stocks and shares isa

Stocks & Shares ISAs

Find the best ISA or investment platform

Every adult has a chunky £20,000 ISA allowance for 2020/21, which can be used for investing in the stock market and/or put into a cash ISA. This guide runs through everything you need to know before investing, including how to get a good deal on a stocks & shares ISA. 

There are no guarantees when you're investing

Investing is a long way from putting your cash in a bank account where it sits to earn interest. An investment is a gamble: instead of the security of guaranteed returns, you're taking a risk with your money. This means your money can go up as well as down in value. 

We can't tell you whether investing is right for you. But if you're going to do it, it's recommended you invest for at least five years. This is because the longer you invest, the longer you have to ride out any bumps in the market.

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Other top ISA guides...

Cash ISAs: All the best deals, plus help choosing.
Full ISA guide: For everything you need to know about ISAs. 
Lifetime ISAs: It's the Help to Buy ISA's successor, but is it right for you?

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What is a stocks & shares ISA?

Everyone in the UK over 18 has an annual £20,000 ISA allowance (for the 2020/21 tax year, ending 5 April 2021). You can use all of this for a stocks & shares ISA if you want, or you can split it between stocks & shares and any of the other types of ISA, including cash ISAslifetime ISAs and innovative finance ISAs.

A stocks & shares ISA is very different to a cash ISA, which is simply a savings account you never pay tax on. With a stocks & shares ISA you're investing.

If this is your first experience of investing, it'll be worth reading our Beginners' guide to investing to get a broader idea of what's involved.

Where do I buy a stocks & shares ISA from?

You can buy stocks & shares ISAs from different providers, but for the cheapest offers you want to do it through a website, often called a 'platform'.

Investing in a stocks & shares ISA is a two-stage process:

  1. You first need to pick which provider to buy your ISA from, 
  2. Then you need to decide what investments to put in it.

It's like buying bread in a supermarket. You first need to pick where you want to buy the bread from (decide which platform to use), then choose what bread you want to buy from there (your funds or any other type of investments).

You'll be charged both for using the platform and buying/holding the funds. To stretch the analogy somewhat, imagine each supermarket charges a different price for its shopping bags.

Some supermarket bags are cheaper than others, but the ones that have the most expensive bags may be the ones that sell the bread the cheapest. So it's a combination of the two factors that needs to be taken into consideration.

Note, while the platform fee is charged by the platform you choose, the company running the funds will be charging you for the funds.

What can I invest in?

There are many different types of investment. You can invest in almost anything - from the mainstream such as shares, bonds and funds to the more exotic such as farmland, vintage cars and wine. You can also leave your money as cash in a stocks & shares ISA, but you typically won't get a great return (often much less than in a cash ISA or savings account).

However, the majority of investors stick to shares and funds.

Shares

A share is simply a divided-up unit of the value of a company. For example, if a company is worth £100 million, and there are 50 million shares, each share is worth £2 (usually listed as 200p). Those shares can, and do, go up and down in value for various reasons.

Companies issue shares to raise money and investors (that's you) buy shares in businesses because they believe the company will do well and they want to 'share' in its success. See our Shares guide for a full rundown, and remember what you choose will be down to your attitude to risk.

Funds

A fund is simply another way to buy shares. However, instead of you buying a slice of a company directly, you give your cash to a specialist manager who pools it with money from other investors (like you) to go and buy a job lot of shares in a stock market (ie, shares of lots of different companies). This makes it a bit less risky than investing in shares as you're sharing the risk with others plus you're not just investing in one company.

Funds can be either active or passive:

  • Active funds. An active fund is run by a fund manager who's picking what to put in the fund. Because you have an expert at the helm, these funds normally cost a bit more as you're paying for them to do their job.
  • Passive funds. A passive fund hasn't got a fund manager. Instead, the fund invests in an index which follows the performance of, say, the top 100 companies in the UK (this is known as the FTSE 100). 

A fund's theme could be anything from:

  • Geography. Eg, European, Japanese, emerging markets.
  • Industry. Eg, green companies, utility firms, industrial businesses. 
  • Types of investment. Eg, shares, corporate bonds, gilts.
  • The size of the company. Eg, a fund could be solely focusing on smaller to medium sized companies.

