How to Legally Register for Your Business Name
9 min. read
Updated October 25, 2023
When I was a child, my family and the other families in our neighborhood held annual summer garage sales. It was a great way to get the community to work together, and of course weed out a little of the inevitable clutter.
For every yard sale, I’d buy bottled lemonade, bake several batches of cookies and brownies, and set up shop. A few minutes consideration, half a day’s preparation, and I was set to go. My business was in full swing.
Unfortunately, to set up a business larger than your local lemonade stand, you’ll have to do significantly more legwork. When it comes to starting your business, you can’t do what I did when I was eight and just hit the ground running. You’ll need to register your business name, and decide what method of doing so is best suited for your specific business needs.
When it comes to registering your business name, you have several options, which you can take advantage of together or separately.
The options for registering your business name include:
- Registering your business structure, and simply operating under that name
- Filing for a DBA
- Trademarking your business name
Read on to learn the ins and outs of each option, and determine which one is right for your business. I’ll go over the different requirements for registering the most common business structures, what a DBA is and how to know if you should file for one, and whether or not a trademark is right for your business.
1. Register your business structure
Potentially the most straightforward way to register your business name is to register your business structure at the state level. This will ensure that your business name is officially “yours” and that you can do business using that name.
To register your business name this way, you’ll need to register your business structure, such as a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited partnership (LP), a corporation, or a nonprofit. The steps for each type of registration are similar, but they do have slight differences, and will also differ by state.
Registering your LLC or LP:
The rules governing LLCs and LPs will vary state to state, so be sure to check your specific state regulations. However, you’ll generally have to complete the following steps:
1. Choose a name for your business that complies with your state’s rules. When registering an LLC, for example, your business name must include a term such as “L.L.C.,” “limited company,” or similar in the title.
2. File paperwork and pay fees. This generally includes writing what is called your “articles of organization,” which describes your business’s purpose, and your operating agreement. While an operating agreement isn’t required in all states, it’s always a good idea. Having one allows your business the opportunity to protect itself, and ensure that it is governed by its own rules (such as ownership percentages and management structure), as opposed to defaulting to the general rules set down by your state.
3. Publish a notice of intent. Some states require a notice of intent to form an LLC, but not all states will. Check your state regulations to find out if this step is necessary.
4. Acquire all necessary permits and licenses. Make sure you’ve gotten all the necessary permits and licenses required to run your business.
Registering your nonprofit:
As with an LLC or LP, the rules governing starting a nonprofit vary state to state, so be sure to check with your local secretary of state’s website for more detailed information. Or, when you’re finished reading, check out this guide which breaks down nonprofit resources by state.
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1. File your articles of incorporation. These include basic information about your nonprofit—your name, what you do, where you plan to do business, and so on—and will usually be filed with your secretary of state website.
2. Apply for tax exempt status with the IRS. This can take some time—up to 12 months—so make sure to do this in a timely fashion. The application can be found on the IRS website.
3. Register with the specific states you plan to fundraise in. While the necessity of this registration will vary depending on your nonprofit, it can be especially tricky if you plan to do any fundraising via internet platforms, so make sure you take this one seriously. Go here for more information on how to register.
Registering your corporation:
As with LLCs, LPs, and nonprofits, forming a corporation involves several steps and a certain amount of paperwork, all of which will—you guessed it—vary state to state.
1. Choose a name that complies with your state’s regulations. As with an LLC, there are designations, such as including “Corp.,” “Corporation,” or similar in the title. And, naturally, it cannot be a name already in use by another business. Check with your local secretary of state’s office website for more information and state-specific regulations.
2. Decide on your board of directors. Depending on the state, you may be required to have multiple, or you may be allowed just one. Note that owners can be directors, but the directors do not necessarily have to be owners of the company.
3. File your articles of incorporation. As with a nonprofit, you’ll have to file your articles of incorporation. These include basics about your business, such as name, primary place that you plan to do business, and so on. There will also be a filing fee, which usually ranges from $100 to $800.
