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Tax guide for foreign companies doing business in Australia

Table of Contents

By Harrison Dell, Director.

Establishing an Australian business presence is a strategic decision for international companies aiming to expand their operations. This process involves, at a minimum, understanding and complying with Australian corporate and tax laws. Doing business in Australia is unlike many other jurisdictions, as tax is the primary level that Government pulls to incentivise economic activity.

The first step, choose your legal structure – company or a branch office?

Company or Branch?

Deciding between establishing a subsidiary or a branch in Australia is pivotal for international businesses. A foreign branch operates as an extension of the parent company and is generally easier to establish. However, it comes with certain limitations and responsibilities.

A subsidiary, treated as a separate legal entity, offers the advantage of limited liability and the potential to operate with a degree of independence from the parent company. The first step is usually incorporating the subsidiary under Australian law, which requires at least one Australian resident director and adherence to local corporate governance standards. Using a subsidiary can offer more flexibility in operations and potentially more favourable tax treatment, particularly in leveraging Australia’s extensive network of Double Tax Agreements and withholding tax concessions.

Subsidiaries are subject to Australian corporate tax on their global income, with applicable rates of either 25% or 30%. Strategic planning is necessary to optimise tax positions, especially considering issues like transfer pricing and profit repatriation. The financial reporting requirements, including annual reviews and solvency declarations, must be rigorously maintained.

Branches, however, do not provide the same level of liability protection as subsidiaries. They also face stringent reporting requirements, including the need to lodge financial statements with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

The key difference lies in tax treatment: a branch’s income tax is based on its Australian-sourced income, while a subsidiary is taxed on its worldwide income. This distinction can significantly impact the overall tax liability, making the branch structure potentially more attractive for businesses with limited Australian operations.

Considering these factors, businesses must weigh the operational flexibility, tax implications, and legal responsibilities associated with each model to make an informed choice that aligns with their strategic objectives.

Taxation of Australian Subsidiaries

Australian subsidiaries are taxed on their global income, with tax rates of either 25% or 30%. This includes income generated from both Australian and international sources. While this global reach of taxation might seem daunting, subsidiaries can benefit from certain exemptions on foreign income and credits for foreign taxes paid, and groups can structure subsidiaries carefully to only capture Australian income.

One critical aspect of taxation for subsidiaries is the treatment of dividends and profit repatriation. Unfranked dividends paid to a foreign parent company are subject to withholding tax, which emphasises the importance of strategic planning in profit distribution. Fully franked dividends are preferred where possible.

Capital gains tax (CGT) considerations are also vital, especially in the context of disposing of subsidiary shares. In cases where land or mining rights are not involved, CGT exemptions can apply, providing significant tax savings and allowing easy restructuring.

While the tax obligations for an Australian subsidiary are extensive and complex, careful planning and compliance can yield significant benefits, including tax efficiencies and streamlined international operations.

Taxation for Australian Branches of Foreign Companies

Foreign branches in Australia are subject to income tax on their Australian-sourced income. This definition encompasses income generated from sales, services, or other business activities carried out in Australia. The tax rate for foreign branches typically aligns with the corporate tax rate, either 25% or 30%.

The classification of a foreign branch as a permanent establishment is crucial as it determines the extent of tax liability in Australia. Factors such as the presence of a fixed place of business, the duration of activities, and the nature of contracts executed in Australia play a critical role in this determination.

Branches may also benefit from exemptions or deductions under various international tax treaties, making the analysis of treaty provisions essential in tax planning for branches. There is a higher risk that group activities are captured by the branch if not separated carefully.

The taxation of foreign branches in Australia hinges on their classification as permanent establishments and the nature of their Australian-sourced income. Understanding these nuances is key to ensuring compliance and optimising tax liabilities.

Withholding Taxes in Australia

In the realm of Australian taxation, withholding taxes play a crucial role in the context of cross-border transactions. They are primarily applicable to payments made by Australian entities to foreign residents, including dividends, interest, and royalties. The primary purpose of withholding taxes is to ensure that Australia collects its fair share of tax on income derived within its borders by non-residents.