The combination gives you the risk factor. If the fund focuses on "fledgling biotech companies in emerging markets", all the elements involve a high degree of uncertainty. So if it goes well, you could be in for massive gains, and if it goes badly, massive losses.

Each fund is made up of 'units' so if you want to invest, you'll need to buy units – and these come at a cost which varies from day to day. The value of each unit will rise or fall (or stay the same, of course) depending on demand in the market for the fund.

Say you want to invest £1,000 in a fund; if each fund unit costs £2, you can buy 500 units. Six months later, if each unit is now worth £2.50, your investment is worth £1,250. See our Funds guide for a full explanation.

The nine stocks & shares ISA need-to-knows

  • It's very important you understand what the tax breaks are and whether they really matter to you before you decide to use your ISA allowance for investing.

    You don't pay capital gains tax (CGT) on gains made within an ISA - great if you exceed the £12,000 annual CGT allowance

    CGT is a tax you'll have to pay on the gain you make when selling things such as shares, a second home (you usually don't pay capital gains on selling your main home) and jewellery.

    So if you buy shares at £1,000 and then sell them for £1,500, you've made a £500 gain. You might then have to pay tax on that. But it's important to understand that...

    You're allowed to make £12,300 of gains this tax year (2020/21) tax-free outside an ISA. So you would ONLY gain using a stocks & shares ISA in a year where you were making total gains over £12,300.

    If you have other capital gains, such as you had a buy-to-let property and you've sold it, then if it made a profit, you could have used up your CGT allowance that tax year. See our Tax rates guide for info on the CGT rates you'll then pay.

    Dividends are tax-free under the dividends allowance

    There are two ways you make money from investing. One is when the shares increase in value and then you reap a nice little profit when you sell them. The other is when they pay dividends.

    Dividends are a bit like interest on a savings account. If a company makes a profit, it gives some of it back to you – it could be on a regular basis or as a one-off. And just as you have a personal savings allowance for interest on savings, you also have a dividend allowance each tax year where the first £2,000/year is tax-free.

    Any dividends received above this allowance will be taxed – at 7.5% for basic-rate taxpayers, 32.5% for higher-rate tax payers and 38.1% for additional-rate taxpayers.

    However, dividend income received on shares held in a stocks & shares ISA will be tax-free. (Older investors may remember when there was a 10% tax deducted from dividends at source which couldn't be reclaimed, which meant a stocks & shares ISA wasn't quite tax-free – this was abolished in April 2016.)

    If you earn more than £2,000 a year in dividend income outside of a stocks & shares ISA you'll need to inform HMRC.

    You don't pay any income tax on interest from corporate bonds in an ISA.

    With corporate bonds, instead of investing in a company's success, you're effectively lending money to it for a set time. In return, it'll have to pay you interest.

    You're taking the risk that it won't give you the money back, so it isn't risk-free. But the good news is...

    If you've got corporate bonds or bond funds within an ISA that pays out interest, you don't have to pay any tax on it.

    If you're investing in corporate bonds outside a stocks & shares ISA, it'll fall under the remit of the personal savings allowance. This means basic-rate (20%) taxpayers – will be able to earn £1,000 interest with no tax while higher-rate (40%) taxpayers – will be able to earn £500 interest with no tax. Additional rate (45%) taxpayers don't get a tax-free allowance.

    Bear in mind that this allowance covers your normal savings interest in a bank as well as other forms of interest. As with the dividend allowance, you'll owe tax on any interest earned above its limit.

  • Whether you should invest depends on your personal circumstances and the amount of risk you're willing to take. But as a rule of thumb, you should invest for at least five years. This allows enough time to ride out any bumps in the market that might see you make a loss on your money.

    As such, if you're looking to use your money within the next few years, you should probably stick to cash savings. See the Top Savings and Top Cash ISA guides for more.

    It's very important to understand that there's no such thing as the best stocks and shares investment. Over the long run, historically, stocks and shares have outperformed money in savings accounts. But that's no guarantee they'll do so in the future. Always remember, investments can go down as well as up.

