International taxation is the study or determination of tax on a person or business subject to the tax laws of different countries or the international aspects of an individual country’s tax laws as the case may be. Governments usually limit the scope of their income taxation in some manner territorially or provide for offsets to taxation relating to extraterritorial income. The manner of limitation generally takes the form of a territorial, residence-based, or exclusionary system. Some governments have attempted to mitigate the differing limitations of each of these three broad systems by enacting a hybrid system with characteristics of two or more.
Many governments tax individuals and/or enterprises on income. Such systems of taxation vary widely, and there are no broad general rules. These variations create the potential for double taxation (where the same income is taxed by different countries) and no taxation (where income is not taxed by any country). Income tax systems may impose tax on local income only or on worldwide income. Generally, where worldwide income is taxed, reductions of tax or foreign credits are provided for taxes paid to other jurisdictions. Limits are almost universally imposed on such credits. Multinational corporations usually employ international tax specialists, a specialty among both lawyers and accountants, to decrease their worldwide tax liabilities.
With any system of taxation, it is possible to shift or recharacterize income in a manner that reduces taxation. Jurisdictions often impose rules relating to shifting income among commonly controlled parties, often referred to as transfer pricing rules. Residency-based systems are subject to taxpayer attempts to defer recognition of income through use of related parties. A few jurisdictions impose rules limiting such deferral (“anti-deferral” regimes). Deferral is also specifically authorized by some governments for particular social purposes or other grounds. Agreements among governments (treaties) often attempt to determine who should be entitled to tax what. Most tax treaties provide for at least a skeleton mechanism for resolution of disputes between the parties.
Systems of taxation vary among governments, making generalization difficult. Specifics are intended as examples, and relate to particular governments and not broadly recognized multinational rules. Taxes may be levied on varying measures of income, including but not limited to net income under local accounting concepts (in many countries this is referred to as ‘profit’), gross receipts, gross margins (sales less costs of sale), or specific categories of receipts less specific categories of reductions. Unless otherwise specified, the term “income” should be read broadly.
Jurisdictions often impose different income based levies on enterprises than on individuals. Entities are often taxed in a unified manner on all types of income while individuals are taxed in differing manners depending on the nature or source of the income. Many jurisdictions impose tax at both an entity level and at the owner level on one or more types of enterprises. These jurisdictions often rely on the company law of that jurisdiction or other jurisdictions in determining whether an entity’s owners are to be taxed directly on the entity income. However, there are notable exceptions, including U.S. rules characterizing entities independently of legal form.
In order to simplify administration or for other agendas, some governments have imposed “deemed” income regimes. These regimes tax some class of taxpayers according to tax system applicable to other taxpayers but based on a deemed level of income, as if earned by the taxpayer. Disputes can arise regarding what levy is proper. Procedures for dispute resolution vary widely and enforcement issues are far more complicated in the international arena. The ultimate dispute resolution for a taxpayer is to leave the jurisdiction, taking all property that could be seized. For governments, the ultimate resolution may be confiscation of property, incarceration or dissolution of the entity.
Other major conceptual differences can exist between tax systems. These include, but are not limited to, assessment vs. self-assessment means of determining and collecting tax; methods of imposing sanctions for violation; sanctions unique to international aspects of the system; mechanisms for enforcement and collection of tax; and reporting mechanisms.
Countries that tax income generally use one of two systems: territorial or residence-based. In the territorial system, only local income – income from a source inside the country – is taxed. In the residence-based system, residents of the country are taxed on their worldwide (local and foreign) income, while nonresidents are taxed only on their local income. In addition, a very small number of countries, notably the United States, also tax their nonresident citizens on worldwide income.
Countries with a residence-based system of taxation usually allow deductions or credits for the tax that residents already pay to other countries on their foreign income. Many countries also sign tax treaties with each other to eliminate or reduce double taxation. In the case of corporate income tax, some countries allow an exclusion or deferment of specific items of foreign income from the base of taxation.
Many systems provide for specific exclusions from taxable (chargeable) income. For example, several countries, notably Cyprus, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Spain, have enacted holding company regimes that exclude from income dividends from certain foreign subsidiaries of corporations. These systems generally impose tax on other sorts of income, such as interest or royalties, from the same subsidiaries. They also typically have requirements for portion and time of ownership in order to qualify for exclusion. The Netherlands offers a “participation exemption” for dividends from subsidiaries of Netherlands companies. Dividends from all Dutch subsidiaries automatically qualify. For other dividends to qualify, the Dutch shareholder or affiliates must own at least 5% and the subsidiary must be subject to a certain level of income tax locally.
Some countries, such as the United States and Singapore, allow deferment of tax on foreign income of resident corporations until it is remitted to the country.
Individuals versus enterprises
Many tax systems tax individuals in one manner and entities that are not considered fiscally transparent in another. The differences may be as simple as differences in tax rates, and are often motivated by concerns unique to either individuals or corporations. For example, many systems allow taxable income of an individual to be reduced by a fixed amount allowance for other persons supported by the individual (dependents). Such a concept is not relevant for enterprises.
Many systems allow for fiscal transparency of certain forms of enterprise. For example, most countries tax partners of a partnership, rather than the partnership itself, on income of the partnership. A common feature of income taxation is imposition of a levy on certain enterprises in certain forms followed by an additional levy on owners of the enterprise upon distribution of such income. For example, the U.S. imposes two levels of tax on foreign individuals or foreign corporations who own a U.S. corporation. First, the U.S. corporation is subject to the regular income tax on its profits, then subject to an additional 30% tax on the dividends paid to foreign shareholders (the branch profits tax). The foreign corporation will be subject to U.S. income tax on its effectively connected income, and will also be subject to the branch profits tax on any of its profits not reinvested in the U.S. Thus, many countries tax corporations under company tax rules and tax individual shareholders upon corporate distributions. Various countries have tried (and some still maintain) attempts at partial or full “integration” of the enterprise and owner taxation. Where a two level system is present but allows for fiscal transparency of some entities, definitional issues become very important.
So If you’re operating across borders, having a robust tax strategy which is aligned with your corporate strategy continues to be a complex area.
If you are either a Middle East based group investing internationally or investing into the region, understanding the impact of tax policy and legislative changes on your operations and your cross-border transactions is more than ever a part of assessing the commercial returns on those investments.
Our International Tax Services practice has dedicated teams based in the Middle East which are closely integrated with our global network.
What we do
We also provides relocation tax consulting services to local resident individuals, as well as to tax consulting services to foreign residents employed within the country.