30 Nov 2023
10 min read

What Is the Sales Tax in North Carolina?

North Carolina has a unique geographic location between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains. With its rich history, beautiful landscapes, and bustling cities, it's no wonder that many people call this state home. However, to maintain the beauty and infrastructure of the state, residents must pay sales tax in North Carolina. One of these […]
sales tax in nc
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North Carolina has a unique geographic location between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains. With its rich history, beautiful landscapes, and bustling cities, it's no wonder that many people call this state home. However, to maintain the beauty and infrastructure of the state, residents must pay sales tax in North Carolina.

One of these taxes is the sales tax, which applies to most purchases made within the state. In this document, we will explore what exactly the sales tax in North Carolina is, how it compares to other states, and why it's an important factor for residents and visitors alike to understand. Let's dive in!

History of the Sales Tax in NC

The journey of the sales tax in North Carolina began in the midst of the Great Depression in 1933 as a temporary measure to relieve the state's monetary distress. Initially set at 3%, this tax was introduced to supplement dwindling revenues and stabilize the state's economy. The sales tax, designed to apply to retail sales of tangible personal property and certain services, was met with mixed reactions by the populous.

However, its effectiveness in maintaining public services during national economic hardship led to its permanent implementation. Over the years, the rate has seen several changes, reflecting the state's evolving economic and fiscal needs. For instance, the tax was temporarily raised to 4% in 2001 to fill a budget shortfall, then decreased to the original 3% in 2006.

As of 2022, the sales tax in North Carolina is 4.75%, with counties permitted to levy local sales taxes of up to 2.75%. The combined tax rate ranges from 4.75% to 7.5%, depending on the county. This tax system, while complex, provides a critical revenue stream for public services, infrastructure development, and educational funding across North Carolina.

Factors That Impact the Sales Tax in NC

Factors that impact the sales tax in NC

The sales tax rate in North Carolina is not a fixed amount and can vary widely depending on several factors. Some of these factors include:

County and City Taxes

County and city taxes are significant determinants of the overall sales tax in North Carolina. While the state-imposed sales tax is uniform across all counties, the counties and cities can impose additional local sales taxes. These local levies can greatly augment the total sales tax paid by consumers.

For example, Mecklenburg County, home to the city of Charlotte, charges an additional 2.75% county sales tax on top of the state sales tax of 4.75%, bringing the total sales tax to 7.5%. On the other hand, Watauga County, known for its tourist-friendly towns like Boone and Blowing Rock, has a total sales tax rate of 6.75%, comprising of state sales tax (4.75%) and county sales tax (2%). These additional county and city taxes are often used to fund local amenities and services such as transportation, education, and infrastructure.

Hence, understanding the variation in local tax rates is crucial for residents, businesses, and visitors to grasp the total cost of their purchases and their role in supporting community development.

Type of Purchase

The type of purchase made can also influence the sales tax rate in North Carolina. For instance, groceries and prescription drugs are exempt from state sales tax, although counties may still levy local taxes. Other items that are subject to a reduced sales tax rate include unprepared food (3%), piped natural gas (5%), and some types of machinery (1%).

However, certain items like lodging and prepared food are subject to a higher sales tax rate. Lodging is taxed at 6.75%, while prepared food, including restaurant meals, carry-out food, and catered events, is taxed at 8%. Understanding these variations in the sales tax rates can help consumers plan their purchases and budget accordingly.

Economic Nexus

Economic nexus refers to the level of economic activity in a state that requires businesses to register for sales tax collection and remittance purposes. In North Carolina, businesses must collect and remit sales tax if they meet certain thresholds, such as annual gross receipts of $100,000 or more from in-state sales or 200 or more transactions within the state.

The economic nexus rule is crucial for businesses operating in North Carolina, as failure to comply can result in fines and penalties. It's also essential for consumers to be aware of this rule, as it may impact their purchases from online retailers operating outside the state but meeting the economic nexus requirements.

Use Tax

The sales tax rate in North Carolina also applies to goods or services purchased outside of the state but used within its borders. This is known as use tax and serves as a way for the state to collect taxes on items not subject to sales tax at purchase.

For example, if a resident purchases an item from a retailer in a state with no sales tax and brings it back to North Carolina for use, they must pay the use tax on that item. Similarly, if an out-of-state business sells goods or services to a resident of North Carolina, they must collect and remit sales tax on those transactions.

