Mainland vs. Free Zone in the UAE – Understanding the Difference while forming Company in Dubai

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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as a global business hub, attracting entrepreneurs and investors from around the world. One of the key decisions that business owners must make when setting up a company in the UAE is choosing between a Mainland and a Free Zone setup. Each option comes with its unique set of advantages, regulations, and implications for business operations. In this blog, we will explore the primary differences between company formation in Mainland and Free Zone in the UAE.

Mainland Company Formation


A Mainland company is an onshore entity licensed by the Department of Economic Development (DED) of the respective emirate. Mainland companies are free to conduct business across the UAE and internationally, without any restrictions on trade within the local market.

Key Features

  1. Local Sponsorship: Traditionally, mainland companies required a local Emirati sponsor who would hold 51% of the shares. However, recent reforms allow 100% foreign ownership in many business activities.
  2. Office Space Requirement: Mainland companies must have a physical office space within the UAE. Virtual offices are not permitted.
  3. Trade Freedom: Mainland companies can trade directly with the local market and take on government projects, offering greater flexibility and growth potential.
  4. Scope of Activities: Mainland companies have a broader scope of permissible business activities compared to Free Zone entities.
  5. Regulatory Compliance: These companies must adhere to the UAE Commercial Companies Law (CCL) and other local regulations.


  • Ability to trade and do business anywhere in the UAE.
  • Eligibility to bid for government contracts and projects.
  • Wider range of business activities allowed.
  • Enhanced business credibility due to DED licensing.


  • Higher setup and operating costs due to office space requirements.
  • More stringent regulatory compliance.
  • Potential need for a local sponsor for certain activities.

Free Zone Company Formation


Free Zones are designated areas within the UAE that offer favorable conditions for business setup, particularly for foreign investors. Each Free Zone is governed by its own regulatory authority and offers distinct incentives to attract businesses.

Key Features

  1. 100% Foreign Ownership: Free Zone companies can be fully owned by foreign investors, with no need for a local sponsor.
  2. Tax Exemptions: Free Zone entities often enjoy tax exemptions, including corporate tax, import/export tax, and personal income tax.
  3. Customs Privileges: Businesses in Free Zones benefit from simplified customs procedures and duty-free import of goods.
  4. Office Flexibility: Free Zones offer various office solutions, including virtual offices, flexi-desks, and physical office spaces.
  5. Restricted Trade: Free Zone companies are limited to conducting business within the Free Zone or internationally. To trade within the UAE market, they must appoint a local distributor.


  • Complete foreign ownership and control.
  • Significant tax benefits and exemptions.
  • Streamlined setup process with lower initial costs.
  • Access to world-class infrastructure and facilities.


  • Restricted ability to trade within the local UAE market.
  • Inability to directly bid for government contracts.
  • Limited range of permissible business activities in some Free Zones.
  • Dependency on local distributors for market access.

Choosing Between Mainland and Free Zone

The choice between Mainland and Free Zone company formation depends on various factors, including business objectives, target market, budget, and long-term growth plans.

Mainland: Ideal for Businesses That

  • Plan to operate extensively within the UAE market.
  • Need to engage directly with local customers and government entities.
  • Require a broader range of business activities.

Free Zone: Ideal for Businesses That

  • Focus primarily on international trade and export.
  • Seek to benefit from tax exemptions and incentives.
  • Prefer a cost-effective and flexible setup.


Both Mainland and Free Zone company formations offer unique advantages and are tailored to meet different business needs. Understanding the differences and aligning them with your business strategy is crucial for making an informed decision. Whether you choose the comprehensive reach of a Mainland company or the tax-friendly environment of a Free Zone entity, the UAE provides a thriving ecosystem for business growth and success.

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