The Best Payroll Companies for Small Businesses in 2021

For better or worse, paying employees is a lot harder than simply handing them a check at the end of the pay period. Luckily, a whole host of full-service payroll companies—including PEO services, outsourced payroll, and payroll software—can help you through the trickiest parts of payroll. Interested? Keep reading: reviews the year's best payroll companies for small to midsize businesses like yours.

The best payroll companies for small businesses 2021

Best payroll companies for small businesses 2021

Brand name
Type of payroll
Starting monthly cost
Additional cost per payee
Free trial
Learn more
Gusto Full-service payroll software$19.00/mo.$6.00/mo.1 mo.
Paychex Full-service payroll software or PEO $59.00/mo.$4.00/payee3 mos.
ADP TotalSource


Contact for quoteContact for quote3 mos.
OnPay Full-service payroll software$36.00/mo.$4.00/payee1 mo.
Square PayrollFull-service payroll software$0.00/mo.*$5.00/payeeNot listed

Data effective 12/11/20. At publishing time, pricing and features are current but are subject to change. Offers may not be available in all areas.
*$0 base price for contractor plan only. Base price for employees and contractors starts at $29.00.

Gusto: Best overall


Gusto’s intuitive, comprehensive software lets you run payroll in minutes and automate payroll tax filing. It also offers a full range of workers comp, benefits, and PTO assistance, and it pairs easily with the biggest names in accounting software like Xero and QuickBooks.

Gusto comes close to proving that in the world of online payroll software, you really can have it all—a free trial, a beautiful interface, and a reasonable price for full-service payroll. All of Gusto’s plans include these crucial features:

  • Unlimited payroll runs in all 50 states
  • Automated payroll tax filings
  • Direct deposit
  • PTO policies
  • W-2 employee and 1099 contractor management
  • Employee pay stubs and tax forms
  • Workers compensation administration

All four Gusto plans are full-service, meaning Gusto calculates and files payroll taxes for you. And thanks to its new Basic plan, Gusto is more affordable than ever: its payroll solutions now start at $19 per month, a full $20 cheaper than its former cheapest plan. (For more information about Gusto, check out our in-depth Gusto review, which covers all of the payroll provider's plans, features, and benefits.)

Like all good things, Gusto has a few flaws, but they're few and far between. For one, only the pricier plans offer two-day payroll processing and free accounting software integration—the cheapest plan doesn't integrate with accounting software and has a four-day payroll turnaround time. And customer service isn't available on weekends, so if you run into a payroll problem on Saturday, it won't be resolved until Monday at the earliest.

Pro Bullet Automatic payroll tax filing
Pro Bullet Unlimited payroll runs
Pro Bullet Wage garnishment and workers compensation assistance
Con Bullet Limited customer service hours (weekdays only)
Con Bullet Four-day payroll processing with cheapest plan

Best for midsize businesses: Paychex


Paychex breaks down its payroll solutions by business size and seamlessly combines payroll and HR. If your business is big enough for a dedicated payroll specialist and full HR support, Paychex might work for you.

Paychex recognizes that payroll solutions for small businesses are different from those with over 1,000 employees. That’s why Paychex tailors its payroll plans by business size: it offers solutions for 1 to 9 employees, 10 to 49 employees, and 50 to 1,000+ employees.

Every plan includes payroll processing and payroll tax help, and most plans include some HR basics too, including these:

  • Benefits administration
  • Retirement management
  • Health insurance
  • Time tracking

Since most midsize businesses need payroll and at least one of the HR perks listed above, it makes sense to pick a provider that offers two for the price of one—why go through the hassle of integrating one brand’s HR software with another brand’s payroll software when you can easily purchase them both through the same experienced company?

Additionally, Paychex has a few PEO plans, which work best for midsize or large businesses. If you’re not sure if a PEO (Professional Employer Organization) will work for you, check out our piece “What Is a PEO?”—or just keep reading to see our top pick for best PEO.

Pro Bullet HR basics and digital marketing help included with each plan
Pro Bullet PEO plans available
Con Bullet No online pricing for more comprehensive options
Con Bullet Pricier plans than software competitors

Best PEO: ADP TotalSource


If you’re looking for a Professional Employer Organization, or PEO, to take payroll and HR off your hands, ADP is the best-known brand in the business. In particular, ADP TotalSource takes on all the trickiest, most time-consuming tasks, from filing payroll taxes to managing employees’ 401(k)s.

If you’re familiar with PEOs, or Professional Employer Organizations, you’re not surprised that ADP TotalSource is our top recommendation for PEO payroll services.

If you’re not familiar with PEOs, here’s the rundown. You and the PEO split ownership of your small business fifty-fifty. While that sentence sounds scary, it really means you “lease” your employees to the PEO, which then files your taxes under its own company, accepts payroll liability, distributes paychecks, and handles benefits. Check out our PEO payroll article for a more in-depth analysis.

A few key things set ADP TotalSource apart. For one, its format is easy enough that employees shouldn’t run into trouble using any self-service features. With ADP’s app, they can choose benefits, track time, and request leave or paid time off.

ADP also takes over issues like recruiting, hiring, and onboarding. If you have questions about payroll, you can reach out to your dedicated payroll specialist—but know that when ADP runs your payroll, its payroll team is responsible for any problems with tax deductions. In terms of liability, you should be off the hook.