The standard withholding tax rates vary: 30% for unfranked dividends and royalties, and 10% for interest payments. These rates can, however, be reduced under the application of Double Tax Agreements (DTAs) that Australia has with several countries. This reduced rate aims to prevent double taxation of the same income in two different jurisdictions, thereby encouraging international business and investment.

Businesses operating in Australia with international dealings must be mindful of these withholding tax obligations. Compliance involves not only deducting the correct amounts but also timely remittance and reporting to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Failure to comply can result in penalties and interest charges.

Understanding and managing withholding tax obligations is essential for any business involved in international transactions with Australia, ensuring compliance and leveraging benefits under applicable DTAs.

Double Tax Agreements (DTA’s)

Australia’s network of Double Tax Agreements (DTAs) with over 40 countries serves as a cornerstone for international trade and investment. DTAs are bilateral agreements that aim to avoid double taxation of income earned in one jurisdiction by a resident of another jurisdiction. They provide clarity on the tax treatment of various types of income and can result in reduced tax rates or exemptions, particularly in the areas of interest, dividends, and royalties.

For companies operating across borders, these agreements facilitate more predictable and lower tax burdens. For instance, an Australian subsidiary paying dividends to its foreign parent may benefit from reduced withholding tax rates under a relevant DTA. Similarly, Australian branches of foreign companies can use DTAs to determine the tax treatment of repatriated profits.

Understanding the specific provisions of DTAs is vital for effective tax planning and compliance. This includes recognising how DTAs interact with domestic tax laws and the implications for transfer pricing and profit repatriation strategies.

Australia’s DTA’s are further complemented by its adoption of the Multilateral Instrument (MLI). The MLI, a significant development in international tax law, aims to implement measures to prevent Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) and enhance the effectiveness of existing DTAs.

Australia signed the MLI on June 7, 2017, and ratified it on September 26, 2018. It entered into force on January 1, 2019, for withholding taxes and from July 1, 2019, for other taxes. The impact of the MLI on Australia’s DTAs depends on the adoption positions of each treaty partner. To date, Australia has listed 35 income tax treaties to be modified by the MLI. However, the effective date of the MLI provisions for some jurisdictions remains contingent upon their formal adoption of the MLI. Notably, Australia’s treaties with the United States, Germany, Switzerland, and Taiwan are excluded, as these countries have not adopted the MLI.

Australia has committed to the minimum provisions of the MLI and selected optional provisions, including Article 8 (Dividend transfer transactions), Article 11 (Application of tax agreements to restrict a Party’s right to tax its own residents), and Article 15 (Definition of a person closely related to an enterprise). Additionally, it has adopted several provisions with reservations, including Articles 3, 4, 9, 13, 14, and Articles 18-26, which cover a range of topics from transparent entities to arbitration.

The adoption of the MLI signifies Australia’s commitment to international tax standards and its proactive approach to addressing tax avoidance. Companies engaged in cross-border transactions with Australia must understand the complexities introduced by the MLI, as it can significantly modify the application of DTAs and impact international tax planning and compliance strategies.

Transfer Pricing Rules

Transfer pricing rules in Australia are critical for all businesses engaged in related party cross-border transactions, as it aims to prevent profit shifting from Australia and ensure fair tax is paid in Australia. These rules require that prices for transactions between related parties across borders reflect arm’s length conditions – that is, the prices that would have been charged between independent parties.

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has the authority to adjust income or deductions if it finds that the transactions do not reflect these arm’s length conditions. This can include reallocations between different branches of the same enterprise operating in and outside of Australia. Transfer pricing disputes with the ATO are incredibly expensive and should be avoided where possible but having good transfer pricing documentation and appropriate strategies.

Businesses must carefully document their transfer pricing methods to demonstrate compliance. This is essential not only to prevent tax disputes but also to ensure that their cross-border transactions are treated fairly under Australian tax law, and foreign tax laws. It’s advisable for companies to seek expert advice to navigate these complex rules effectively, even when they are still small companies.

