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Usability nightmares: UK online tax filing with HMRC

So far my battle to file my tax return online has taken six weeks. The official method of submission has failed repeatedly, and my attempts at resolution have led me into a web of usability nightmares. After having found the tech support telephone number using a search engine (ten minutes of searching the tax website hmrc.gov.uk proved futile) I embarked upon my epic voyage.

Required: 7 types of log in data; retrieval difficult or impossible

So far I been required to locate and store multiple instances of the follow types of data:

  1. national insurance number
  2. unique tax payer reference number (UTR)
  3. gateway ID
  4. user ID
  5. activation code
  6. password
  7. call reference number

Several of these can only be retrieved by post; a request must be made, in some cases exclusively by phone, to have the data sent to your registered postal address. The UTR allegedly takes 72 hours, and the activation code allegedly takes 7 days (in my case it took 10). Once your activation code arrives, it has be used with 28 days, after which it expires and you have to order and wait for a new one.

However, if the address that they have on file is out of date (which is likely as many people only contact the tax office once each year to file their return) then you must wait a further 72 hours after changing your address (which must be done by phone) before you can proceed with any part of the registration process.

As far as I can tell the user ID cannot be retrieved at all, and it isn’t sent to you at all so unless you copy it when it shows on screen the first and last time during the prolonged registration process, then you have to start again.

The gateway ID (confusingly also interchangeably referred to  as the user ID) cannot be retrieved either, at least not in its entirety. Half of it is presented on the HMRC after you’ve provided identifying information, and the other half is emailed to you.

Multiple accounts

You could be forgiven for thinking that once you’ve completed the strenuous registration process once, you can use the HMRC website again for other tax filing services that they offer. This is not the case however; there are multiple different types of accounts, so each person can end up with several accounts on the HMRC website and therefore several complete sets of most of the bits of data listed above. This doesn’t become apparent until you try and use a new service, and are presented with an uninformative “Access denied” message, which simply points you back to your account homepage with no explanation, help or guidance. If you registered last year in order to pay the tax man for the privilege of notifying him that your company name and details still haven’t changed, and this year you want to file your self assessment tax return, then you need to register a new account, and wait for the necessary data to be posted to you all over again.

However, even if you go through this process, there is still no guarantee that you’ll be able to fulfill your legal obligation to file your tax, as I recently discovered.

Access denied screenshot

An instant classic: "Access deined" on HMRC

System fail: my experience

I suffered the need for two separate accounts as described, except that when my new details arrived by post, they didn’t work. I continued to get the following meaningless message:

Access Denied

You have tried to access a page that you have no permission to view.

Please click ‘Next’ to proceed

Next leads to your account homepage, without any mention of how to fix the error or what caused it, or who to call. After a call to the well hidden tech support number, I double checked that I hadn’t visited the HMRC website via a link from a search engine, which I was told is enough to break the login process (a major bug in itself, surely?), and then was told to register another account. This I did, then waited ten days until my activation code arrived, at which point I tried to log in with the new account, and once again met with “Access denied”. By this time the deadline for filing tax returns had passed, and I was liable for an arbitrary £100 fine, despite the fact that I started the process of trying to file my tax with my existing HMRC online account with more than a week to spare.

I called up again, and was told again to register a new account. This I have done, and am still waiting for yet another activation code to arrive in the post. Because I can’t change my registered address without more delay, the code is going to somewhere that I no longer live, but fortunately I set up postal forwarding so hopefully it will be delivered correctly to my current residence.


HMRC’s online tax filing system is painful to use and has cost me more than £100 in late fines and phone calls to their call center (the message recommends calling back in a few weeks due to high volume of enquiries: each person that follows that advice is worth £100 in fines!). Its also wasted hours of my time, and caused me considerable stress and frustration. All because of a badly designed usability-ignorant filing system.

This is a system that’s used by tens of millions of people each year – surely HMRC should provide a better service than this!


  • Reply Gordon |

    That’s not all, we’re getting unreadable “attatchment.dat” emails from HMRC (with no text-mode content either) and misformed attachment.html files that are blank inside.

    One upshot of the attachment.dat cockup (caused by Microsoft email servers not being standards-compliant or are mis-configured) is the “email address confirmation” codes cannot be deciphered and no-one except Microsoft customers can read the emails. So far, since Q2/2010, I have 340 clients affected by this. (I’m an accountant). The helpdesk has no idea at all what I’m talking about despite 17 calls.

    There must be thousands of MAC or Linux-using businesses out there that are being dis-enfranchised by this “Microsoft-Only HMRC policy”.

  • Reply Guy Carberry |

    Did you ever resolve this? I am going through this exact scenario right now. How did you eventually get your tax return filed?

    • Reply samtuke |

      I did get it resolved in the end. The second time that a fresh set of details were sent to me, I used them to get access to the self assessment section of the HMRC website. If you call the website helpline and explain the situation (which I didn’t find easy with the people that I spoke to) then they should send you fresh codes in the post. It’s been a while since I sorted it so I’m afraid I can’t remember more exact details than that.
      Good luck!

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