Pro Bullet Easy employee self service
Pro Bullet No liability for payroll or tax errors
Con Bullet Higher costs than full-service payroll
Con Bullet Pricing unavailable online
Tired of payroll? Gusto handles payroll taxes and more

With unlimited payroll runs and automatic tax filing, Gusto helps small-business owners worry less about payroll and put more time into growing their business.

  • Get automatic payroll tax filing, including end-of-year tax forms
  • Manage workers compensation insurance
  • Track paid time off, sick leave, and holiday pay

Best for budget: OnPay


OnPay is a cheap payroll service provider that still manages to do it all—including setting up the service and inputting all your data so you don’t have to. Save time and hassle with OnPay’s automated payroll tax calculation, withholding, and filing services.

As an online payroll service, OnPay focuses on one thing: simplicity. Instead of offering multiple plans, OnPay charges you one monthly base fee plus a cheap user fee—and at $36 per month plus $4 per user, OnPay's full-service plan is honestly one of the lowest out there.

The OnPay team will also add employee information on your behalf at no extra cost so you can skip the hours of manual data entry. And like the best payroll service companies, OnPay guarantees their accuracy for payroll processing and year-end tax form filing, promising to cover any IRS fines if OnPay’s experts make a mistake.

Pro Bullet Automated payroll tax withholding and tax form filing
Pro Bullet Employee information entered for you
Con Bullet One plan only
Con Bullet End-of-year tax-filing fees (hard W-2 copies cost $5 each)

Square Payroll: Best contractor-only plans


Do you employ contractors only? You can skip the bells and whistles of PEOs and other payroll outsourcing options: Square Payroll doesn't charge a monthly base fee as long as you're only paying contractors.

If your graphic design company mostly employs freelancers or your construction business works exclusively with roofing contractors, you don't need a full-fledged online payroll plan, much less a PEO. After all, contractors pay their own taxes, so you don't need to worry about quarterly filing fees. You just need a basic payroll plan that lets you quickly, affordably pay your contractors and send them their tax forms at the end of the year.

In other words, you need Square Payroll's contractor plan, which has no base fee. Instead, you pay just $5 a month per contractor—even if you pay that same contractor multiple times a month. Contractors can clock in and out using Square's point of sale app, which then automatically syncs with Square Payroll to make running payroll a breeze. Square even sends out 1099 forms to your contractors at the end of the year and files your 1099-MISC tax form with the IRS too.

Square Payroll's simplicity is also its main downside. While you can use it to easily, affordably pay contractors, that's pretty much all you can do. For instance, you won't get the in-depth reports and analysis you would with, say, Paychex. But if you're just paying contractors, you don't necessarily need that much reporting; you need a cheap online payroll service, and that's what you'll get with Square.

Pro Bullet No monthly base fees
Pro Bullet $5 charge per payee per month with unlimited payroll runs
Pro Bullet Automatic end-of-year 1099 filing
Con Bullet Limited payroll features, including reporting

Payroll services FAQ

What’s the difference between self-service and full-service payroll?

Self-service payroll means in-house payroll. You might use software to run the numbers and simplify direct deposit, but in the end, you’re responsible for tax compliance and making sure employees get paid the right amount. In contrast, if you run full-service payroll, you outsource at least some parts of your payroll process to another company.

Full-service payroll usually costs more than self-service payroll, but it saves you time, which could translate to saved money. Most importantly, a full-service payroll company takes on the responsibility for withdrawing the right amount of taxes. If there’s an issue with federal or local taxes, it’s the payroll company’s problem, not yours.

Should you use a payroll service or hire an accountant?

In general, payroll services are cheaper, especially if you go the self-service rather than full-service route. Many payroll companies also combine payroll with features like HR administration, time tracking, and employee benefits that are outside the scope of an accountant’s job.

A full-time in-house accountant costs substantially more than payroll software and can’t juggle as many tasks as payroll software can. However, accountants can help analyze your business’s finances, file taxes easily and accurately, draw up financial statements, and help you understand your business’s future.

Also, remember that the question isn’t necessarily either/or. You can use self-service payroll most of the year and hire an accountant for a few hours a week during tax season.

The takeaway

Now that you know how many types of payroll processing services are out there, take the reins: whatever your number of employees or day-to-day tasks, there’s a payroll company and service out there for you.

Want more small-business payroll options than the five listed here? Our piece on the best payroll software for small businesses overviews 10 of the best payroll software options for businesses like yours.


At, our research is meant to offer general product and service recommendations. We don't guarantee that our suggestions will work best for each individual or business, so consider your unique needs when choosing products and services.


1. U.S. Small Business Administration, “2018 Small Business Profile”

Kylie McQuarrie
Written by
Kylie McQuarrie
Kylie spent two of the last four years writing for and with small-business owners—from dentists in Australia to plumbers in the Midwest. She spent the other two writing in depth about internet and security. She’s passionate about reading, hiking, and dedicating every spare second to writing for fun (at lunch, between meetings, on the train, before breakfast . . . ). Her content helps small-business owners tackle the logistics of running a business so they can focus more on their passions too.
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