What Is Offshore?

The term offshore refers to a location outside of one's home country. The term is commonly used in the banking and financial sectors to describe areas where regulations are different from the home country. Offshore locations are generally island nations, where entities set up corporations, investments, and deposits. Companies and individuals (typically those with a high net worth) may move offshore for more favorable conditions, including tax avoidance, relaxed regulations, or asset protection. Although offshore institutions can also be used for illicit purposes, they aren't considered illegal.

Key Takeaways

  • Offshore refers to any (business) activity that takes place outside an entity's home base.
  • The term may be used to describe foreign banks, corporations, investments, and deposits. 
  • A company may legitimately move offshore for the purpose of tax avoidance or to enjoy relaxed regulations.
  • Offshore financial institutions can also be used for illicit purposes such as money laundering and tax evasion.
  • Increased pressure is leading to more reporting of foreign accounts to international tax authorities.
1:36

Offshore

Understanding Offshore

Offshore can refer to a variety of foreign-based entities, accounts, or other financial services. In order to qualify as offshore, the activity taking place must be based in a country other than the company or investor’s home nation. As such, while the home base for a person or company may be in one country, the business activity takes place in another. Put simply, going offshore provides services to non-residents.

In the simplest sense, offshore can mean any location abroad—any country, territory, or jurisdiction. But the term has become widely synonymous with specific locations that have become popular for offshore business activity, notably island nations like the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Channel Islands, and the Bahamas. Other centers in landlocked countries, including Switzerland, Ireland, and Belize, also qualify as popular offshore financial centers (OFCs).

The level of regulatory standards and transparency differs widely among OFCs. But they generally offer:

  • Favorable tax laws, which is why they're commonly referred to as tax havens
  • Reduced risk and greater growth potential
  • Significant cost savings for businesses
  • Protection of assets, especially during times of instability
  • Loose regulations
  • Confidentiality

Going offshore is common for companies and high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) for the reasons mentioned above. They may also choose to bank and hold investments in a specific country offshore if they travel there frequently. Supporters of OFCs argue that they improve the flow of capital and facilitate international business transactions.

But critics suggest that offshoring helps hide tax liabilities or ill-gotten gains from authorities, even though most countries require that foreign holdings be reported. Going offshore has also become a way for more illicit activities, including fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. As such, there are increasing calls for OFCs to become more transparent with global tax authorities.

Offshoring isn't usually illegal. But hiding it is.

Special Considerations

Offshoring is perfectly legal because it provides entities with a great deal of privacy and confidentiality. But authorities are concerned that OFCs are being used to avoid paying taxes. As such, there is increased pressure on these countries to report foreign holdings to global tax authorities.

For instance, the Swiss are known for their strict privacy laws. At one point, Swiss banks didn’t even have names attached to bank accounts. But Switzerland agreed to turn over information to foreign governments on their account holders, effectively ending tax evasion.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 100 countries automatically shared information about offshore accounts with tax authorities in 2019. This entailed the disclosure of 84 million accounts worth more than €10 trillion.

Types of Offshoring

There are several types of offshoring: Business, investing, and banking. We've gone into some detail about how these work below.

Offshoring Business

Offshoring is often referred to as outsourcing when it comes to business activity. This is the act of establishing certain business functions, such as manufacturing or call centers, in a nation other than where the company is headquartered.

This is often done to take advantage of more favorable conditions in a foreign country, such as lower wage requirements or looser regulations, and can result in significant cost savings for the business. Companies with significant sales overseas, such as Apple and Microsoft, may take the opportunity to keep related profits in offshore accounts in countries with lower tax burdens.

Offshore Investing

Offshore investing can involve any situation in which the offshore investors reside outside the nation in which they invest. This practice is mostly used by high-net-worth investors, as operating offshore accounts can be particularly high. It often requires opening accounts in the nation in which the investor wishes to invest. Some of the advantages of holding offshore accounts include tax benefits, asset protection, and privacy.

Offshore investment accounts are generally opened in the name of a corporation, such as a holding company or a limited liability company (LLC) rather than an individual. This opens up investments to more favorable tax treatment.