    The five Golden Rules of investing:

    1. The greater return you want, the more risk you'll usually have to accept.
    2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Try to diversify as much as you can to lower your risk exposure.
    3. If you're saving over the short-term, it's wise not to take too much of a risk. It's recommended you invest for at least five years. If you can't, cash is often best.
    4. Review your portfolio. A fund might be a dud, a fund manager might leave, or you might not be willing to take as many risks as you once did. If you don't review your portfolio regularly, you could end up with a stocks & shares ISA losing money.
    5. Don't panic. Investments can go down as well as up. Don't be tempted to sell or buy funds just because everyone else is.

     

  • Whether a cash ISA or stocks & shares ISA is best for you depends on whether you're willing to risk your money investing and when you'll need access to the cash. In a nutshell:

    • Happy to risk losing money and can wait at least five years? Investing could be right for you, so consider a stocks & shares ISA.

    • Happy to risk losing money but need access sooner? Investing is for the long term, so a cash ISA would be best. If you can put some of your money away for at least five years, you could split it between a cash and a stocks & shares ISA.

    • Not happy to risk losing money? Stick to a cash ISA - though of course, if the interest rate's lower than inflation this could still mean you end up losing money in real terms.
  • This may be useful for people coming up to retirement or anyone else who no longer wants to take a risk with their money.

    If you're going to do this you'll need to contact your new cash ISA provider and tell it you want to transfer money from your stocks & shares ISA. Never just withdraw the money – because if you do, you'll lose all the tax-free benefits.

    Once you've requested it, the transfer may take a few weeks. If you're opening a cash ISA with a different provider to where your stocks & shares ISA was, you'll likely pay a closing fee. If you're switching with the same provider, there usually won't be a fee.

  • It's tempting to try to time the market, but it's almost impossible and even the most experienced investors get it wrong. By pulling out of the market as soon as a share dips or trying to second-guess when a share will reach its peak, you could lose out on sharp recoveries or see the price go down again.

    Instead, you should invest on a regular basis – in investment lingo this is called 'drip-feeding' – to smooth out any ups and downs. This will give you an added benefit of something called 'pound cost averaging'.

    This is how it works...

    If you invested a £10,000 lump sum and bought shares valued at £10 each, you'd have 1,000 shares.

    If you bought £5,000 worth of the same shares per month over two months (amounting to 10,000 overall), you'd buy 500 shares in the first month.

    But if the share price went down to £9.50 in the second month, you'd be able to buy 526 shares, as the shares are at a lower price.

    So, rather than your full £10,000 investment being affected by the drop in share price, only half of your money drops in value.

    In this example, a lump sum of £10,000 buys 1,000 shares, while two payments of £5,000 buys 1,026 shares. Smaller investing on a regular basis means any drop in share price won't be too noticeable.

  • You must invest in your stocks & shares ISA by 5 April - the end of the tax year - for it to count for that year. Crucially, any unused allowance (£20,000 for 2020/21) doesn't roll over – so if you don't use it, you lose it forever.

    Any savings or investments which stay within the tax-free ISA wrapper will continue to earn interest and reap the tax benefits until you withdraw the money.

    So it's possible to have substantial amounts invested within ISAs: over £180,000 since ISAs began in 1999 (though your total may be more or less depending on how your investments have performed).

  • Both the platform and the funds you invest in will cost you money. The main charges to look out for are:

    • Platform charge: This is similar to having to buy a carrier bag from the supermarket: some charge you 50p for it and others charge you 10p. This can either be a flat fee (best for high investors) or a percentage of the value of your funds (the larger your investments, the more it'll cost you).

    • Fund manager charge (also known as annual management charge): You'll also be charged for everything you put in that bag – the funds you invest in. This is the charge by the actual manager of the fund held within your stocks & shares ISA. This is always a percentage and can typically vary from 0.1% to 1%+ per fund, depending on which fund you're investing in.

