Stocks & Shares ISAs

Stocks & Shares ISAs

Find the best ISA or investment platform

Every adult has a £20,000 ISA allowance for 2021/22. And while many prefer the security of cash savings, it's possible to use all or part of that allowance to invest in the stock market. This guide runs through everything you need to know before investing – including how to find a cheap 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 as the value of your investments can go down as well as up. 

We can't tell you if investing is right for you. But if you're going to do it, it's recommended you invest for the long term, as the longer you invest, the longer you have to ride out any bumps in the market.


Other MSE ISA guides...

Cash ISAs: All the best deals, plus help choosing.
Full ISA guide: For everything you need to know about ISAs. 
Lifetime ISAs: Get a 25% bonus on your savings.


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What is a stocks & shares ISA?

Everyone in the UK aged 18 or over has an annual ISA allowance – it's £20,000 for the 2021/22 tax year, which began on 6 April 2021.

You can use all or part of this ISA allowance to invest, in a type of account called a stocks & shares ISA. Here, you can invest in funds (shares or bonds from various companies pooled into one investment), bonds (basically a loan to a company or a government), and shares in individual companies. The idea is that you don't pay dividend, capital gains or income tax on any gains or income from investments held in your stocks & shares ISA.

A stocks & shares ISA is very different from a cash ISA, which is just a savings account you never pay tax on. If this is your first experience of investing, read our Beginners' guide to investing to get a broader idea of what's involved.

The 11 stocks & shares ISA need-to-knows

  • Whether a cash ISA or stocks & shares ISA is better 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 don't need the cash for 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.
  • 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 our Top Savings and Top Cash ISAs guides for more.

    It's 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 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 invest in several different industries or countries – this is known as diversifying, and will help lower your risk exposure (the idea being that if one sector or country is doing badly, hopefully the others will do well and help keep the value of your stocks & shares ISA higher).
    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.
  • 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. However, the majority of investors stick to shares and funds.

    Here's how shares and funds work:

    • 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 (often 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.

    • Funds. Usually, 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 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.

      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 and how the underlying investments are doing. Here's an example to help...

      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.

      Why do some funds have a manager at the helm, while others don't?

      Funds can be active or passive:
    •     Active funds. An active fund is run by a fund manager who picks     what to put in the fund – the idea being that they'll use their     knowledge to beat the market's performance. Because you have an     expert at the helm, these funds usually charge higher fees as you're     paying for them to do their job.
    •     Passive funds. A passive fund hasn't got a fund manager.     Instead, the fund is invested in an index which follows the     performance of, say, the top 100 companies in the UK (this is known     as the FTSE 100).

      What are the different 'themes' funds are invested in?

      A fund's theme could be anything from:
    •     Geography. For example, European, Japanese, emerging markets.
    •     Industry. For example, green companies, utility firms, industrial     businesses. 
    •     Types of investment. For example, shares and corporate bonds.
    •     The size of the company. For example, 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.
  • You can buy stocks & shares ISAs from different providers such as banks and building societies, but the cheapest way to do it is through a website, often called a 'platform', so this guide is focusing on that.

    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 which shop 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 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 supermarkets sell bags more cheaply 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 that while the platform fee is charged by the platform you choose, the company running the funds you choose will charge you for those.

  • It's 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 any 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 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 – it will be frozen at this rate until 2026) 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 that you sold and made a profit on, 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.

    You DON'T have to pay tax on any dividend income on shares held in a stocks & shares ISA 

    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. Earn more than this and you'd need to notify HM Revenue & Customs.

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

    However, dividend income received on shares held in a stocks & shares ISA is 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.)

    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 essentially lending money to it for a set time. In return, it'll have to pay you interest.

    It isn't risk-free, as there is the possibility it won't give you the money back and/or won't pay you interest. But the good news is...

    If you've got corporate bonds or bond funds within an ISA and they pay you 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 before having to pay tax on it, 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. You'll owe tax on any interest earned above its limit.

  • 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 2021/22) doesn't roll over – so if you don't use it, you lose it forever.

    Any savings or investments that 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 £200,000 since ISAs began in 1999 (though your total may be more or less depending on how your investments have performed).

  • The platform AND the funds you invest in will have fees – investing always costs 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 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 of the amount you hold in that fund and can typically vary from 0.05% to 1%+ per fund, depending on the fund you're investing in.

    • Selling/buying funds and shares. This is the cost every time you buy or sell a fund or a shareholding on the platform. These can be anything from £0 to £25. If you'll just pick funds and stay invested in them, this likely won't matter too much. But 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, you usually have the option to sell your investments and transfer out as cash, and this is usually free to do, though you may pay the trading charge when you sell up.
  • Once you've got your head around the various charges, it'll be easier to work out whether a stocks & shares ISA provider may be 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 if you're looking to switch away, and if you won't take too much of a hit, in the long run it'll likely be cheaper to switch to a provider with lower fees.

  • 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.

    But if you bought £5,000 worth of the same shares each month over two months (amounting to 10,000 overall), you'd be buying 500 shares in the first month.

    However, if the share price fell 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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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 from 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.

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Stocks & shares ISA top picks

There are two main types of platform:

Do-it-yourself platform top picks

The do-it-yourself platforms are 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 how long you want to invest for. 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.

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-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 top picks below, we list these different costs, but we haven't taken fund charges into account. These will vary depending on which fund you pick – but should remain pretty constant between platforms.

    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. For the sake of our top picks in this section, we looked at the different platforms' charges and trading costs. We then cross-checked this with specialist investment consultancy The Lang Cat's analysis (which assumes that you only invest in funds and that you make four separate fund transactions at random points throughout the year).

