An Overview of Sales Tax in the United States

By: Yamini Jain 


Sales tax is an important source of revenue for state and local governments in the United States. It is a consumption-based tax imposed on the sale of goods and services at the point of purchase. Understanding the intricacies of sales tax is crucial for both businesses and consumers. It is important for everyone to understand the fundamentals of sales tax, including key aspects, rates, exemptions, and compliance requirements.

Sales Tax Basics

Sales tax is not uniform across the entire United States. It is imposed at the state level, and in some cases, additional local taxes are levied by cities, counties, and other municipalities. As a result, sales tax rates can vary significantly from one location to another. Currently, there is no federal sales tax in the United States, therefore all sales tax is controlled at the state or local level.

State and Local Rates

The sales tax rates vary from state to state and can range from 0% to over 10%. In some states, the rate is a flat percentage applied to the total purchase amount, while in others, it may vary depending on the type of goods or services being sold. Local sales tax rates are typically added on top of the state rate, further contributing to the variation in overall tax rates across different jurisdictions.

Exemptions and Taxable Goods

Sales tax applies to most tangible goods sold at retail, including clothing, electronics, furniture, vehicles, and appliances. However, certain essential items such as groceries, prescription drugs, and medical supplies are often exempt from sales tax. The specific exemptions can vary by state, and it's important for businesses and consumers to be aware of the rules and regulations in their respective jurisdictions.

Economic Nexus and Online Sales

With the rise of e-commerce, the issue of sales tax collection on online purchases has become increasingly complex. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc. changed the landscape by allowing states to require out-of-state sellers to collect sales tax, even if they do not have a physical presence in the state. This decision paved the way for states to establish economic nexus thresholds, based on sales volume or transaction count, which determine when an out-of-state seller is required to collect and remit sales tax.

Sales Tax Compliance

Businesses that sell taxable goods or services are responsible for collecting and remitting sales tax to the appropriate state and local authorities. This requires obtaining a sales tax permit or license from the respective taxing jurisdiction. Compliance obligations include regularly reporting sales tax collected, filing tax returns, and remitting the tax amounts within the specified deadlines.

Impact on Consumers

Consumers should be aware of sales tax rates in their area as it directly affects the final purchase price. The varying tax rates across states and localities mean that the same item can have different prices depending on where it is purchased. Additionally, online shoppers may now be subject to sales tax on their purchases, even if they previously enjoyed tax-free transactions.


Sales tax is an important revenue generator for state and local governments in the United States. Understanding its complexities is crucial for both businesses and consumers to ensure compliance and avoid penalties. The variation in rates, exemptions, and compliance requirements emphasizes the need for awareness and proper tax planning. As the world of commerce continues to evolve, sales tax regulations will likely undergo further changes, necessitating ongoing attention and adaptability. To learn more about how regional sales tax impacts you or your business, contact the trusted Chugh, LLP accountants and business attorneys.

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