Selling alcohol online: What licences do you need and what do they cost?

Here you can find all you need to know about the licences you'll need to sell alcohol online safely and legally in the UK.

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Robyn Summers-Emler Grow Online Editor

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To say the hospitality industry has been through a prolonged period of turmoil would be an understatement. From the COVID-19 pandemic, to the challenges posed by Brexit, and now an inevitable recession caused by rising energy bills and a cost of living crisis, it's definitely been a tough time, causing many retailers to move operations online only.

All of this upheaval has left hospitality and retail businesses all over the UK trying to find creative ways to maintain sales and continuity, which according to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA)*, has caused the average price of a pint to soar to £5.99, where in 2020 it was worth £5.19.

Businesses with licensed premises are now considering trying a two-pronged approach of selling alcohol online as well as in-store. Whilst other premises that may be forced to close their doors as a result of astronomically rising energy bills are considering a move to selling alcohol online instead.

So are you running a microbrewery looking to move those sales online? Or perhaps your gin distillery wants to start delivering its boozy botanics via an online ordering system.

Whatever your measure, here we'll be serving up licence advice by the bottle and have you in the know when it comes to the laws surrounding alcohol ecommerce, as well as the alcohol license costs you need to consider.

Much like selling from physical premises, selling alcohol online does require legal permission in the form of licences – it’s a highly regulated product, after all. Read on to find out which licences you'll be needing to conduct your business lawfully.

All legal and regulatory information on this page was updated February 2023. For further regulatory information, visit the gov.uk website.

*Here, you can find more information on the BBPA 

Everything you need to create a professional website for selling alcohol

There's plenty of planning you'll need to do to make sure you get the appropriate licenses for selling alcohol online. Thankfully, one area which needn't cause undue stress is creating a website to promote your business. Thanks to modern templates like the one below, you can create one of your own in under an hour.

Shopify website template for selling drinks or food online

At Startups.co.uk, we test and rate ecommerce platforms, and we've identified Shopify as one of the best you can choose for creating an online store for selling alcohol. Shopify even has custom website templates designed specifically for food and drinks stores – you simply drop your own company information, wording and preferred imagery into your chosen template. Better still, it's completely free to try for yourself.

The licences needed to sell alcohol online

In order to legally retail alcohol on the web, you’ll need a personal licence and a premises licence.

A personal licence grants you permission to manage and sell alcohol, while a premises licence names your business premises as a place where the dispatch of alcohol can legally take place.

NB: you will need both in order to proceed with your business.

Getting a personal licence

Anyone with a Personal Licences is legally allowed to sell alcohol on behalf of any business (including online) as long as it has a premises licence (this does not apply to some members' clubs or community premises – they must apply for a club premises certificate).

The personal licence holder must authorise anyone in the business without the license in order for them to be able to sell alcohol, online or otherwise.

Getting a personal licence is a two-step process:

  1. Training
  2. Applying for and obtaining the licence

Step 1: To get a personal licence, you’ll need to undertake a short training course and gain a licensing qualification, such as the Award for Personal Licence Holders.

Step 2: Once you’ve done this, you can apply for a personal licence through the licensing department of your local authority/council using this form (if you’re under 18 or have a relevant criminal conviction you won't be eligible for a personal licence).

For more information regarding obtaining a personal licence to sell alcohol, take a look at the gov.uk page.

Getting a premises licence

Next, you’ll need to apply for a premises licence from your local authority/council, in compliance with The Licensing Act 2003. A premises licence can be granted to any fixed commercial property where the handling and dispatch of alcohol is taking place – including warehouses, storage facilities, shop floors and more.

All businesses selling alcohol (except some members clubs and community premises) must have an appointed Designated Premises Supervisor (DPS) that has been appointed for the relevant premises – this include businesses selling alcohol online. The person in this role must not only be nominated for it by the premises license holder, but must also hold a personal licence.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to run an online alcohol business from your house as local authorities don’t tend to grant licences to domestic dwellings. An outbuilding on your land, however, could be given a licence – as long as it has the relevant planning permission to operate as a commercial premises.

Along with your application form, you’ll need to submit a floorplan of your premises which highlights the areas where alcohol will be kept and handled.

As part of your application, you’ll need to describe how your business will comply with the four licensing objectives. These are:

  1. Prevention of crime and disorder
  2. Prevention of public nuisance
  3. Protection of children from harm
  4. Public safety

Objectives one, two and four are more relevant to businesses whose customers visit them on-premises, such as pubs, bars and shops, but you can still implement rules such as responsible business hours and a limit on how much any one customer can buy at a time – doing your bit to minimise any potentially harmful drunkenness.

When it comes to point three, though, you’ll need to be extra vigilant as it’ll fall under your responsibility to ensure you don’t sell alcohol to underage customers (more on that below).

Once you have your premises licence, as the personal licence holder you’ll need to take up the helm of the Designated Premises Supervisor; responsible for making sure all alcohol is handled, held and sold lawfully. You’ll be the first point of contact for authorities such as the police.

As your business grows, you may need other members of staff to also get a personal licence and share this responsibility.

Buying alcohol from wholesalers

As you'll be selling alcohol to consumers online, it is inevitable you will be purchasing products from wholesalers to meet demand. You need to ensure that every wholesaler you buy alcohol from has been approved by HMRC under the Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme (AWRS). You can check this by inputting the wholesaler's Unique Registration Number (URN) against the HMRC online database.

