Understanding 'Per Diem'

"Per diem" or day rate is a fixed amount of reimbursement paid to employees for daily lodging, meals, and incidental expenses incurred during business-related travel. The rates are set each year by the General Services Administration (GSA) for destinations within the Continental U.S.; non-foreign rates (e.g., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam) are set by the Department of Defense and foreign rates (anywhere outside the U.S. and its territories) are established by the State Department.

If you travel for business or have employees who travel, it is important to understand per diem, which offers an alternative to reimbursement based on detailed expense records and requires less elaborate bookkeeping. Here, we answer questions you might have about per diem, how it works and, what it involves tax-wise.

What Does Per Diem Cover?

The GSA breaks down per diem rates into two categories:

Meals and Incidental Expenses

The meals and incidental expenses (M&IE) category covers all meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), room service, laundry, dry cleaning, pressing of clothing, and fees and tips for the people who provide services, such as food servers and luggage carriers. Per diem rates for meals vary by location and are categorized into six tiers.

Major cities typically have the maximum per diem tier of $76; smaller cities that host substantial business-related travel have per diems that fall between tiers 2 and 5 ($56 to $71). Areas that are not typically visited by business travelers will have the minimum tier rate of $55.

Lodging Expenses

The lodging category covers accommodations for overnight stays, such as hotels, motels, inns, resorts, and apartments. A separate per diem rate is set for both M&IE and lodging for each location. For example, for the 2020 fiscal year, the per diem rates for Atlanta range between $157 and $156 for lodging and $66 for M&IE. For Chicago, lodging rates range between $125 and $229, depending on the month, and the M&IE per diem is $76.

Why Rates Differ by Location

Per diem rates are based on an area's cost of living. Per diem rates in large cities, such as Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles are higher than non-metropolitan areas because goods and services in larger cities are generally more expensive. Lodging rates can also vary by month in response to supply and demand. The highest lodging per diem in New York City, for example, coincides with autumn, the season that attracts the most tourists and business travelers. Per diem rates are updated annually and become effective Oct. 1, the first day of the federal government’s fiscal year.

Finding Rates for Each Location

Ask your employer's Human Resources or Accounting department for specific rates, or look up the information by visiting the GSA website, where you can search by city, state, or zip code for the current fiscal year (Oct. 1 through Sept. 30). If you want to view the next fiscal year or any other year since 1997, search by state and select the appropriate year from the drop-down menu. Click "Find per diem rates" to view the results, which are broken down by primary destination, county, maximum lodging by month, and meals and incidental expenses (M&IE).

If you search for an area that isn't covered by GSA tables (e.g., Hawaii, which is not part of the Continental U.S.), two links will appear that will direct you to the appropriate website: the Department of Defense for non-foreign travel (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam) and the State Department for all foreign destinations.

The Standard Per Diem Rate

A standard rate of $55 per diem for M&IE and a standard rate of $96 per diem for lodging (the fiscal year 2020) applies to any location that does not have a specified rate in the GSA tables. This holds true for all states in the Continental U.S.

Employer Use of GSA Rates

While most businesses use the per diem rates set by the GSA, they can use alternative reimbursement methods. For example, employers can use the IRS high-low method, which establishes one flat rate per diem for high-cost locations (e.g., New York, Chicago, and the District of Columbia), and one flat rate for all other locations. For travel on or after Oct. 1, 2019, the rate is $297 ($71 if M&IE only) for travel to any high-cost area and $200 ($60 M&IE) for travel to any other location in the Continental US.

Taxes on Per Diem Reimbursements

Per diem payments are not considered wages—and are therefore non-taxable—as long as they meet certain conditions. You will be subject to taxes if any of the following are true:

  • Payment is more than the allowable federal per diem rate
  • You did not file an expense report with your employer
  • Your expense report did not include the date, time, place, amount, and business purpose of the expense
  • Your employer gave you a per diem and didn't require an expense report.

If any of the above situations are true, your per diem will be considered wages and will be subject to income tax withholding and payroll taxes. The amount will be reported by your employer on your W-2 form. If it is just that your per diem was above the allowable federal per diem rate, only the excess amount will be considered wages.

To substantiate your travel and related expenses, you will be required to maintain a log that includes the days you traveled for business, where you went, and the business purpose of the trip. Note: if your business-related travel lasts longer than a year in one location—even if it involves two or more separate assignments—you may not be eligible for tax exemption under the per diem tax rules. To avoid unfavorable tax consequences, consult with your tax advisor before embarking on an extended business trip.

Per Diem as a Salary Alternative

Because per diem payments are non-taxable, some people may raise the question, "Can I accept a lower salary with per diem instead of a higher salary with no per diem?" The answer is "no." Per diem policies cannot be created in a manner that allows what should be waged to be labeled as something else—in this case, per diem.

The Bottom Line

Per diem payments provide reimbursement to employees who travel for business purposes. Rates vary by location and time of year and are broken down into two categories: lodging and meals and incidental expenses (M&IE). As long as your payments do not exceed the maximum federal per diem rate, they are non-taxable; if per diem payments exceed federal limits, any excess will be taxed as ordinary income.

Per diem rates may change annually, and per diem tax laws can be complicated. Consult a qualified tax specialist if you have questions or concerns about your company's per diem policy.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. General Services Administration. "Frequently Asked Questions, Per Diem."

  2. U.S. General Services Administration. "Federal Travel Regulation, Section 300-3.1," Pages 22 and 71.

  3. U.S. General Services Administration. "M&IE Breakdown."

  4. U.S. General Services Administration. "FY 2020 Per Diem Rates for Georgia."

  5. U.S. General Services Administration. "FY 2020 Per Diem Rates for Illinois."

  6. U.S. General Services Administration. "Factors Influencing Lodging Rates."

  7. U.S. General Services Administration. "FY 2020 Per Diem Rates for New York."

  8. U.S. General Services Administration. "FY 2020 Per Diem Highlights."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "Notice 2019-55," Page 3.

  10. Internal Revenue Service. "Per Diem Payments Frequently Asked Questions," Page 2.

  11. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 511 Business Travel Expenses."

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