Sales Tax Holidays

Sales tax holidays are a temporary break from paying sales tax on certain items, usually held during specific times of the year. These holidays typically occur in North Carolina in August and November, often including back-to-school supplies, energy-efficient appliances, and emergency preparedness items. These events can provide significant savings for consumers as they prepare for the upcoming school year or severe weather season.

For instance, a family with three children can save up to $40 on back-to-school supplies during the state's tax-free weekend, providing much-needed relief for families on a budget. Additionally, sales tax holidays can boost local economies by promoting consumer spending and supporting businesses that offer discounted items. However, some critics argue that these events primarily benefit large retailers and may not provide substantial long-term economic benefits. As such, the impact of sales tax holidays on the overall economy remains debated among policymakers and economists.

Legislative Changes

Legislative changes can have a significant impact on the sales tax rate in North Carolina. As discussed earlier, the state's sales tax rate has changed multiple times over the years due to budget shortfalls or other economic factors. Legislative action typically initiates these changes and can affect state and local taxes.

For instance, in 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that lowered the combined tax rate from 6.75% to 6.5%. These changes can directly impact consumer spending and business operations, making it crucial for residents to stay informed about potential legislative changes that may affect taxes.

Exceptions and Exemptions

In addition to groceries and prescription drugs mentioned earlier, other items may be exempt from sales tax in North Carolina. These exemptions include the following:

Railroads and Other Common Carriers

North Carolina's sales tax law exempts specific purchases, including railroads and other common carriers. This provision can be traced back to the inception of the state's sales tax in the 1930s when the industrial economy heavily relied on railroads to transport goods and raw materials. The rationale behind this exemption was to avoid burdening the transportation sector, which is pivotal to the state's economic vitality, with additional costs that could potentially stifle commerce.

Today, this exemption has broadened to include not just rail carriers but also motor freight carriers, air freight carriers, and certain waterborne freight carriers. For example, if a trucking company based in North Carolina purchases a new fleet of trucks for interstate transport of goods, those vehicles would typically be exempt from sales tax under the "common carrier" exemption. Understanding these exceptions can help businesses in these industries accurately calculate their tax liabilities and avoid overpayment. It also underscores the role of tax policy in incentivizing certain economic activities.

Agricultural Products and Supplies

Agriculture is a critical sector of North Carolina's economy, with over $74 billion in annual economic impact and employing nearly one in five state residents. As such, the state offers several sales tax exemptions to promote the growth of this industry. These exemptions apply to farming equipment, animal feed, seeds, fertilizers, and other items used for agricultural purposes.

The rationale behind these exemptions is to reduce the cost of starting and maintaining a farm, thus encouraging farmers to invest in their operations. Without these incentives, small farms may struggle to compete with larger industrial farming operations that can afford higher upfront costs. Additionally, these exemptions help keep food prices affordable for consumers by reducing production costs for farmers.

Machinery and Equipment Used in Manufacturing

Like the agricultural exemptions, North Carolina also offers tax breaks for manufacturing businesses. These exemptions apply to machinery, equipment, and other supplies used in the production process. This provision provides financial relief for manufacturers and promotes job creation and economic growth within the state.

For example, if a company decides to relocate its manufacturing plant to North Carolina, they may be enticed by the tax exemptions offered on machinery and equipment. These incentives can help offset the costs of setting up a new production facility, making the state more desirable for businesses looking to expand or relocate. Understanding these exemptions is crucial for policymakers and economic development officials in attracting and retaining businesses within the state.

Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations are vital in providing essential services to communities and individuals in need. As such, North Carolina offers tax exemptions to these organizations to support their operations and encourage charitable giving. These exemptions apply to sales tax on goods and services purchased by nonprofits for qualifying purposes, such as providing education, healthcare, or social services.

These exemptions can help reduce the financial burden on nonprofits and allow them to allocate more resources toward their mission. Additionally, it encourages individuals and businesses to donate to these organizations without worrying about the tax implications of their contributions. As a result, these exemptions help support the important work of nonprofit organizations in North Carolina.

Educational Institutions

Like nonprofit organizations, educational institutions also receive tax exemptions to support their operations and promote affordable student education. These exemptions apply to public and private schools, including colleges and universities.