    Yet we know from experience at MSE that cheap isn't always what people are looking for when it comes to investing, so we have also included platforms in this section that cost a bit more, but have easier-to-use websites.

MSE analysis image

Do-it-yourself platforms – our review

Here we've split our choices by the size of investment you have.

For smaller investments, many will find Vanguard to be the cheapest DIY platform. However you can only invest in its own range of funds (and can't trade in shares at all). Generally these track various worldwide stock markets, but it also has 'LifeStrategy' funds – ready-made portfolios that vary in risk. You'll need to be happy managing your investments online only, as there's no app. 

If you want more choice about what to invest in, AJ Bell Youinvest has more than 2,000 funds and 450 investment trusts, plus it lets you buy and hold shares within your ISA. However, its platform fee can be more expensive than Vanguard and you do pay every time you buy a fund or trade in shares. AJ Bell lets you manage your ISA online and through its app, and will give you a helping hand with investment ideas if needed.

Got more than around £65,000 to invest? If you've a larger investment, we've a couple of options with flat platform fees (ie, they're the same whether you've £1,000 or £1 million invested). You may find that makes them cheaper options than the two above.

If you won't trade much and know what you're doing, no-frills online investment platform iWeb (operated by Halifax Share Dealing) could work out cheapest as it has no ongoing platform fee – there's just one £100 account opening charge, then a fee for each trade. 

Interactive Investor, on the other hand, has a monthly cost. It's more expensive than iWeb in that sense but may work out cheaper if you're a frequent trader – you can get unlimited free trades if you pay in every month. It also has a ready-made selection of funds and portfolios if you need a little help choosing. 

Provider Minimum deposit Platform charge  Fund-dealing charge Transfer-out fee
Cheapest for most small & medium-sized investments
Vanguard £500 or £100/mth 0.15%/year (max £375) £0 £0
AJ Bell* £500 or £25/mth 0.05% - 0.25%/year (1) £1.50 (2) £9.95/holding
Cheaper if you've lots to invest (£65,000+)
iWeb £0 £100 (one-off) £5/trade £0
Interactive Investor* Any lump sum or £25/mth £9.99/mth for 'Investor' plan (3) One free trade a month then £7.99/trade (4) £0

(1) 0.25% for under £250,000, 0.1% for £250,000-£1m, 0.05% for £1m-£2m, nothing above £2m. (2) £9.95 per trade for shares, or £4.95 if 10+ share trades in the previous month. (3) You also get a junior ISA and general trading account. (4) Free if you're a regular investor.

Do-it-for-me platform top picks

These platforms, often 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, so the platform can assess your attitude to risk and decide on an investment portfolio for you.
  • This investment portfolio will be based on your attitude to risk, any investment goals and what you can afford to invest.

Confusingly, these platforms can sometimes work out cheapest (so even cheaper than the DIY options above), even though they give you more help. This is purely based on the fact that the underlying investments in your portfolio when you use a do-it-for-me platform will likely be exchange traded funds, which typically are low-cost in nature.

  • With do-it-for-me platforms, we mainly looked at the costs, as the ease of use is taken care of for you by the very nature of what these platforms offer. 

    How much one of these stocks & shares ISAs will cost you will depend on how much money you have invested and how long you want to invest for. For our top picks in this section, we looked at the different platform and portfolio charges to get the least expensive. 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 want low ongoing platform fees, have a look at Evestor – its do-it-for-me offering has three different types of portfolio depending on the risk you are willing to take – low, medium and high. It's very simple if that's what you're looking for.

Nutmeg and Wealthify are pricier, but give MSE users no platform fees for the first year (though remember you invest for the long term, so think carefully about going for short-term discounts).

Nutmeg has a wider choice of ready-made portfolios: low-cost 'fixed-allocation' portfolios (where investments are left to algorithms so not actively managed), or higher-cost 'socially responsible', 'Smart Alpha' and 'fully managed' portfolios (actively managed so have people making investment decisions to try to boost the portfolio's performance). If that sounds a bit too complex, remember it will ask you questions to help you pick. 

With Wealthify, there are five portfolios based on your attitude to risk: you choose from cautious, tentative, confident, ambitious and adventurous, then choose between 'original' or 'ethical' investments. It does the rest for you.

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

(1) 0.25% Evestor fee + 0.10% product fee. (2) For the waived fees. (3) Fully managed/Smart Alpha/socially responsible: 0.75% up to £100k, 0.35% beyond. Fixed allocation: 0.45% up to £100k, 0.25% beyond. (4) Fixed allocation 0.17%, fully managed/Smart Alpha 0.19%, socially responsible 0.31%.

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Get free research to help choose a fund

If you're new to investing and have decided to take the do-it-yourself or the do-it-for-me route, then as well as the information that 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 that can give you up-to-date, in-depth and easy-to-read information on funds, so you can swot up before deciding where to invest:

  • Hargreaves Lansdown*. Has a helpful and easy-to-navigate website jam-packed full of information about funds which you can make the most of whether you invest with it or not. It also has a 'Wealth Shortlist' – a collection of funds selected for their performance potential.

  • Interactive Investor*. As well as being one of our top-pick DIY platforms, Interactive Investor has a wide range of information, including beginners' guides on a range of investments and a glossary of terms you might come across while you're researching investments. Its research team also produces 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 can select specific funds and review performance, and see any patterns that have emerged over time.
  • Bestinvest*. Its research team looks at more than 85,000 funds and compiles research on a monthly basis. The 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.

    You also get stock market news and a tool that 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, the Charles Stanley Direct website has a good round-up of what's going on in the markets. The market data section 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 an accurate feel for what's going on in the market.

Want help investing?

If you're not sure how to invest and what to invest in, seek independent financial advice. Read our Financial Advisers guide for more information.

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