Find out how to pay your council tax bill, what happens if you fail to make your payments on time, and how to get financial help if you can’t pay
How much council tax will you pay?
Council tax bills for the coming year are issued on or before 30 April.
You can choose to pay your full bill in a lump sum, or through instalments throughout the year – most commonly you’ll pay 10 monthly instalments and get a two-month break in February and March each year.
Some authorities offer alternatives, such as 11 or 12 payments a year, to help spread the cost.
Councils prefer to receive payment by direct debit, but you can also pay by cash, cheque or debit card. Most councils accept payment via the internet, telephone banking, Bacs or standing order. Some accept credit card payments.
Councils are not allowed to issue surcharges on credit or debit card transactions.
This guide outlines what happens if you miss a council tax payment, and what help is available if you’re struggling to pay your bill.
Who has to pay council tax?
Most people who are over 18 and own or rent a home usually have to pay council tax. It’ll normally be the person living in a property who pays council tax.
Sometimes, however, it’s down to the property’s owner. Properties where owners have to pay council tax include:
- empty homes
- nursing homes
- houses of religious communities
- houses in multiple occupation where rooms are let individually
- residences of staff who live in houses which are also occupied by an employer
- residences of ministers of religion.
If several people live in a property, there is an ‘order of liability’ to see who is responsible for paying the council tax bill. The order is:
- the person who is the freeholder of all or part of the property, who lives there
- the person who is the leaseholder of all or part of the property, who lives there
- a resident tenant
- a resident who has permission to live in the property, but is not a tenant
- any other resident living in the property
- a mortgagee in possession of an owner’s interest
- an owner of the property, when no one lives there.
What happens if you don’t pay your council tax bill?
Council tax bills are considered to be a ‘priority payment’, as failing to pay your bill on time can have serious consequences, and measures to enforce payment can escalate quickly.
Missing your first council tax payment
If you miss one of your monthly payments, your council should send you a reminder notice giving you seven days to pay it.
If you don’t pay within seven days, you may be asked to pay the whole year’s council tax.
Missing your second council tax payment
You’ll be sent a second reminder notice if you fail to pay your bill for a second time during a financial year (1 April to 31 March the following year). You’re only allowed a maximum of two reminder notices.
Missing your third council tax payment
If you fail to pay your council tax for the third time, you’ll receive a final notice saying you must pay the whole year’s council tax – and you’ll need to do so within seven days.
Legal action if you don’t pay your council tax bill
Councils can take legal action if you fail to pay the money you owe within seven days, which could allow them to forcefully recover the money.
These legal proceedings tend to go in the following order:
- Liability order: this is a legal demand for payment that’s sent by a magistrate. The council’s costs for getting this sent to you may be added to your bill. You can go to court and give your reasons for not paying if you think you have grounds.
- From your wages: your council can get your employer to pay your unpaid council tax directly from your wages before the payment reaches your bank account.
- From your benefits: if you claim benefits, the council tax you owe can be taken directly from your Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Pension Credit and Universal Credit.
- Bailiffs: if there’s no other way to recover the money you owe, the council can use bailiffs to take your belongings, which will be sold to cover your debt. The cost of using bailiffs will be added to the total amount you owe.
- Court: if the bailiffs can’t recover enough property to pay off your debt, your council can take you to court. The court will decide whether you can afford to pay the bill and whether you have a valid reason not to pay. If the court decides you refused to pay your bill without good reason, you could be sentenced to up to three months in prison, and you may be forced to make an arrangement to pay your debt.
If you think you’ve been wrongly charged for your council tax bill, you should still pay it and then make an appeal afterwards. This means you’ll avoid the enforcement measures outlined above.
If you don’t have enough money to pay your council tax, you should let your council know as soon as possible for the chance to come to an alternative arrangement, such as a payment plan or a council tax reduction.
Find out more: how to get a council tax refund – learn how to challenge your council tax bill if you think you’ve been wrongly charged.
What if I can’t afford my council tax bill?
If you are unable to pay your bill, you should contact your local council immediately to avoid the repayment steps above kicking in. There are several measures councils can take to help, but they’re awarded at the council’s discretion and on a case-by-case basis.
- Reduce or rescheduling payments: your council may be able to reduce or reschedule your payments, either for the short or long term. You’ll usually have to prove that neither your earnings, savings, or other assets are able to cover what you owe.
- Hardship relief: if you’re deemed to be experiencing ‘exceptional hardship’ for reasons beyond your control, you may be eligible for hardship relief. This will vary between councils, but usually, it comes in the form of an account balancing payment to help manage a debt – so you wouldn’t receive any cash. It’s usually only granted for a set amount of money and time, with a view to you resuming paying your council tax afterwards. You’ll usually have to provide proof of your income and expenditure.
- Council tax reduction: if you’re on a low income or claim benefits, you might be able to get your bill reduced by up to 100% by applying for a council tax reduction (this replaced council tax benefit in April 2013). You can apply if you own your home, rent it, are unemployed or are working. What you’ll get depends on where you live (as each council runs its own scheme), your circumstances, your household income (including savings, pensions and your partner’s income), whether your children live with you and whether any other adults live with you. If you’re eligible, the reduction could stay in place until your circumstances change.
You can find out more in our guide to reducing your council tax bill.
Can failing to pay my council tax affect my credit score?
According to credit reference agency Experian, council tax debt will not affect your credit rating.
Councils do not share information about council tax debt with credit reference agencies. If the case goes to a magistrates’ court and fines are imposed, these details do not appear on credit reports either.
Find out more: how to check your credit score for free
Changing your address for council tax
When you move into a new property, you need to contact the local council to let them know your change of address and register to pay council tax.
You’ll need to provide your personal details, the details of who you live with, whether you own or rent the property and when you moved in.
If you’re not sure who your local council is, HMRC can direct you using your postcode.
Your local council will then be in touch, detailing the amount of council tax you are liable to pay. You can work out your bill with our council tax calculator.
If you disagree with this bill, you can appeal it – but you should keep up with the payments while a decision is being made.
How do I stop council tax when I move house?
If you move home, you need to let the council know in advance, so it can stop charging you council tax for your old address from the day you move out.
If you are staying within the borough, it will adjust your bill to the band for your new home.
If you are moving further afield, you’ll need to notify your new council (as outlined above), and it will start charging you council tax based on your new property’s band from the day you move in.
While most councils will automatically refund any council tax you’ve paid in advance, some don’t. If you think you’re owed for overpaid council tax, see our guide on how to get a council tax refund for ways to reclaim.