Types of Unearned Revenue


Unearned revenue, also known as deferred revenue, is a crucial concept in accounting. It refers to the income received by a business before it has been earned. This means that the revenue has been collected but the company has not yet delivered the product or provided the service associated with it. Unearned revenue can arise in various industries and can take different forms. In this article, we will delve into the different types of unearned revenue, exploring their characteristics, examples, and implications for businesses.

1. Advance Payments

One common type of unearned revenue is advance payments. It occurs when a customer pays for a product or service before it has been provided. For instance, a customer who pays a monthly fee for a subscription service pays in advance for the upcoming month. The business must record this payment as unearned revenue until the next billing period, when the revenue is recognized as earned.

2. Retainers

Retainers are another form of unearned revenue. They are common in service-based industries, such as law firms or marketing agencies. A retainer is a fee paid upfront by a client to secure the services of the business for a specified period. The business recognizes the retainer as unearned revenue until the services are rendered, at which point it becomes earned revenue.

3. Gift Cards and Vouchers

Businesses often sell gift cards or vouchers that can be redeemed for goods or services at a later date. When a customer purchases a gift card or voucher, the revenue generated is considered unearned until the customer uses it. Only when the gift card or voucher is redeemed does the revenue become earned.

4. Prepaid Subscriptions

Prepaid subscriptions are a type of unearned revenue commonly found in media and entertainment industries. When a customer pays in advance for a subscription that spans several months or years, the business must recognize the payment as unearned revenue and gradually recognize it as earned over the subscription duration.

5. Advertising Fees

Advertising fees can also fall under unearned revenue. Businesses often receive payment from advertisers for future ad placements. Until the ad space or airtime is provided as per the contract, the payment is considered unearned revenue. Once the advertisement is published or aired, the unearned revenue becomes earned.

6. Software Sales and Licensing

Software companies often sell licenses for their products. These licenses are often sold on a one-time payment basis or through subscription models. When a customer pays for a license upfront or subscribes to a software service, the revenue generated is initially recognized as unearned. As the software is delivered or the subscription period progresses, the company recognizes the revenue as earned over time.

7. Construction Contracts

In the construction industry, contracts are often signed well in advance of the project’s completion. When a contractor receives payment from a client, the revenue is considered unearned until the work is performed. Over time, as the project progresses and milestones are achieved, the revenue is recognized as earned.

8. Franchise Fees

Franchise fees are an important source of revenue in the franchise industry. When a business grants the right to operate under its brand and charges a fee for it, the revenue received is classified as unearned until the franchisee begins operating. As the franchisee starts generating sales, the unearned revenue is gradually recognized as earned.

9. Tenant Deposits

In the real estate industry, tenant deposits are a common form of unearned revenue. When a tenant provides a security deposit to a landlord, it is held until the end of the lease term. Until the deposit is returned or applied towards any damages or outstanding rent, it remains unearned revenue for the landlord.

10. Membership Dues

Membership-based businesses, such as gyms or clubs, often collect membership dues upfront. These dues are typically paid for a specified period, such as a month or a year. Until the membership period is active, the dues are considered unearned revenue. It is recognized as earned revenue over time as the membership period progresses.

11. Travel and Tour Bookings

In the travel industry, bookings for tours, hotels, or flights are often made well in advance. When a customer pays for a booking that will occur at a later date, the payment is initially recognized as unearned. As the booked service is provided, the unearned revenue becomes earned.

12. Financial Services

Financial service providers, such as banks or insurance companies, may receive upfront payments for insurance policies, investments, or loans. These payments are classified as unearned revenue until the subsequent services are provided or the terms of the agreement are met.

13. Event Ticket Sales

When event organizers sell tickets for an upcoming event, the revenue generated from ticket sales is considered unearned until the event takes place. Once the event occurs, the unearned revenue is recognized as earned.

14. Contractor and Consultant Fees

Contractors and consultants often require an upfront fee before commencing a project or providing their services. This fee is classified as unearned revenue until the agreed-upon work is completed, at which point it becomes earned revenue.

15. Telecommunications Services

Telecommunications service providers, such as mobile phone companies or internet service providers, often bill their customers in advance for their monthly plans. The payment received is considered unearned until the billing period commences, at which point it becomes earned revenue.


Unearned revenue is an essential aspect of accounting that businesses must understand and manage appropriately. By recognizing the different types of unearned revenue and their characteristics, businesses can ensure accurate financial reporting and make informed decisions. From advance payments to prepaid subscriptions, gift cards, and more, unearned revenue manifests in various industries. Careful handling of unearned revenue allows businesses to maintain a clear picture of their financial health and provide accurate information to stakeholders.


1. What is the difference between unearned revenue and earned revenue?

Unearned revenue refers to income received by a business in advance of earning it, while earned revenue is generated when the good or service associated with the revenue has been delivered.

2. Why is it important to properly account for unearned revenue?

Properly accounting for unearned revenue ensures accurate financial reporting, reflects a business’s actual performance, and helps in managing cash flow. It provides transparency to stakeholders and allows businesses to make informed decisions based on accurate financial information.

3. What is the impact of unearned revenue on financial statements?

Unearned revenue is recorded as a liability on a business’s balance sheet because it represents an obligation to deliver a product or service. As revenue is recognized, the liability decreases, and the corresponding revenue is reported on the income statement.

4. Is unearned revenue taxable?

Taxation of unearned revenue depends on the jurisdiction and the specific circumstances. In some cases, unearned revenue may be subject to taxation, while in others, it may not. Consult with a tax professional to understand the tax implications in your specific situation.

5. Can unearned revenue be refunded?

In certain situations, unearned revenue may be refunded to customers. For example, if a customer cancels a service before it is provided or a product is returned unused. Refunding unearned revenue reduces the liability on the balance sheet and ensures accurate financial reporting.


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