Always check the legitimacy of any wholesaler. Failure to do so could result in criminal prosecution and your alcohol stock being seized. This refers to online businesses also. 

Alcohol licence costs and fees

Be wary of the alcohol license costs you’ll need to consider. Application fees, which for your Premise license will be based on the rateable value of your business premises, range from between £100 to £1,905. 

A Personal Licence application costs £37, plus a basic criminal background check, which costs £25.

It’s also worth making sure you’re prepared for annual licensing fees, which your authority will charge each year so you can keep your licences.

Complying with UK law

It’s not enough to just hold the correct licences – you must also make sure your business is constantly trading in compliance with the law surrounding selling alcohol online. The key piece of legislation you’ll need to keep an eye on is ensuring you don’t sell to under-18s.

At the very least, you’ll need to have an over-18 declaration on your website, and ask for the customer to verify their age at the point of purchase. You will also be required to have your delivery drivers ask for ID when they deliver the package.

Check with your local authority to find out the specifics of what they’ll require from you.

You'll also need to fully adhere to The Licencing Act 2003, which applies to England and Wales; and differs slightly for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Which ecommerce platforms let you sell alcohol online?

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Square Online

Squarespace

Shopify

BigCommerce

BEST FOR

Best value – start selling for free

BEST FOR

Best for ease of use and great design

BEST FOR

Best range of apps and extensions

BEST FOR

Best sales features

Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.3
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4.6
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.6
Overall Score
Based on our in-depth research and user testing
4.2
Pricing

£0-£64 per month

Pricing

£17-£35 per month, billed annually

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Pricing

£19 – £259 per month, billed annually

£1/month for 3 months

Pricing

$29-$299 (around £23-£240) per month

Try Square Try Squarespace Try Shopify Visit site

Now you've got the legalities out of the way, it's time to build an online store for your booze.

We’d recommend using an ecommerce platform. It’s an easy way to create a professional looking and fully-functional online shop, even if you don’t have any coding knowledge.

But which ecommerce platforms allow you to sell alcohol?

  • Square Online allows you to open a completely free online shop and sell alcohol online through its platform, as long as it's permitted by the law in your area. It offers several online alcohol ordering services for hospitality businesses, including curbside pickup options. You can take a look at the full support page for selling alcohol online with Square Online for more information.
  • With a Squarespace store, the payment provider you use will dictate what kinds of products are prohibited. For example, Stripe specifically prohibits alcohol sales, but PayPal and ApplePay don’t
  • Alcohol does fall under prohibited items on Shopify Payments, but you can sell it on the Shopify platform if you use a different payment provider. This means you would also avoid paying Shopify any additional credit card processing fees
  • BigCommerce allows alcohol sales and even has an attractive range of wine store templates you can use

For more information, check out our full breakdown of the best ecommerce platforms for small businesses here.

Selling alcohol online, a case study:

elvira and oleg founders of independent wine showing them winning the Decanter Retailer Awards for Best Small online wine retailer

To get properly clued-up on what it's like to sell alcohol online, we caught up with Elvira Dmitrieva, the founder of family-owned online wine shop Independent Wine: a business specialising in the sale of award-winning premium Italian wines. In the later months of 2022, we discussed the biggest challenges when selling alcohol online, as well how to stay fully compliant while doing so.

Here's what Dmitrieva had to say when we asked the following:

What are the biggest challenges to selling alcohol online?

“The biggest challenge to selling alcohol online is ensuring your products have good ratings on Google. For example, we rank on the first page of Google for keywords like ‘Barolo wine, Barbaresco wine, Primitivo, Pinot Nero, Sagrantino', and this helps us stay one step ahead of our competitors because consumers visit our site first.

“But if your products are not well received, and struggle to get good reviews, you might find yourself failing to stand out in an already competitive market.”

How do you ensure your customers are legally allowed to buy alcohol?

“We deliver our products using DHL Express and they have their own procedures to ensure that only customers over 18 can receive parcels containing our wine (and any other alcohol). If ever in doubt DHL couriers may ask for the client's ID.

“The couriers are also not allowed to leave the parcel unattended in places where the children or individuals under the age of 18 can see them and open them (for example on the doorstep).

“Since we take online payments, verification checks on the age of our customers are done by their card issuers or by PayPal. This ensures our products are not purchased by anyone underage.”

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs looking to expand their business by selling alcohol online?

“Be aware that we are living in tough times right now. 2022 has been a difficult year not only for us, but for many other wine merchants too. Even though our online customers (visitors) have increased by 54% in comparison with 2021, the fact is people are being affected by the cost of living crisis, and as such are buying less wine than they did in 2021.

“This is a big challenge, and one you need to be prepared to face as you enter the ecommerce market, particularly if you are planning to sell premium alcohol.”

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Written by:
Ross has been writing for Startups since 2021, specialising in telephone systems, digital marketing, payroll, and sustainable business. He also runs the successful entrepreneur section of the website. Having graduated with a Masters in Journalism, Ross went on to write for Condé Nast Traveller and the NME, before moving in to the world of business journalism. Ross has been involved in startups from a young age, and has a keen eye for exciting, innovative new businesses. Follow him on his Twitter - @startupsross for helpful business tips.
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