Cash ISAs: Your Guide to Getting Started

Cash ISAs are a simple and accessible way to save money. Read on to find out which Cash ISA could be right for you.

Felicity Hannah Published on 24 December 2020. Last updated on 17 February 2021.
Cash ISAs: Your Guide to Getting Started

There are a number of different kinds of individual savings accounts (ISAs), but a popular one is the cash ISA.

If you’re not sure which kind of ISA you want to put your money into, read our guide to all ISAs.

If you’ve already decided that a cash ISA is the right for you, there are a few things it’s worth knowing to make sure you choose the best account for you.

What is a cash ISA?

A cash ISA is the same as any other savings account except the interest you earn is not subject to tax.

It really is that simple. It doesn’t require you to do anything differently or start filing a tax return or consult an accountant — your returns are protected from tax for as long as you hold the money in the account.

In the 2020/21 tax year, every UK resident adult is allowed to save up to £20,000 into ISAs, and that can be saved in any way you like – split across different types of ISAs or all saved in one.

If you're going with a cash ISA, there is still another decision to make – just like non-ISA savings accounts, there are different options to choose from.

Which cash ISA is right for me?

There are five main cash ISA accounts to consider.

1. Easy access ISA

An easy access ISA allows you to take your money out with no notice or penalties. This account could be good if you think you might need your money in a hurry.

However, they usually pay lower rates of interest. Generally, the more willing you are to accept restrictions on your account, the higher a rate of interest you can earn.

2. Fixed-rate cash ISA

If you want to earn a higher rate of interest and don’t mind locking your money away for a period, a fixed-rate cash ISA might be right for you. With this account you agree to a term of perhaps between one and five years, and again, generally, the longer the term, the higher the interest rate you get.

These accounts are not risk free: it can be difficult to get your money in an emergency, and you usually have to pay a penalty to do so. There’s also the risk that interest rates will rise during the fixed term and leave you locked in an uncompetitive deal.

3. Notice cash ISA

A slightly less restrictive alternative is a notice cash ISA, where you usually can make unlimited deposits and can withdraw your money after giving some notice. Your notice period is likely to be anything from seven to 120 days. (With all of these details, check your provider's specific rules.)

4. Regular saver ISA

A regular saver ISA requires you to save a minimum amount of money each month, and some cap the amount you can pay in. These accounts may offer a higher rate of interest than an easy access deal, but be sure you can make the deposits each month or you risk losing that higher rate.

5. Lifetime ISA

If you want to buy a house or save for later life, you may decide that a Lifetime ISA is for you. These accounts are available to any UK resident aged between 18 and 39, and come with the government topping up your savings with a 25% bonus. Your contributions to this type of account are limited to £4,000 a year.

Again, it’s important to understand the restrictions. The money is meant for purchasing a first home or to use once you reach age 60. If you want your money sooner or for a different purpose, you will pay a 25% penalty.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the government has relaxed the penalty rule. Through to 6 April 2021, the withdrawal penalty is reduced to 20%.

Do I need a cash ISA?

This is a good question. Since the personal savings allowance was launched in 2016, the vast majority of savers don’t pay any interest on their returns anyway. Basic-rate taxpayers can earn up to £1,000 in interest without paying a penny in tax.

However, you can make use of both your ISA allowance and the personal savings allowance if you are in a position to save that much money.

And with an ISA, your money is future-proofed against tax. The personal savings allowance might be changed but an ISA provides a tax-free wrapper for as long as the money is held in your account.

Having said that, sometimes standard savings accounts offer higher interest rates, so you may decide an ISA is not right for you.

» MORE: ISA or Savings Account: Which Is Best For Me?

How many cash ISAs can I have?

You can open one cash ISA a year and can make payments only into your newest account. However, you can keep old ISA accounts going if you can’t transfer the money into the new one.

If you open a Lifetime ISA you can still use a cash ISA for the rest of your allowance.

Can I withdraw from a cash ISA?

With some ISA providers you can only use your allowance once. So if you paid in your money and then withdrew it, you can’t re-use that share of your ISA allowance. Depending on how much you have saved already, that may mean you have to wait until the start of the new tax year, when your allowance resets.

However, some ISA providers and certain ISA types allow you to withdraw the money and replace it without affecting your allowance, as long as you do so in the same tax year. Check the fine print for the rules.

Is my money protected with a cash ISA?

Under the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, your money saved in a cash ISA is protected up to £85,000.

How do I get a cash ISA?

It is a good idea to compare cash ISA rates and then apply to the best, rather than simply opening an account with your main bank. Although rates are quite low just now, there can be a real difference between providers.

Once you have compared rates online, most banks and building societies allow you to apply online. You will need to have all your details handy, including your National Insurance number.

If you want to transfer savings from an old account into a new ISA, it’s important to follow the correct process and ask your new provider to do the transfer for you. If you simply withdraw the money and pay it in, your savings will lose their tax-free status and you will start eating into this year’s allowance unnecessarily.

About the author:

Felicity is a personal finance journalist. She regularly writes for The Times, The Mirror and The Independent. She has won five awards for her work, including Household Money Journalist of the year. Read more

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