What Is a GST Number and How to Get One

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Danielle Kubes is a trained journalist and investor who has written about personal finance for the past six years. Her writing has been published in The Globe and Mail, National Post, MoneySense, Vice and RateHub.ca. Danielle writes about investing and personal finance for Wealthsimple. She has a Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from Ryerson University.

The Canadian government insists certain businesses collect sales tax on its behalf. When you register for the Goods and Service Tax or Harmonized Sales Tax (GST/HST), you get a number that registers and identifies your business, both to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and also to other companies. The GST/HST number goes on your invoice so that other companies know that you’re required to collect tax and aren’t just charging an extra 13% for the fun of it. At least once a year, you pass on what you’ve accumulated to the CRA.

How the GST/HST number works

GST/HST numbers may seem intimidating, but the entire process is both logical and simple. Here’s the process broken down:

  1. Contact the CRA and register for a number.

  2. Collect the correct amount of GST/HST from clients.

  3. Put aside the tax in a special bank account so you don’t touch it.

  4. Spend GST/HST on business expenses.

  5. Tell the CRA how much you collected and how much you spent.

  6. Pay the CRA the difference.

Now all we need to do is go over the details, like who’s obligated to collect tax and on exactly which goods or services.

Who needs to get a GST/HST number

You must collect sales tax if your business made over $30,000 this year from Canadian sources and if you provide a good or service that the government deemed taxable. This applies to all business structures, including sole proprietors, partnerships, and corporations.

The best practice is to voluntarily get the number if there’s even a chance your small business will exceed $30,000 in annual sales.

If you genuinely don’t think you’ll make that much money this year, but then — surprise! — you do, then register for a number as soon as you exceed $30,000. It’s okay if it’s halfway through the year. You’re not responsible for GST or HST on previous sales, but you must start charging GST or HST on all subsequent sales, including the sale that put you over the $30,000 threshold.

You don’t need a GST/HST number if your business revenue from Canadian sources is less than $29,999 this year or you supply tax-free goods. No matter your revenue, you also don’t need a number if your clients are exclusively American or international since the CRA can’t legally collect tax from residents or businesses of other countries.

Exempt and zero-rated products

You’re not required to collect tax for either exempt or zero-rated goods and services. Accordingly, you don’t need to get a number if your business only deals with these kinds of products.

Yet, it may still be worthwhile to get a number if your business is selling zero-rated products because you can get a refund for the GST or HST you paid on business expenses (see input tax credits below).

But it’s best not to bother getting a GST/HST number if you’re selling exempt products since they’re not eligible for refundable credits. To remember which is which, just think to yourself “EEE," or “Exempt is Exempt from Everything.”

Here’s a few examples of exempt businesses:

  • Day cares

  • Music lessons

  • Charities

  • Trade schools

  • Private career colleges

And a few examples of zero-rated goods:

  • Basic groceries

  • Feminine hygiene products

  • Farm livestock

  • Raw agricultural products like wool and grain

How much GST or HST should I charge?

The rate you charge depends on the province in which you made your sale — not the province in which you live. Say a graphic designer in Ontario who makes a logo for a marketing firm in Alberta will only charge them Alberta's 5% GST rate, not Ontario's 13% HST rate. Similarly, a graphic designer in Ontario who does the layout for a magazine in New York is not required to charge any sales tax. (You’re still required to report all business income on your tax return, you just don’t have to collect duty on it.) It gets trickier when you’re shipping product, so ask a qualified tax professional about your particular circumstance.

  • 5% GST in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Québec, Saskatchewan, and Yukon

  • 13% HST in Ontario

  • 15% HST in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island

What’s an input tax credit and how do I get a GST/HST refund?

One of the only benefits of registering for a GST/HST number is that the CRA reimburses GST and HST on business expenses.

This is referred to as input tax credits (ITC), as in… you “input,” literally write in, what you expect to be “credited,” or given back.

On the same form you report GST and HST collected, there’s space for entering the total GST and/or HST you spent in the course of doing business. (The expenses must be legitimate, of course.)

Total collected minus total spent is your net GST/HST. If it’s negative, you get a refund. (This can easily happen if you’re in the business of selling zero-rated goods, or you had a bad year and spent more than you made.)

How to confirm a GST/HST number

It’s important to make sure your documentation is aboveboard before submitting. Obviously, or so it would seem, you can only get an ITC from businesses that are permitted to charge GST/HST.

Receipts from retail stores are almost never a problem — if you look closely, you’ll see that they do list their GST/HST number at the bottom, along with the date, and goods purchased.

The trouble is, some smaller companies either mistakenly charge GST or HST, lie about their number so they can get extra cash, or give incomplete invoices.

Take the extra effort to check over each invoice from a new vendor or supplier. You don’t want to have the CRA breathing down your neck because they caught you claiming an ITC from an unauthorized source.

You’ll want to check both that the number is authorized and the invoice is documented correctly.

A vendor invoice must have their business name spelled correctly, a description of the good/service provided, service total, GST or HST total, and the GST/HST number. You can easily confirm a GST/HST account online: just type in the number provided, the company name, and the transaction date.

GST/HST myths

You don’t need to pay the GST or HST you collect if you make under $30,000. Once you have a GST/HST number, you must collect GST and HST and remit (pay) it to the CRA, regardless of your business revenue. The sales tax collected is never yours to keep.

You made less than $30,000 so can stop collecting GST and HST. No. Once you have a number, you must collect GST and HST, despite your income. If you plan to scale down your business and are confident you will not reach the income threshold, you can cancel your number next year.

You can claim GST and HST back for personal expenses. You can only get GST/HST back on expenses you incurred while operating your business, for which you must have a receipt. It’s the same list of expenses you can deduct from your income tax return.

You need the cash flow and it’s not a big deal to hang on to GST and HST funds. GST/HST money isn’t yours — you’re just keeping it company until you can hand it over to the rightful owners, the government. It’s tempting, and challenging, to spend the money because it’s right there, staring you in the face, and you have employees and rent to pay. But you must be disciplined. Get professional advice to manage your cash-flow issues or risk getting in trouble with the CRA.

How to get a GST/HST number

It’s easy to get a GST/HST number — remember, you’re filling the government coffers here, so the bureaucracy is fairly straightforward.

All you need to do is call the CRA business hotline and ask for one. You can also register online, or get one by mail or fax.

Have the following information handy:

  • Ownership type: individual, partnership, trust, or corporation

  • Operation type: sole proprietor, foster parent, hospital, or university

  • Contact operation

  • Description of business activity and goods/services you provide

  • Total annual revenue from taxable supplies in Canada

  • Total annual global revenue from all supplies

  • Fiscal year-end (this is almost always the calendar year)

  • Desired reporting period — annually is almost always easier, unless you’re afraid you’ll spend the tax if it’s burning a hole in your account if you don’t pay it immediately, in which case quarterly is best

When you register for GST/HST, you’ll get a business number at the same time. You’ll be broadcasting to the world that you’re a professional, with the sales to prove it.

The CRA will send you a letter in the mail with your number, or, if you’re signed up for a MyCRA online account, they’ll post it there. Simply add it to invoices and start charging.

Last Updated November 19, 2023

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