How to get student council tax exemption
Working out your council tax eligibility can be a headache, particularly as all living situations are different. But, with this guide, knowing if you're exempt from paying will become much simpler.
As far as adult responsibilities go, paying council tax is one we'd all rather do without. If you're a full-time student, though, we've got some very good news: it's more than likely you don't have to pay it.
But, before you go spending your council tax fund (or putting it in a savings account), it's worth noting that there are some situations where you might have to cough up some money for it, even if you're a student. Read on to find out if you qualify for council tax exemption.
What's in this guide?
What is council tax and what does it pay for?
Council tax is a yearly charge paid in 10 or 12 monthly instalments throughout the year. Council tax charges are made per household rather than per person, and are calculated by the value of the property you're living in.
All properties in Great Britain (not Northern Ireland, as we'll explain in a moment) are divided into different value bands (A–H in England and Scotland; A–I in Wales). Your home's council tax band depends on your postcode and how much the house was worth back in April 1991 for English properties, or April 2003 for properties in Wales.
The tax you pay goes directly towards your local council to foot the bill for things like rubbish collections, street cleaning, local schools and roadworks, etc. And, in Scotland, your council tax also covers water and sewerage. Lovely.
If you're in Northern Ireland, the good news is that you don't have to worry about council tax, as the country didn't adopt the system when it was introduced in the 1990s. The bad news is that you instead need to worry about domestic rates – the system which council tax replaced in the rest of the UK.
Do students pay council tax?
Any household which is occupied exclusively by full-time students will qualify for a full exemption on council tax.
To be classified as a full-time student, you must be on a course that lasts at least a year and requires at least 21 hours of study each week.
Part-time students will usually need to pay, but could be eligible for a reduction based on other factors (including being the only non-full-time student in the household, as we'll explain in a second). We've even heard of part-time students being eligible for exemption as they're still studying for more than 20 hours a week – but you should check with your council for the specifics.
If you're in a shared house with both full-time students and non-students, you will get a council tax bill through the door each month. However, only the non-student tenants will have to pay it, as full-time students are still exempt.
So, if you have a situation where all of you are full-time students apart from one person who's not, unfortunately (for them) they'll have to pay the bill themselves. That said, they will receive a single person discount of 25%.
Therefore, it's worth choosing your flatmates carefully before moving into a new property. If you have a mix of students and non-students, those who aren't in full-time education can end up with a hefty bill to pay. Aside from the financial disparities, this could cause tension in the house and make it difficult to survive shared living.
Qualifying for council tax exemption
To qualify for council tax exemption, the council needs to consider you to be a 'disregarded person'.
You'll be disregarded from paying council tax if you're any of the following:
- A full-time student (you've probably got that by now!)
- Studying a course up to A Levels and are under the age of 20 (your course must last at least three months and you must study for at least 12 hours a week)
- Under 25 and taking specific types of training, like government training schemes
- A full-time student's 'overseas partner' (so child, spouse or civil partner who is not legally permitted to work in the UK)
- A student nurse (who isn't already classified as a full-time student)
- An apprentice working towards a qualification, earning no more than £195 a week.
There are a few exceptions to these, plus a few extra reasons you may be disregarded, so if you're unsure of your particular situation check out the government's official council tax page or contact your local council.
Do postgraduate students pay council tax?
Although as an undergraduate, you won't have to pay tax during the summer breaks between academic years, you will have to pay for the summer months at the end of your final year – even if you're going straight into postgraduate study when the academic year starts again.
This is because there's be a gap between finishing your undergraduate course and starting your postgrad, during which time you won't technically be a student anymore.
If you're a postgraduate student taking a bit of extra time to finish writing your thesis over the summer, this can, unfortunately, make it more challenging to claim exemption as this is technically outside of course time.
However, a good way to get around this is to move back home for the summer. If you can prove to your local council that you're moving away as soon as uni is over, they won't send you a bill. Of course, that's assuming your parents will cover your share of their council tax bill...
How to apply for student council tax exemption
Depending on how your local council prefers to do things, getting your exemption can take a few minutes, a few days or even a few weeks, if they're particularly sluggish.
Some councils will just ask you to ring them up and give them your name, student number and uni course, and they'll arrange your exemption electronically while you're still on the line.
Other councils might ask for what's called a 'certificate of student status' (often shortened to 'student certificate') in order to prove that you're in full-time education. You can get a student certificate from your university (normally from the admissions office, but your uni should say on their website) and post it to your local council.
Other universities have online systems which you can log into yourself, which will automatically generate a letter and send it to the council.
So essentially, how long this process takes will depend on how efficient your uni and council are.
If you're unsure who your local council is, the government has a handy tool that could be worth looking at.
What to do if you're wrongly charged council tax
If you've wrongly been sent a council tax bill, you'll need to write to your local authority to explain why it's incorrect.
At this stage, you may not need to send evidence of your status as a full-time student (like a student certificate) – but you should be prepared to do so in future, as your council is unlikely to grant you an exemption based on just your word.
They have two months to respond to you and, if you disagree with their decision (i.e. you're confident that everyone in the house is a full-time student and they're still charging you), you can appeal to the Valuation Tribunal. The service itself is free, but you'll have to pay for any other costs you incur.
And, to reiterate, if the initial decision from the council seems odd to you, don't just accept it on the assumption that as they make the rules, they must be right.
In early 2020, we appeared on the BBC to discuss examples of councils not only wrongly billing students (for a reason we'll explain later), but standing firm in their position even after the students had appealed.
In one instance, the case went right to the top of the council and the correct decision (to exempt the students from paying council tax) was only made once the BBC contacted them.
So, in short, know the rules and regs and stand your ground if you're in the right.
Paying council tax during summer and study breaks
Paying council tax during study breaks and the summer holidays can be a bit of a grey area for students.
The easiest way to work out whether you'll have to pay is to establish how long you'll be registered on your course. If you're doing an undergraduate degree that lasts three years, you won't have to fork out during the summer months between terms, even if you start working full-time during the summer.
If you're deferring your course after having already started to take a gap year, it's unlikely that your university will go to the effort of de-registering you and making you register all over again when the next academic year begins. Therefore, you probably won't have to pay council tax during this break period (but that's by no means a guarantee).
Essentially, your exemption kicks in the day your course starts and it will continue until the day your course ends (this is the final day of your final semester, rather than the day you graduate), including while you're away on holiday and when you're not studying. So, if you do end up paying any council tax when you shouldn't have to, you'll likely be entitled to receive a refund.
Should you pay council tax before you've moved in?
We've seen and heard various reports of students across the UK being charged council tax for the period between their tenancy starting and the date they actually move in.
While some councils readily admit that this is a mistake as soon as they're challenged, others have dug their heels in and insisted they're in the right. They often argue that, as the property is technically unoccupied until you've physically moved in, the exemption for students doesn't apply and therefore council tax must be paid.
We can't stress this enough: if your council argues this, they are wrong. As long as you meet the criteria we outlined above, your council tax exemption kicks in from the moment your tenancy agreement comes into effect – regardless of whether or not you're actually living there.
If your local authority sends you a council tax bill on these grounds, get in touch with them as soon as you can to appeal it – you shouldn't be paying!
Find out more about student tax refunds (including handy info on income tax and National Insurance) in our comprehensive guide.