One of the first things – if not the first—a new business owner must do is to register a business name.
States require most business entity types to register their company names. Registering your business name will also protect it so others can't use it.
Before you can register your business name, you'll need to make sure another company isn't using the same or a similar name, and that the name you've chosen complies with local, state, and federal rules.
In this article, we'll walk you through everything you need to know to register your business.
Whether you must register your business name depends on your business entity type and the type of name you are using.
Unlike LLCs, LPs, LLPs, and corporations discussed in the sidebar above, sole proprietorships and general partnerships aren't required to register their businesses. States automatically assign the business owners' names as the company's legal name.
Any business owner, no matter the business entity type, who wants to operate under a different name from its legal name must get a DBA, and DBAs must also be registered in most states.
When you also want to use your legal or DBA name for your website address, you must go through the added step of purchasing the name from a domain registrar. Domain registrations are separate from states' legal and DBA name records, so even when you've registered your business name with the state, you might find it's already in use as a domain name.
States will reject your company formation documents or your DBA application when the name you've chosen is the same as or too similar to another company's name. It's also common sense to avoid using a name that can be confused with another company's name.
Many states have rules about the terms and words that can and can't be used in business names. Some of the restrictions that states might impose include:
You can usually find name requirements and restrictions on the website of the Secretary of State or a similar agency that handles business name registrations in your state.
The process for registering a business name, whether it's a legal name or a DBA, varies by business entity type and by state. Visit the website of the Secretary of State, Department of Corporations, or similar agency in your state for requirements and procedures. Do the same in every state where you conduct business, not just the state where you formed your company.
You'll typically need to follow these steps to register a business name:
If you've done your homework, you've chosen a name that's not already in use, but before submitting your application to register your business name, it's important to conduct a thorough search through your state's database and on the internet to make sure your business name is still available.
You can search for legal company names and DBAs online on the website of the Secretary of State or similar agency. When you enter the business name you'd like to use, the search engine will return any company with the same or a similar name.
Some states maintain a separate database for legal business names and DBA names, so look at all the name search databases, and conduct your search with the appropriate government agency in each state where you conduct business.
Some states require you to register a DBA at the city or county level. Go to the online office of the county clerk or county registrar to find details on conducting a DBA search.
The state agency has the final word on whether a name meets its criteria, so it's wise to wait until your name is approved by the state before ordering signs, business cards, and the like.
Search the internet to make sure another company isn't using the name you've chosen, by typing the business name into a search engine. If the name comes up for another company, it could mean that the business is operating with an unregistered DBA, it has gone out of business, or for another reason.
Although choosing a name already in use might pass muster with the state or county, you don't want to risk having customers, creditors, or others come after your business for something another company has done.
Once you've determined that the business name you've selected is available, you can reserve it so that another business doesn't beat you to the punch while you are collecting your registration documents and waiting for government approval.
Most states allow you to reserve a business name for a limited time, usually 30 to 120 days. Fees range from about $10 to $100.
Before LLCs, LPs, LLPs, and corporations can register their business and name with the state, they must designate a registered agent, which is a person or company that accepts legal notices and other legal communications on behalf of the company owners.
Before state agencies will form the above business entity types, they require information about the registered agent, along with details about the business and the business owners, as well as the business name. You'll also need a federal tax identification number (EIN).
Once you've completed your due diligence, it's time to register your business name with the state where you operate. Some states allow you to file your documents online. Others require you to mail or hand-deliver your documents. Fees vary and are usually less than $300.
In states that register DBAs at the state level, you'll usually find information on the process on the website of the Secretary of State or similar agency. When you're required to register at the local level, consult the websites of the county clerk or county registrar for information and forms.
Some states require you to publish a notice in a local newspaper of general circulation, stating that you'll be operating under a name different from your company's legal name.
Fees charged by state and local governments for registering a DBA range from $10 to $100.
The information you'll typically need to supply in order to complete your application includes information about the company owners, the business, and your Federal Tax Identification number (EIN).
Some states also require LLCs and corporations to submit a certificate of good standing (an official document that shows your business complies with state rules) with your application.