These tax breaks can help reduce the cost of tuition for students, making education more accessible for residents of North Carolina. It also allows educational institutions to invest resources and facilities to enhance the learning experience. These exemptions are crucial in promoting education and workforce development within the state, leading to a more skilled and competitive workforce.

Government Agencies

In the realm of governmental operations, the principle of tax exemption plays a vital role in supporting the delivery of public services. Local, state, and federal government agencies in North Carolina are typically exempt from paying sales tax revenue on goods and services necessary for their operations. The rationale behind this exemption is to prevent the circular flow of funds, whereby government agencies would be required to pay tax to the entity that funds them.

The exemption facilitates smoother governmental operations by eliminating this financial redundancy. For instance, when a local fire North Carolina department purchases a new fire truck, the vehicle cost would not be subject to sales tax. This not only makes the purchase more affordable for the local government but also ensures that the funds can be more effectively allocated to other areas of public safety. This exemption underscores the importance of tax policy in shaping the efficiency and effectiveness of public service delivery.

Benefits of Paying Sales Tax in North Carolina

While tax exemptions may seem like a way to avoid paying sales tax, they also benefit individuals and businesses. Here are some common benefits of paying sales tax in North Carolina:

Supports The States Economy

Paying correct sales tax in North Carolina significantly contributes to the vitality and robustness of the state's economy. The revenue generated from the correct sales tax rate becomes an indispensable financial resource the state employs for various crucial services. This includes infrastructural development, supporting education and healthcare systems, maintaining public safety, and bolstering other significant public services that improve residents' quality of life.

A concrete example would be the state's Highway Trust Fund, a crucial initiative to enhance North Carolina's transportation infrastructure, partially funded by sales tax revenues. Every time residents or businesses make taxable purchases, they contribute to projects like these, indirectly investing in the state's growth and future. Therefore, while paying sales tax may seem like a financial obligation, its impact extends far beyond that, facilitating societal advancement and economic prosperity.

Equal and Fair Taxation

Sales tax is a consumption-based tax, meaning it falls on the end-user or consumer of a product or service. This makes local sales tax one of the most equitable forms of taxation, as individuals are only taxed based on their consumption habits. Those who can afford to spend more pay more in the state sales tax rate, making it a fair form of taxation.

Additionally, sales tax in North Carolina is applied uniformly across the state, regardless of income or social status. This means everyone pays the same percentage when making a taxable purchase, ensuring equal treatment under the law. This fair distribution of tax burden helps promote social justice and equality within the state's tax system.

Promotes Local Businesses

Collecting sales tax is mandatory for businesses operating in North Carolina. This includes small and large businesses, creating a level playing field for all enterprises. It also encourages residents to support local businesses rather than purchasing goods or services from out-of-state companies that may not collect sales tax, per North Carolina law.

By supporting local businesses, individuals can help create jobs, stimulate economic growth within their communities, and increase the state's overall tax revenue. This ultimately leads to a healthier and more resilient local economy that benefits everyone in the long run.

Encourages Responsible Spending

Sales tax can also act as a deterrent for excessive or unnecessary spending, promoting responsible consumption habits among residents of North Carolina. Since consumers are directly impacted by sales tax on their purchases, they may think twice before purchasing. This can help individuals prioritize their spending and make more informed financial decisions.

Furthermore, the revenue generated from sales tax also goes towards funding programs that promote responsible spending habits, such as financial literacy education for young adults. This creates a cycle of responsible consumption that benefits both individuals and the state's overall economy.


Sales tax in North Carolina plays a pivotal role in the state's economic structure. While it may sometimes seem like an extra burden on consumers and businesses, the benefits derived from these collections far outweigh the cost. From supporting vital public services to promoting fairness in taxation, the implications of sales tax are extensive and far-reaching.

Additionally, sales tax also fosters responsible spending habits among residents and supports local businesses, thereby contributing to the overall health and resilience of the state's economy. While exemptions are provided to certain entities, such as educational institutions and government agencies, to facilitate their operations, the importance of sales tax in the efficient functioning of the state cannot be overstated. Therefore, paying sales tax is not just a civic obligation but a contribution towards the growth and prosperity of North Carolina.

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