How and Where to Get a Business License in 2018

Your business may need multiple permits and licenses in order to legally operate and avoid unnecessary fines. We've often been asked where one can obtain a business license, but the answer is there isn't one single business license that every business should have. There are over 40,000 licensing bodies in the United States that each require different licenses and permits. The exact requirements will differ from business to business, but there are a number of common permits and licenses that most businesses will at least have to consider.

This is often something that all business owners struggle with, as there isn't one easy way to look up every permit or registration your business needs to file. Keep in mind that almost all businesses need licenses and permits to operate, even home-based businesses. To keep things simple, we broke them down into the municipal, state and federal level.

How to Get Assistance With Business Licenses and Permits

For business owners who don't want to do research on their own, you can seek out advice on the different permits you are legally required to apply for. There are two main sources of information that we'd recommend: SCORE business mentors and attorneys.

The SCORE Association is a nonprofit network of business counselors throughout the United States. They are supported by the Small Business Association (SBA) and help entrepreneurs with everything from writing business plans to licensing. We recommend you try this route first, as it's the cheaper option of the two. The SBA's website will be able to locate SCORE chapters near you.

You may also choose to hire a small-business lawyer for a one-time consultation or to handle all of the licensing for you. The price will vary depending on where your business is operating and how many filings you need to make. However, a typical junior lawyer fee is around $150 per hour.

Regardless of which option you go with, we still recommend small-business owners equip themselves with at least a base level understanding of the licensing world. This will allow you to ask pointed questions during your counseling and to make sure you're covering all your bases.

Common Local Licenses and Permits

The licenses and permits that your business needs to file will differ depending on local, state and federal regulations. For example, you may be required to obtain a permit for some reason at the local municipal level but not at the state level. For that reason, we wanted to approach this from the ground up and take a look at the most niche needs first. Depending on the size of your local town, city or county this can be especially tedious as you may be required to contact individual offices and divisions rather than having all local licenses and permits consolidated in one place.

We'd recommend contacting the following local departments to check if your business needs licenses or permits.

  • Planning / Development / Zoning Department
  • Building / Building Inspection
  • Assessor / Controller / Tax Collector
  • Fire Marshal / Department
  • Department of Public Health
  • Chamber of Commerce
  • Small Business Commission
  • Local Trade Associations

Generic business operating license

This is likely to be required no matter what type of business you decide to start. This is usually a basic permit that simply allows for you to conduct business in a given city or area. Check with your local government to validate that this is required and where to apply for one.

Zoning Permits

Whatever local body approves your business operating license will likely also check to see that the type of business you're operating is allowed to operate in that given area. The deciding body will check to see how your business fits into the community.

Building Permits

If you're required to build a new building or make significant changes to your building, you'll be required to obtain a building permit. This usually ensures that your building is up to code in safety standards.

Seller's Permits

You'll usually need one if your business sells goods from a fixed location. Also, check for special industry specific licenses as well. For example, if you're selling liquor, you'll need a license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Health Permits

If your business has anything to do with food or health services like a gym, you'll likely need to register for some sort of health permit. Obtaining this kind of permit or license will usually require an inspection of sorts as well.

Fire Marshal Permit

If your business opens its doors to the public, you'll likely need a fire marshal permit. Check with your local government to see if this is necessary, which it usually is.

Common State Licenses and Permits

More often than not, your business will also be required to register for various licenses and permits at the state level. Some of these registrations may be repetitive with what you've registered for at the local level so don't assume that your local licenses and permits enable you to skip state licenses and permits.

Generic business operating license

On top of obtaining a business license at the local level, you'll likely need to obtain one at the state level. There isn't one definitive way to tell if you need this license at both the local or state level so we recommend checking with both your local and state governments. We've compiled a list of all the state contacts to make this easier for you.

State and Territory Contacts

DBA

If your business operates as a sole proprietorship or general partnership, you are generally required to operate your business under your legal name. If you'd like to use a fictitious name, you'll either have to structure your business into an LLC or the like, or file a DBA.

Common Federal Licenses and Permits

Federal regulations typically mandate different licenses and permits based on the industry they operate in.

IndustryIndustry Qualifier
AgricultureAny business that deals with moving animal, plant or biotechnology goods through different states
Alcohol BeveragesAny business that manufactures, sells or imports at a wholesale scale alcoholic beverages
AviationAny business that is involved with operating aircraft, transporting goods or people via air, or aircraft maintenance
Firearms, ammunition and explosivesAny business that deals with firearms, ammunition and explosives
Fish and wildlifeAny business that engages in any wildlife related activity or sells wildlife products
Commercial fisheriesAny business that deals with commercial fishing
Maritime transportationAny business that is involved with transporting goods by sea
Mining and drillingAny business that deals with natural gas, oil or other mineral resources on federal lands
Nuclear energyAny business that produces commercial nuclear energy, is a fuel cycle facility or is involved in distribution and disposal of nuclear materials
Radio and television broadcastingAny business that broadcasts information by radio, television, wire, satellite or cable
Transportation and logisticsAny business that operates oversized vehicles

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