    • Selling/buying funds: This is the cost every time you buy or sell a fund on the platform. These can be anything from £0 to £25. So if you're an active trader, looking for a low trading charge should be a high priority.

    • Transfer out fee: The cost involved in moving your stocks & shares ISA from one platform (provider) to another. This is usually charged per fund, so the more funds you have within your stocks & shares ISA, the more it'll cost you. However, some platforms don't charge a fee for transferring out.
  • Once you've got your head around the various charges, it'll be easier to work out whether your current stocks & shares ISA provider is overcharging you. Make a habit to check your fees and charges on a regular basis to make sure you're getting the best deal. 

    A platform might have been cheap at first, but new charging structures mean it may no longer be. Be sure to check any exit fees with your current provider, but if you won't take too much of a hit by leaving, then in the long run it'll likely be cheaper to switch provider to one with lower fees.

  • It may be the case that you already have a stocks & shares ISA you've been investing in and want to transfer to one of the platforms below to take advantage of the lower charges. If so, make sure you take into consideration any exit fees from your existing platform before you transfer.

    If you do want to switch to one of the platforms below, you'll have to do an ISA transfer. Be aware however that the new platform may not offer all the investment options your previous platform did. So if there is a particular fund you like investing in, you'll have to weigh up whether it's better to stay with your existing platform that still offers it, or move to a new platform to take advantage of lower charges.

Stocks & shares ISA top picks

There are three type of platforms:

  • Do-it-yourself platforms - aimed at sophisticated investors who know what they're doing and are happy picking their own funds and shares. See our DIY platform top picks.
  • Do-it-with-me platforms - here you still pick your own funds and shares, but there's help to narrow down the choice. See our do-it-with-me platform top picks
  • Do-it-for-me platforms - you get asked questions about your goals and attitudes to risk, and these platforms then pick a portfolio for you. See our do-it-for-me platform top picks

Do-it-yourself platforms top picks

The do-it-yourself platforms are really best for those who know what they're doing. You need to be clear on why you're investing, what you want to achieve and, importantly, how long it will take to achieve. With do-it-yourself platforms, you may have access to some help, but you'll have to:

  • Do your own research before deciding what to invest in.
  • Build your own portfolio.
  • Keep track of it.
  • With do-it-yourself platforms, as you are deciding everything yourself, you need to take all charges into account – including any platform fees, fund charges, trading charges and exit fees. For the best buys below, we list the different costs. However, we haven't taken fund charges into account as these will vary depending on which fund you pick – but should remain pretty constant between platforms.

    When looking at do-it-yourself platforms, we assume most of your trades will be in funds and not other areas such as shares and ETFs – though we do note these often incur extra charges if you trade them.

    We know from experience at MSE that cheap isn't always what people are looking for when it comes to parting with their money, so we have also included a platform in this section which costs a bit more, but is a more comprehensive offering with an easier to use website.

    How much a platform will cost you will depend on how much money you have invested and how often you trade, so you will need to do some sums yourself as well.

    If you have a small amount to invest then it's likely you'll be drawn towards percentage-based charging – where you get charged a percentage of your total portfolio – whereas if you have lots of money invested then fixed fees will likely work out cheaper for you.

    For the sake of our best buys in this section, we looked at the different platforms' charges and trading costs. We then crosschecked this with specialist investment consultancy the lang cat's analysis, which assumes investment in funds and the cost of four ad-hoc fund transactions in the year, to confirm our choices.

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Do-it-yourself platforms - our review

No-frills investment website iWeb, which is operated by Halifax Share Dealing, is one of the cheapest do-it-yourself platforms out there. It has a very simple pricing model - there's a one-off account opening charge of £100, then it's £5 per trade after. So, if you'll just pick shares and funds and stick with them, it's really cheap. But, if you do want to actively trade, it could start to get expensive and you'd be better off looking for a platform with low trading fees. 

One such platform is Interactive Investor (II)*. It charges more in platform fees than iWeb, but may work out cheaper if you're a frequent trader as it offers one free trade a month, or is unlimited free trades if you pay in £25+ per month. It also has an app if you're wanting to manage your portfolio on the go. 