At this point, your corporation is registered. You’ll still need to establish bylaws, hold a meeting with your board of directors, issue shares, and obtain any permits or further registration you need to do business. For more information, read our complete guide to starting a corporation.
2. File a DBA (or “doing business as”)
If you have established your business structure at the state level, as we discussed above, you can legally do business under the name you registered with your secretary of state’s office.
But what if it doesn’t have the right ring to it?
We’ll use an example:
Kat is opening a boutique-style clothing store where she will be reselling vintage pieces. She registered her business as an LLC, and has registered the name, “Kat’s Vintage Resale, LLC.”
The trouble is, that pesky “LLC” doesn’t really fit her store’s branding, and she’d rather just do business under the name, “Kat’s Vintage Resale.” However, if all she does is register her business as an LLC, she is required to use the registered name in full. What should she do?
When to use a DBA:
In this situation, a business owner can apply for a DBA name, which stands for “doing business as.” Sometimes also referred to as a “fictitious name,” a DBA allows a business owner more freedom over what they call their business; as we saw in the example of Kat, a business owner can get a DBA in order to avoid doing business under their state registered name.
It’s also helpful for sole proprietors who do not wish to use their full name as the name for their business. For example, gardner Lance West is starting a landscaping business, but he doesn’t want to do business under the name, “Lance West,” but rather, “Landscaping by Lance.” He applies for a DBA, so that he can choose to use “Landscaping by Lance” as his business name, rather than his own full name, as would otherwise be required for a sole proprietorship.
How to apply for a DBA:
Applying for a DBA can be done through your secretary of state’s office website, or in some cases through your local county clerk’s office. The rules vary state to state, so make sure you find information specific to where you live.
In Oregon, for example, it is done via the Oregon Secretary of State website. Start with your secretary of state site, and go from there, as each state will vary slightly.
3. Trademark your business
Finally, trademarking your business is another way to register your business name. You can register for both a state trademark and a national trademark, though it should be noted that it costs more and takes longer to trademark your business on a national level. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has information on both how to trademark your business at the state level as well as at the national level, which involves getting a federal trademark.
What’s the difference between a trade name and a trademark?
Your DBA will sometimes be referred to as your trade name; after all, it’s the name you established to do business (or “trade”) under. However, it’s not to be confused with a trademark, which is only valid if registered via the USPTO.
A trademark can also include colors, symbols, logos, and slogans, which are outside the realm of what is covered by a DBA. If you wish to protect not only your name, but also your visual elements related to your business and branding, you might consider a trademark.
Note, however, that registering a trademark comes with a price, literally: online trademark registration can cost between $200 and $300, so it’s significantly pricier than simply setting up a DBA, which will generally run you under $100.
Additionally, it’s harder to trademark any names that are fairly generic sounding—so in our example above, “Kat’s Vintage Resale” might be out of luck. However, if she were to pay a graphic designer to create a logo that included her name, unique color scheme, tagline, and other branding, she might be able to trademark that in its entirety, where the name alone would not be enough to trademark.
Which one is right for you?
As you can see, the various ways you can register your business name will depend on your business situation.
If you are in the process of setting up a particular business structure, you may end up registering a business name by default that you wish to stick with. Depending on the context, keeping the distinction of “LLC.,” “Corporation,” and so on in your business name may not be a negative at all.
A DBA is a good route if you are a sole proprietor and don’t wish to do business under your full name, or if you’d rather not use the name you picked when setting up your business structure.
And, if you want to protect your business’s intellectual property on a state or national level, a trademark might be the way to go. Remember, however, that in order to trademark your business name, it must include elements unique enough to be worthy of a trademark in the first place, so not all businesses will meet that criteria.
Keep in mind that aside from legally registering your name, you may also need to explore if a web domain is available for it as well. Check out the BusinessNameZone business name generator to research business names and check availability at the same time. This can save you the effort of looking to legally register only to realize that it’s not available through digital channels.