Multinational Anti-Avoidance Law

Australia’s Multinational Anti-Avoidance Law (MAAL) targets structures used by multinational corporations to avoid creating a taxable presence or permanent establishment in Australia with a global turnover of more than $1 billion AUD. This law is aimed at companies that engage in transactions or business activities involving Australian customers with the participation of an Australian entity related to or dependent on the foreign entity.

The MAAL’s goal is to counter arrangements that enable profit shifting out of Australia, ensuring that profits are taxed where the economic activities generating them occur. Companies caught under MAAL may face significant tax liabilities and should seek advice on their structures and operations to ensure compliance with these rules if they apply.

Diverted Profits Tax (DPT)

The Diverted Profits Tax is a robust measure targeting significant global entities that artificially divert profits from Australia to low-tax jurisdictions. This tax is levied at a punitive rate of 40% on diverted profits, applicable when the arrangements result in less than 80% of the tax that would have been paid in Australia.

Recently, PepsiCo was hit with Diverted Profits Tax in an ATO victory.

Specifically, DPT applies where the principal purpose of a scheme was to obtain an Australian and/or foreign tax benefit. There are exemptions from DPT which corporate groups of small to moderate size should consider in detail.

The DPT is designed to encourage greater transparency and discourage aggressive tax planning by multinational enterprises. It emphasises the need for multinational entities to ensure that their transfer pricing arrangements reflect the economic substance of their operations and are compliant with Australian tax laws.

Thin Capitalisation

Australia’s thin capitalisation rules aim to limit the ability of multinational corporations to minimize their Australian tax liabilities through excessive debt. These rules restrict the amount of debt deductions, like interest expenses, that can be claimed by both inbound and outbound investment entities. The current thin capitalisation ratio is 1.5:1, so for every $3 of debt, there must be $2 of equity or the thin capitalisation rules may deny the interest deduction.

The rules apply to foreign-controlled Australian entities and Australian entities with foreign investments, assessing their debt-to-equity ratios. Exceptions exist for entities with annual debt deductions under AU$2 million, certain outward investing Australian entities, and specific special purpose entities.

Significant reforms are proposed to align these rules with international best practices, focusing on a profits-based approach and introducing a new external third-party debt test. This shift underscores the importance of re-evaluating financing structures considering evolving tax regulations.

Impending International Tax Reform

The Australian government is set to implement a global and domestic minimum tax based on OECD Global Anti-Base Erosion Model Rules, referred to as Pillar Two. This initiative is part of a broader effort to curb tax competition and establish a uniform tax floor worldwide.

Key components include a global minimum effective tax rate of at least 15% for large multinationals and a similar domestic tax, applying from January 1, 2024. These measures will predominantly impact multinationals with annual revenues over €750 million, ensuring that they pay a fair share of tax on their global profits.

This impending reform represents a significant shift in the international tax landscape, and multinational corporations need to prepare for its implications on their global tax strategies.


Navigating the complex landscape of Australian taxation laws, particularly for multinational corporations and entities with cross-border transactions, is a challenging endeavour. The intricacies of transfer pricing rules, the Multinational Anti-Avoidance Law, Diverted Profits Tax, thin capitalisation rules, and the impending international tax reforms, underscore the need for specialised guidance and expertise.

It is strongly advised that companies engage with international tax experts who are well-versed in Australian tax law. These professionals can provide invaluable insights into the nuances of the Australian tax system, ensuring compliance and optimising tax positions. They are equipped to navigate the intricate interplay between domestic regulations and international tax treaties, including the impacts of the Multilateral Instrument on existing Double Tax Agreements.

Given the severe consequences of non-compliance, ranging from hefty penalties to reputational damage, the role of expert advice cannot be overstated. Such expertise is not just a resource but a necessity for businesses seeking to operate effectively within Australia’s rigorous tax environment.

The ever-evolving nature of tax laws and international agreements demands a proactive and informed approach to tax planning and compliance. Partnering with seasoned tax experts is not just a prudent step but an essential strategy for any business looking to thrive in the global market while adhering to Australian tax obligations.

Disclaimer: This material is produced by Cadena Legal, a NSW-registered legal practice. It is intended to provide general information and opinions on legal topics, current at the time of first publication. The contents do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Contact us here for advice.

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