Provider Platform charge  Min ISA deposit Fund dealing Transfer out fee
iWeb £100 (one-off) £0 £5/trade £0
Interactive Investor* £9.99/month for 'Investor' plan (1) Any lump sum or £25/month One free trade/month then £7.99/trade (2) £0

(1) This fee also covers a Junior ISA and trading account. (2) It's free if you're a regular investor.

Do-it-with-me platforms top picks

This is a middle-of-the-road option. Here, the investment decisions are yours to make, but there is help available. With do-it-with-me platforms:
 
  • A big list of funds may be narrowed down for you.
  • Or there may be portfolios with different risk levels to choose from, but you don't get told which one to go for (like you would with the do-it-for-me option below). Instead it is up to you to make the decision. 
  • With do-it-with-me platforms, we assumed you won't be trading but will stick with your original portfolio of investments. We looked at platforms which offer either a list of suggested funds, or a range of portfolios, and our top picks come with the lowest charges of the platforms we looked at.

    When looking at fund fees, we give an example of a mid-risk option from each platform to give you an idea of costs – but be aware, different funds may charge more.

    How much a platform will cost you will depend on how much money you have invested and how often you trade, so you may need to do some sums yourself as well.

    For the sake of our best buys in this section, we looked at the different platforms charges and charges for their suggested portfolios. We then crosschecked this with specialist investment consultancy the lang cat's analysis.

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Do-it-with-me platforms - our review

AJ Bell Youinvest* is more expensive than our other pick Vanguard below, but it does offer a wider range of investment options. You can pick from any of its 82 'favourite funds', its nine passive funds with different risk levels, 19 investment trusts on its favourite investment trust list, or you can choose from four ready-made portfolios. 

Vanguard doesn't charge exit fees and is a cheap way to invest in funds, charging the lowest percentage-based platform fee around of 0.15%. However, you can only invest in its own range of funds, which may be an issue for some people who want more investment diversity. It does have 75 funds to choose from, including its popular 'LifeStrategy' funds, which let you choose between five options based on the level of risk you want to take and whether you have short or long-term goals. 

Provider Platform charge Average annual fund manager charges Fund dealing Min ISA deposit Transfer out fee
AJ Bell* 0.05%-0.25%/year (1) 0.35% (2) £1.50 (3) £500 (4) £9.95/holding
Vanguard 0.15%/year (max £375) 0.22% (5) £0 £500 (6) £0

(1) 0.25% for under £250,000, 0.1% for £250,000-£1m, 0.05% for £1m-£2m, nothing above £2m. There is also a 0.25% annual shares custody charge capped at £3.50/month. (2) For passive balanced fund (3) £9.95 a trade, reducing to £4.95 if there were 10 or more trades in the previous month for shares and ETFs (4) Or £25/month if regularly saving (5) LifeStrategy 60% (6) Or £100/month if regularly saving.

Do-it-for-me platforms top picks

These platforms, often also called robo-advisers, are best for those who want all the hard work done for them and don't want the responsibility of making any investment decisions. With do-it-for-me platforms:

  • You will be asked some fact-finding questions, with risk-profiling by the platform to help decide on an investment portfolio 
  • It will be based on your attitude to risk, any investment goals and what you can afford to invest.

Perhaps confusingly, these platforms can sometimes work out cheapest, even though you're being given the most amount of help. This is purely based on the fact that the underlying investments in your portfolio will likely be exchange traded funds (ETFs), which typically are low-cost in nature.

  • With do-it-for-me we looked at the platform and average fund charges for several providers. We have also taken into account any special offers that are available such as fee reductions or cashback.

    Do note that with cashback offers, the bigger the investment, the less cashback will matter. If you invest more than the minimum needed to receive the cashback, or intend to invest for a long time, higher platform fees may mean over the long term an alternative platform could be better, despite the cashback deal.

    How much a platform will cost you will depend on how much money you have invested and for how long you want to invest for, so you may need to do some sums yourself as well.

    For the sake of our best buys in this section, we looked at the different platforms and portfolio charges. We then cross-checked this with analysis from specialist investment consultancy the lang cat.

