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Choosing the Right Business Setup in the UAE: Free Zone, Mainland, or Freelance Permits
February 28, 2024

Entrepreneurs considering setting up businesses in the UAE have three main options: Free Zone, Mainland, or Freelance Permits. Each offers unique advantages and considerations tailored to business needs and growth strategies.

Let’s delve into a detailed comparison of these three setups to help you make an informed decision for your business venture in the UAE.

A. Free Zone Setup:

Free Zones are designated areas within the UAE that offer special incentives and a business-friendly environment for foreign investors and entrepreneurs.

Benefits of setting up in a Free Zone:

  1. 100% Foreign Ownership:

    One of the primary advantages of Free Zone setups is that foreign investors can retain full ownership of their businesses without needing a local UAE partner.

  2. Business License:

    You can obtain licenses and permits with relative ease and simpler processes compared to mainland setups.

  3. Financial Incentives:

    Free Zones often provide attractive financial incentives, including a 0% income tax rate, zero customs duties on imports and exports, and the freedom to repatriate 100% of business profits and capital. Depending on your activities but most Free Zone companies also benefit from lower rates on Corporation Tax, based on revenue threshold and other factors.

  4. Sector-Specific

    : Many Free Zones in the UAE are tailored to specific sectors, offering businesses access to a concentrated pool of industry expertise and resources.

  5. Quick Formation

    : Free Zones offer faster registration (1-4 weeks) compared to the Mainland (6-8 weeks), attracting companies entering the UAE market.

  6. Excellent Infrastructure

    : Free Zones offer exceptional support to businesses by providing advanced infrastructure and affordable setup options. They offer customised licensing solutions, modern office spaces, warehouses and extensive support services that cater to the diverse needs of new businesses.


  • Restricted Trade with the Mainland: Free Zone companies are primarily focused on import/export and international business. While solutions exist to access the mainland market, there are certain restrictions.
  • Industry Specialisation: The choice of Free Zone depends on your business activities, as each caters to specific sectors.
  • Visa Restrictions: Free Zone companies typically have a quota of visas they can allocate to employees and there are often residency restrictions.

So how Does it Work?

  • Choose Your Free Zone: Research and select the Free Zone that best matches your industry, business requirements, and location preferences.
  • Select Business Activity: Choose from the allowed activities within the Free Zone.
  • Company Registration: Submit application documents, register your company name, and obtain the necessary licenses.
  • Office Setup: Lease or purchase office space within the Free Zone (various options are available).
  • Visa Applications: Apply for any necessary visas for yourself and your employees.
  • Start Operating: Begin your business operations, taking advantage of the Free Zone’s incentives and support.

B. Mainland Setup:

A mainland business setup in the UAE refers to establishing a company registered with the Department of Economic Development (DED) of the chosen emirate. This means your business operates under the standard legal and economic framework of the UAE, outside of any designated Free Zones.

Benefits of a Mainland:

  1. Location Flexibility and Zero Trade Restrictions

    : Mainland companies can freely engage with other companies and consumers throughout the UAE, unlike those in Free Zones with trade restrictions.

  2. Broad Working Scope

    : Mainland companies enjoy a wider range of permitted business activities compared to some Free Zones. They can easily expand and diversify by registering new activities with the Department of Economic Development (DED).

  3. Access to Lucrative Government Contracts

    : Mainland companies are well-positioned to capitalise on government tenders and projects, offering significant opportunities for growth and expansion.

  4. 100% Ownership Control

    : Recent legislative changes have enabled 100% foreign ownership of mainland companies in many business sectors, eliminating the need for local partners in most cases.


  • Local Sponsor/Service Agent: Historically, mainland companies often required a local UAE national sponsor holding 51% ownership. However, alternative options like service agents (who don’t hold equity) are now available for numerous business activities.
  • Higher Costs: Setup and ongoing expenses may be slightly higher on the mainland compared to some Free Zones, due to additional fees and potential local sponsorship requirements.
  • Longer Setup Process: The process of forming a mainland company can be more time-consuming than setting up in a Free Zone.

How Does it Work?

  • Choose a Business Activity: Determine the specific activities your business will engage in.
  • Select a Legal Form: Decide on the appropriate legal structure (e.g., Limited Liability Company (LLC), branch office).
  • Partner/Service Agent: Identify a suitable local sponsor or service agent if required for your chosen business activity.
  • Trade Name Registration: Reserve your desired business name.
  • Obtain Initial Approvals: Secure preliminary approvals from the DED and other relevant authorities.
  • Finalize Lease Agreement: Secure office space in a mainland location within the UAE.
  • Complete Licensing: Obtain your commercial license and any additional required permits.
  • Visa Applications: Apply for the necessary visas for yourself and any employees.
  • Open a Bank Account: Set up a corporate bank account for your mainland company.

C. Freelance Permits:

Freelance permits offer a flexible and cost-effective way for individuals with specific skills and qualifications to establish themselves as independent professionals in the UAE.

Who can benefit from a Freelance Permit?

Unlike Free Zones and Mainland setups, this option caters to individuals pursuing sole proprietorship rather than forming a company.

  • Independent professionals: Consultants, writers, translators, artists, photographers.
  • Remote workers: Individuals working remotely for companies outside the UAE.
  • Individuals with specialized skills: Those offering services not readily available in the UAE market.

Benefits of a Freelance Permit:

  1. Flexibility:

    Freelancers enjoy freedom and control over their work arrangements and schedules.

  2. Ease of Setup

    : Obtaining a freelance permit involves fewer complexities compared to setting up a company in Free Zones or on the Mainland.

  3. Cost-Effectiveness

    : Freelance permits are generally the most affordable option for individuals starting small businesses on a budget.

  4. Individual Sponsorship

    : Freelancers may be eligible to sponsor their dependents for visas, subject to specific income and criteria.

How to Obtain a Freelance Permit:

  • Choose a Relevant Activity: Confirm your profession is permitted under freelance regulations.
  • Meet Eligibility Requirements: Qualify based on experience, qualifications, and other specific criteria.
  • Obtain Local Sponsor: Secure a UAE national or company as your local sponsor, who may charge sponsorship fees.
  • Apply for Permit: Submit your application and required documents to the relevant authorities.
  • Once Approved: Obtain your freelance permit and visas for yourself and any dependents (if applicable).

In a nutshell:

Comparison of the three options:

  1. Ownership: Free Zones offer 100% foreign ownership, while recent changes in mainland regulations also allow for full ownership in some sectors. Freelancers operate as individuals and have full control over their businesses.
  2. Trade Restrictions: Free Zone businesses are restricted from trading directly with the UAE mainland, however there are solutions to this barrier click here for more info,
    whereas mainland companies have unrestricted access to local markets. Freelancers operate within specific sectors and may have limitations on certain types of activities.
  3. Cost: Free Zone setups generally have much lower initial costs but offer tax incentives and financial benefits. Mainland setups provide flexibility and access to a broader market but may require local sponsorship. Freelance permits are often the most cost-effective option for individuals starting small businesses.

In conclusion, the choice between Free Zone, Mainland, or Freelance Permits depends on various factors such as ownership preferences, business activities, market access, and budget constraints. Entrepreneurs should carefully assess their requirements and objectives before deciding on the most suitable setup for their ventures in the dynamic business landscape of the UAE.

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Information provided on the site is merely guidance that may change in line with UAE law and regulations. Users must not consider this to be financial advice or their sole resource when making any financial decision. Theta7 is a trading name for THETA 7 Accounting & Bookkeeping L.L.C, an authorised & licensed accounting firm under the Ministry of Economy and the Federal Tax Authority of the United Arab Emirates.
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