Mainland vs. Freezone Businesses in the UAE: A Comprehensive Comparison

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April 16, 2024


In the UAE, entrepreneurs have the choice between mainland and freezone business setups. Mainland businesses operate across the UAE, require local ownership, and have broader market access. Freezone businesses offer 100% foreign ownership, tax exemptions, and focus on export-oriented activities. Factors to consider include ownership, market access, taxes, and expansion plans.


When it comes to establishing a business in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), entrepreneurs have the option to choose between a mainland or freezone business setup. Both options come with their own unique features and considerations, making it essential to understand the differences between the two. In this blog post, we will provide a comprehensive comparison of mainland and freezone businesses in the UAE, exploring their key characteristics, benefits, and factors to consider.

Mainland Business:

A mainland business operates within the jurisdiction of the UAE mainland. It offers the freedom to conduct business activities across the UAE and engage in various sectors and industries. However, a mainland business requires a UAE national or a UAE company to hold at least 51% of the shares, promoting local participation and supporting economic growth and development. Mainland businesses have the advantage of being able to operate across the UAE without restrictions, trade with both mainland and freezone companies, bid for government contracts, and access the local market more easily.

Freezone Business:

A freezone business operates within designated freezones in the UAE. Freezones are established to attract foreign investment and are focused on specific industries. Freezone businesses enjoy the advantage of 100% foreign ownership, allowing international investors to have complete control over their businesses. However, freezone businesses are usually limited to operating within the specific freezone area or engaging in activities related to the industry of the freezone. They can trade with mainland and international companies, but their primary focus is often export-oriented activities and international trade.

Company Setup Process:

Setting up a mainland business involves obtaining a commercial license from the Department of Economic Development (DED). This process requires a local sponsor, who may hold a nominal shareholding. The setup process involves various approvals and documentation. On the other hand, establishing a freezone business involves selecting the appropriate freezone, submitting an application, and obtaining the necessary licenses. The setup process for a freezone business is streamlined and often quicker than that of a mainland business. Freezone authorities provide assistance in documentation and administrative procedures.

Taxation and Customs:

Mainland businesses are subject to UAE corporate tax, which is currently set at 0% for most sectors. However, specific industries such as oil and gas, banking, and telecommunications may be subject to specific taxes. Mainland businesses are also subject to customs duties for importing and exporting goods. In contrast, freezone businesses enjoy tax exemptions at the federal and local levels. They are exempt from corporate and personal income taxes for a specific period, typically ranging from 15 to 50 years. Additionally, freezones offer customs benefits such as duty-free import and export of goods within the freezone.

Employment and Visa Policies:

Mainland businesses have the flexibility to hire employees from both local and international talent pools. They can sponsor employees for UAE employment visas, and the number of visas depends on factors such as office size and business activity. Freezone businesses, on the other hand, can only hire employees through the freezone authority. The authority acts as the sponsor for visas and work permits, and employees are tied to the specific freezone. However, individuals can work for multiple companies within the same freezone.

Business Flexibility and Expansion:

Mainland businesses have more flexibility in terms of expansion and branching out into different Emirates or establishing multiple branches. They can have an unlimited number of visas, subject to office size and other requirements. Freezone businesses, on the other hand, are generally limited to operating within the specific freezone and expanding within the same freezone or to other freezones. Expanding into the mainland requires setting up a separate mainland company or partnering with a local agent.

Local Market Access:

Mainland businesses have direct access to the local UAE market, including government contracts and projects. They can operate retail stores and provide services to the local population without restrictions. Freezone businesses, however, have limited access to the local UAE market. They primarily focus on international trade, export-oriented activities, and servicing clients outside the UAE. To access the local market, they need to work with local distributors or set up a mainland company.


In conclusion, when deciding between a mainland or freezone business setup in the UAE, it is crucial to consider factors such as ownership structure, business activities, tax implications, market access, and expansion plans. Mainland businesses offer more flexibility, broader market access, and the ability to operate across the UAE. On the other hand, freezone businesses provide advantages such as 100% foreign ownership, tax exemptions, streamlined setup processes, and industry-specific support. By understanding the differences between mainland and freezone businesses, entrepreneurs can choose the option that aligns best with their business goals and maximizes their chances of success in the dynamic UAE market.

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