A Guide to ISAs

An ISA is a type of savings or investment account that shields your money from tax. The shine may have been taken off them recently due to lower interest rates, but ISAs can still be useful for setting money aside.

Felicity Hannah, Holly Bennett Last updated on 07 April 2022.
A Guide to ISAs

An individual savings account (ISA) lets you build your savings or investments without worrying about tax. There are a few types of ISAs, so it’s worth knowing how each one works so you can choose the right one for you.

What is an ISA?

An ISA lets you save or invest money without being taxed on the interest or income you earn from it. There is a maximum amount you can put into an ISA each year, which the government sets. There are a few different types to choose from, with some more flexible than others. Each tax year you can put money into one type of ISA or you can split your annual allowance across other types of ISAs.

Are ISAs worth it?

The main selling point for ISAs is that the money you earn in interest on savings or income from investments is tax-free. You also don’t have to pay any tax when you withdraw the money.

As great as that sounds, you might wonder if that matters, considering most people won’t pay any tax on their savings now the personal savings allowance (PSA) is in place. The PSA lets basic-rate taxpayers earn £1,000 in interest each year on cash accounts before paying tax, or £500 a year for higher-rate taxpayers. Additional-rate taxpayers have no allowance. There are also other allowances such as the personal allowance and starting rate for savings which may allow you to save more without being taxed.

With these allowances and interest rates being at record lows in recent years, a basic-rate taxpayer would need to have tens of thousands of pounds stashed away before they risk troubling the taxman.

But ISAs can still be a worthwhile option, and not just for high earners. Of course, you’re free to use a standard savings account, but an ISA can help protect your savings from tax over time. This is because interest rates could rise further in the future, and if you’re saving for the long term you may put away a larger amount than you expect or realise over time.

The issue of tax becomes more of a concern if you are planning to use an ISA as an investment as the returns can be unpredictable and you will benefit from shielding your investments from taxes such as capital gains. In addition to this, you may also want to make the most of government top-ups if you’re saving for your first home or retirement.

» MORE: Is an ISA or savings account best for you?

How do different types of ISAs work?

There are four types of ISA available for adults, and they each work slightly differently. To help you decide which one to go for, think about your savings goals and how you will want to access the money.

Cash ISAs

Like a standard savings account, there are different types of cash ISAs, including easy-access and fixed-rate cash ISAs. Look for accounts paying the highest interest rates you can get while offering the access to your cash when you need it.

A cash ISA is straightforward and usually simple to withdraw your money from. Your money is covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) up to £85,000.

Stocks and shares ISAs

These let you hold investment products such as corporate bonds, funds and stocks and shares in a tax-free wrapper. This means your investment growth and any withdrawals you make are not subject to tax.

You can get a stocks and shares ISA from an online investment platform or bank. These will charge for their services, such as trading and annual fees, so shop around to make sure you don’t pay more than you need to.

It’s possible you could get higher returns with this type of ISA compared to a cash ISA, but there is more risk, as investments can go down as well as up and you may get back less than you invested. It can also be a longer process to extract your cash, so you may not get instant access to your money.

Like a cash ISA, if a firm you have invested in goes bust your money is protected by the FSCS scheme up to £85,000. But it's worth noting that you are not covered for your investments' performance and any downturn you see.

Lifetime ISAs (LISAs)

LISAs can be a great way to save for a house or retirement. You can save a maximum of £4,000 a year with a lifetime ISA (LISA), and the government tops it up with a 25% bonus. So if you save £4,000, that sum becomes £5,000 after a year.

You can invest it in cash or stocks and shares, but you can only use money in a LISA to buy your first home or save for later life. This means you will usually have to pay penalties that exceed the bonus if you withdraw it for any other reason, unless you are terminally ill.

Help To Buy ISAs which were also ISA products aimed at helping people buy their first homes are no longer available to new savers. But if you already have an existing Help To Buy ISA, you can keep saving into it until 2029.

Innovative finance ISAs (IFISAs)

This type of ISA lets you put your money into peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding. The IFISA contains peer-to-peer (P2P) loans up to £20,000 rather than cash or stocks and shares. Whatever interest you make is not taxed because it’s held in a tax-free wrapper.

Innovative finance ISAs can offer the possibility of your money growing faster. They are considered riskier than holding your money in cash, though, because the people or businesses you are lending to may default on their loan. And again, you may not get instant access to your money, as, for example, you may have to wait for a replacement lender to take on your P2P lending before you can close your IFISA.

Junior ISAs

For under-18s, there are Junior ISAs (JISAs). JISAs are the replacement for Child Trust Funds.

Like adult ISAs, the money can be invested in cash or stocks and shares, but unlike the grown-up version, instant access isn’t an option.

Savings can only be withdrawn once the child turns 18. Any 16- and 17-year olds who have a lot of cash to save can open both adult and junior accounts and benefit from both allowances. Once they reach 18, the JISA will become an adult ISA.

A JISA can be a useful way to build savings for your child separate from your own. You can’t put more than £9,000 a year into the account in the current tax year, so the limit is much lower than adult ISAs.

Who can open an ISA?

You must be a UK resident to open an ISA, and there are age restrictions that depend on the type of ISA you are opening:

Type of ISA

Age restrictions

Maximum contributions in 2022/23 tax year

Cash ISA

16 or over

£20,000

Stocks and shares ISA

18 or over

£20,000

Innovative finance ISA

18 or over

£20,000

Lifetime ISA

18 to 40, and you can pay into it until you’re 50 

£4,000

Junior ISA

Under 18, or a parent or guardian opening it for their child

£9,000

Managing your ISA

Once you’ve set up your ISA, you’ll need to be clear about what you can and can’t do with it.

How much can you put in an ISA?

As you can see in the table above, your ISA allowance depends on the type of ISA you have:

  • Adult ISAs have an allowance of £20,000 in the current tax year, but you can split it across different ISA types. So that might be half in stocks and shares, and half in cash.
  • Junior ISAs have an allowance of £9,000 in the current tax year.
  • Lifetime ISAs have an annual limit of £4,000. So if you want to save more, you’ll need to open another type of savings account. Remember, the government tops up your contributions by 25%, so £4,000 saved would be topped up to £5,000.

Can you withdraw money and pay it back in?

Some providers of flexible ISAs let you take money out of the account and pay it back in during the same tax year, without affecting your allowance. Check if this is the case before you make a move, though.

Can you switch ISAs?

You can transfer ISA providers, perhaps to secure a higher interest rate or change your type of ISA account, maybe from a cash ISA to a stocks and shares ISA. But there is a process to follow and there may be restrictions if you’re transferring investments.

If you simply close one ISA account and open a new one, you will lose the tax-free status of that cash. Instead, you need to ask your new ISA provider to transfer the money for you. You just need to check that your new provider accepts transfers, and if there are any transfer or exit fees, and follow its process.

If you’re transferring money you’ve put into the ISA during the current tax year, you have to transfer all of it. If you have other ISAs from previous years, some or all of the cash you have in them can be transferred to your current ISA.

How many ISAs can you have?

You can only open one of each type of ISA in any tax year. You can keep old accounts you’ve opened in previous years, but you can only carry on making payments into the most current one.

Bear in mind that tax rules may change in the future. If you’re not sure about which type of ISA is right for you, a financial adviser can help.

WARNING: We can’t tell you if any form of investing is right for you. Depending on your choice of investment your capital can be at risk and you may get back less than originally paid in.

About the authors:

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

Holly champions clear, jargon-free writing. She’s been creating finance content for leading organisations for over 10 years. Read more

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