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Do-it-for-me platforms - our review

If you're a new Nutmeg customer and open an ISA account via our link* you'll pay no platform fees for the first year. After this the fees revert to 0.45% up to £100,000, and 0.25% after that for its fixed allocation portfolio.

It also offers a fully managed option – which means your investments are monitored and changed by its investment team – or a socially responsible option – where you can invest in companies that have been highly rated for ethics and sustainability. These come at a cost and if you're happy to just pick your portfolio and let it do its thing, choosing its fixed allocation portfolio is a good option. 

If you're a new Wealthify* customer and open an ISA account via our link, you'll pay no platform fee for the first year. After this, the fees will revert to a flat rate of 0.6% - making it more expensive than OpenMoney. You tell Wealthify how much you want to invest, how confident you are with your investment from cautious to adventurous and then choose between an original or ethical blend of investments and it does the rest for you. 

With any of the platforms offering a deal, if you want to move to another platform with cheaper fees after the fee-free deal has ended, you'll most likely need to sell your investments and reinvest on the new platform. So be aware, in this instance, if your investment has gone down, you could lose money.

You may not have heard of OpenMoney, but it has one of the lowest platform fees of the do-it-for-me offerings. Total annual fees, including fund and transaction charges, are just 0.35% – this means if you're investing over the longer term, or you've a large portfolio, it may work out cheaper than the others - even with the no-fee offer options.

Provider Platform charge  Min ISA deposit Average annual fund manager charges Transfer out fee
Nutmeg* Free for 1 year for newbies via link, then 0.45%-0.75% (1) £500 (2) 0.17% - 0.31% (3) £0
Wealthify* Free for 1 year for newbies via link, then 0.6% £1 0.22% £0
OpenMoney* 0.35%(4) £1 0.11% £0

(1) Fully managed/Smart Alpha/Socially Responsible: 0.75% up to £100k, 0.35% beyond. Fixed Allocation: 0.45% up to £100k, 0.25% beyond (2) For the waived fees (3) Fixed Allocation 0.17%, Fully Managed/Smart Alpha 0.19%, Socially Responsible 0.31% (4) 0.25% OpenMoney fee + 0.10% product fee.

Get free research to help choose a fund

If you're new to investing and have decided to take the do-it-yourself or do-it-with-me route, then as well as the information which may be available on the website of the platform you have chosen, there's detailed fund and stock market information on other websites that you can use. 

If you've jumped straight here, don't just dive in – it's worth going back to the start of this guide where we explain exactly how stocks & shares ISAs work and what a fund is.

Below are our top picks to get up-to-date, in-depth and easy-to-read information on funds, so that you can swot up before deciding where to invest your cash.

Hargreaves Lansdown*

  • Very helpful and easy-to-navigate website jam-packed full of information about funds which you can make the most of whether you decide to use it or not.
  • Has its 'Wealth Shortlist' - a collection of funds selected for their performance potential.

Interactive Investor*

  • Wide range of information, including beginner's guides on a range of investments and a glossary of terms you might come across while you're researching investments. 
  • Its research team also produce tables showing the top and bottom 10 funds and the 10 most traded funds on its website in each monthly period. 
  • If you sign up for a free account, you'll be able to access the more in-depth technical insight section. Once you're logged in, you'll be able to select specific funds and review performance, and see any patterns which have emerged over time.

Bestinvest*

  • Its research team looks at more than 85,000 funds and compiles research on a monthly basis. 
  • Website has a huge range of guides available to download for free, covering everything from how to spot the worst performing funds, to the top rated funds and general information on how stocks & shares ISAs and other products work.
  • Stock market news and a tool which allows you to search for particular fund managers by their performance and track record.

Charles Stanley Direct

  • If you don't need as much hand-holding, Charles Stanley Direct's website has a good round-up of what's going on in the markets.
  • Market data section of the website breaks down lists of FTSE companies and allows you to check performance for any time period from one day to three years. You can also check which companies have risen and fallen, or view any changes by whole industry sector. All the information is updated every 15 minutes, so you get a very accurate feel for what's going on in the market.

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