The primary downsides to offshore investing are the high costs and the increased regulatory scrutiny worldwide that offshore jurisdictions and accounts face. This makes offshore investing beyond the means of most investors. Offshore investors may also be scrutinized by regulators and tax authorities to make sure taxes are paid.

Offshore Banking

Offshore banking involves securing assets in financial institutions in foreign countries, which may be limited by the laws of the customer’s home nation—much like offshore investing. Think of the famed Swiss bank account— that James Bond-like account that puts rich people’s money out of reach of their own country’s government.

People and companies can use offshore accounts to avoid the unfavorable circumstances associated with keeping money in a bank in their home nation. Most entities do this to avoid tax obligations. Holding offshore bank accounts also makes it more difficult for them to be seized by authorities.

For those who work internationally, the ability to save and use funds in a foreign currency for international dealings can be a benefit. This often provides a simpler way to access funds in the needed currency without the need to account for rapidly changing exchange rates.

Offshore jurisdictions, such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, and the Isle of Man, are popular and known to offer fairly secure investment opportunities.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Offshore Investing

While we've listed some generally accepted pros and cons of going offshore, this section looks at the benefits and drawbacks of offshore investing.

Advantages

Taking your investments abroad to an OFC may also help you diversify your portfolio. By going international and investing in different asset classes and currencies, you can help cut down the risk to your overall investments.

You're very apt to get favorable tax treatment on your investments, depending on where you hold your assets. For instance, the Cayman Islands doesn't impose taxes on income, dividends, or capital gains, which means you get to keep more of the money you earn.

Your assets get a certain level of protection because many offshore centers are located in places with sound economic and political systems. And because they're in foreign lands, it's harder for creditors to seize your assets.

Disadvantages

Holding accounts offshore subjects you to more scrutiny. That's because it's often seen as a way for people to avoid paying taxes. If you don't report your holdings to your tax authority, such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), you could be in serious trouble.

As mentioned above, even though some jurisdictions provide complete confidentiality to account holders, an increasing number of countries are becoming more transparent with tax authorities. This means you could be on the hook if you don't report your holdings.

You should do your due diligence if you're going to invest abroad—the same way you would if you're doing business with someone at home. Make sure you choose a reputable broker or investment professional to ensure that your money is handled properly. Failure to do so could put your investments at risk.

Pros
  • Portfolio diversification

  • Favorable tax treatment

  • Asset protection

Cons
  • More scrutiny

  • Increased transparency from offshore jurisdictions

  • Risk of working with the wrong professional

Offshore FAQs

What Does It Mean to Work Offshore?

Working offshore means that you have a job outside your home country. You may get paid in the local currency and are usually subject to local labor laws. For instance, you are considered to be working offshore if your company opens an office in another country and moves you to that location.

What Is Onshore and Offshore?

Onshore means that business activity, whether that's running a company or holding assets and investments, takes place in your home country. Going offshore, on the other hand, means these activities take place in another country, location, or jurisdiction.

Are Offshore Accounts Legal?

Offshore accounts are perfectly legal, as long as they are not used for illicit purposes. But keep in mind, though, that hiding your offshore assets is illegal. This means you must report any and all offshore accounts you hold to your country's taxing authority.

What Is Meant by Offshore Banking?

Offshore banking describes a relationship that a company or individual has with a financial institution outside the country of their residence. This requires opening a bank account, making deposits, withdrawals, and transfers from that account—the exact same way you would with a bank account at home.

What Is Offshore Trading?

Offshore trading involves opening and maintaining a brokerage or trading account with an offshore investment firm. These accounts are generally opened in the name of a holding company rather than an individual. Trading this way provides investors with favorable tax treatment, which puts more money back into their pockets.

The Bottom Line

Going offshore is usually an option meant only for corporations or people with a high net worth. This means most of us won't reap the benefits associated with it.

Those who do go offshore do business, open bank accounts, or hold investments anywhere overseas. Although going offshore isn't illegal, it does put the entity up to more scrutiny. That's because people often use it as a way to avoid paying taxes.

But with global tax authorities putting pressure on these financial centers to be more transparent, the landscape for offshore activities may change in the future.