
UK companies must pay corporation tax based on their taxable profits in an accounting period, generally paid within nine months and one day following the end of that accounting period. For larger companies (with profits of at least £1.5m), corporation tax is due in quarterly installments.
Value Added Tax (VAT) is charged on the supply of goods and services made in the UK. Registration for VAT is compulsory where a company’s taxable supplies for the preceding year exceed the threshold (at the time of writing VAT has been frozen at £85,000 per year until 31 March 2024) or it is likely that its taxable supplies in the next month alone will exceed that threshold. The general rule is that all supplies of goods and services are subject to VAT at the standard rate (currently 20%) unless they are exempt or subject to VAT at a lower rate.
There are however a number of tax incentives to doing business in the UK as well as significant reliefs for qualifying spending on research and development for example. Motion Paradox work with a number of tax specialists and this team can assist you thru the UK tax regime.
Generally speaking, UK employee rights are stronger than in the USA. The law imposes certain minimum requirements, such as the national minimum wage which is higher than the federal minimum wage of the USA but lower than the minimum wage set by some US states. Women are legally entitled to be paid the same as men doing work of equal value (and vice versa). A UK employer also has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help disabled employees overcome the disadvantage caused by their disability in the workplace.
All employees and workers are entitled to receive a written statement of specific terms and conditions of employment on or before the date their employment commences. This statement or contract of employment must contain some key terms such as the name of the employer, employee job title, rate of pay, hours of work, disciplinary and grievance procedure, holiday entitlement, and notice periods.
Employees are also legally protected against discrimination, harassment, and victimization on the grounds of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, gender, and sexual orientation. Discrimination can be claimed at any stage of the employment process and if an employee’s case for discrimination is successful, the employer can be ordered to pay unlimited compensation. US companies should therefore be aware of the rights of UK workers before they commit to opening up operations.
Helping you do Business in the UK
Our team at Motion Paradox can help you do business in the UK, which remains one of the easiest countries in which to conduct business. The World Bank Group regularly ranks it as the eighth most business-friendly country in the world from a regulatory and legal standpoint. London is one of the world’s financial and investment centers while the nations and regions of the UK offer a highly skilled workforce with labor laws that are more flexible than many other European countries. For any ambitious North American company, the UK is an ideal market of some 67 million people with easy geographical access to the rest of Europe and the convenience of an English-speaking country.