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How to Register a Business Name (Step-by-Step)

How to choose a business name and make it official.

A business name is more than just a formality or legality. It’s your brand and your chance to tell your potential customers who you are!

Building a business takes courage and a lot of hard work. Spending time, in the beginning, to nail down your company name can make subsequent business-building easier.

Having a brandable and memorable name matters because consumers take just seven seconds to form an opinion about a company. So you’ve got to make a fabulous first impression!

This guide explains how to snatch a short business name for your small business and officially register it with the state authorities.

Table of contents

  1. Step 1: Decide how you will register your business name
  2. Step 2: Research business name availability online
  3. Step 3: Reserve a business name with a state agency
  4. Step 4: Consider registering a trademark or service mark
  5. Conclusion
  6. FAQs about registering a business name

Step 1: Decide how you will register your business name

Determining the best way to register your new business means you’ll need to consider several things:

  • Where your company will operate
  • How many owners it will have
  • How much legal protection you’ll need

Be sure to give this some serious thought and do your homework. Although it’s possible to change your business name registration, it takes time, and you’ll have to cough up more money.

Decide how you will register your business name

Once you’ve zeroed in on your business needs, you’ll have three registration options:

  1. Register a business entity structure such as a limited liability company (LLC) or corporation
  2. File for a “doing business as” (DBA), also called trade name, fictitious, or assumed name
  3. Register a business name as a trademark or service mark

Getting incorporated to register a business name

Establishing a business structure such as a corporation or LLC comes with benefits like limited personal liability and tax savings. While both assume certain maintenance costs and require more administrative work than sole proprietorships, it’s worth the investment in the long run.

Corporations vs. LLCs vs. Sole proprietorships

A limited liability company (LLC) is the preferred business entity to form to protect your personal assets and diminish personal liability. Although a sole proprietorship is the simplest business structure to set up, it doesn’t protect your assets.

Corporations are owned by shareholders who also enjoy limited personal liability. But Incs have one significant drawback compared to LLCs — double taxation.

Business profits are taxed at the end of the year on the corporate tax return and again at the shareholder level when profits are distributed.

LLCs instead are pass-through entities which means that all the company’s profits flow through and are taxed on the owner’s personal tax return.

Registering an LLC business name

The process to register your LLC business name is pretty straightforward. Although each state has its requirements for company formation, you’ll generally need to:

  1. Select the state that your business will be registered in
  2. Choose an available name that meets your state’s naming rules
  3. Appoint a registered agent
  4. File the application, which is usually called the Articles of Organization or Certificate of Organization
  5. Pay the state filing fees
  6. Draft an LLC operating agreement
  7. Open a business bank account

You can use our comprehensive formation guides to take you step-by-step through the process of how to form an LLC in your state.

LLC name requirements

All states have rules for what you can and can’t name your LLC. Be sure to check into your state’s requirements, but some of the most common laws are that the name:

  • Contain the phrase limited liability company, limited company, limited liability partnership, or an abbreviation of those terms (e.g., LLC, L.L.C., ltd. co., LP, etc.)
  • Can’t contain words like bank, university, or insurance unless the business is registered and licensed by the appropriate state agency
  • Can’t contain words that can be confused with official government departments (e.g., Homeland Security, IRS, FBI)
  • Be sufficiently unique from any other registered business name

Corporation (Inc) name requirements

When settling on a name for a corporation, you’ll generally need to follow the same naming rules as an LLC.

But instead of using LLC in the name, it will need to include the term corporation or its abbreviation (Inc. or Corp.).

File for DBA to register a business name

When you want to use a name that’s different from your legal business name, you’ll need to register a “doing business as” (DBA) name.

In some states, a DBA might be called a fictitious name, assumed, or trade name.

While registering a DBA name isn’t the same as forming an LLC or corporation, it does mean you’ll have exclusive rights to the name. And that might make sense if:

  • Your legal name is vague, and you need a more descriptive option
  • You have multiple product or service offerings that you want to differentiate
  • You’re a sole proprietor who doesn’t want to use their full name as their business name

Either way, recording your DBA name with the state gives you more freedom on what you call your business.

Step 2: Research business name availability online

Once you’ve decided to register your business as an entity or just get a DBA, you’ll need to complete a name search online to check that the name isn’t already being used.

Most Secretary of State websites have a robust search tool you can use for free. For example, in Florida, you can search by entity or trademark name.

Florida's sunbiz database search tool
Florida’s Sunbiz database search tool. Source: Florida Department of State.

Occasionally, name registration is done at the local level, so you may need to check with your local county clerk’s office or city hall for business name availability.

Even if you don’t plan to launch a website right away, you may still want to check if your preferred domain name is available.

Step 3: Reserve a business name with a state agency

If your business name is available in your state and you’re ready to file your company formation documents or your DBA name, great! You’ll want to apply immediately to snag your name and get your business up and running.

But perhaps you’re not ready to make it official because you need to appoint your registered agent or figure out some other operational deets.

In that case, you’ll want to reserve your business name to prevent another business from registering it.

Generally, a name reservation isn’t mandatory to start a new company or file a DBA name. Reserving a name is best when you’re not ready to form your business immediately.

Fortunately, it won’t break the bank to reserve a name.

States generally charge between $5 and $25 to hold a business name for anywhere from 30 to 120 days. And if you need more time, you can usually renew the reservation by completing another request and paying the same fee again.

Step 4: Consider registering a trademark or service mark

Trademark registration is available in most states and at the national level through the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Consider registering a trademark or service mark

Although a federal trademark provides protection in all 50 states, it’s more expensive than registering on a state level.

What’s a trademark?

A trademark is a unique symbol or word(s) used to identify a business or its products. Once a trademark is registered correctly, it can’t be used by anyone else forever, as long as you continue to use the trademark and pay the required fees.

What’s a service mark?

If you want to protect a unique word or symbol that identifies your services, you’ll want to register a service mark instead.

Trademarks are for products. Service marks are for services.

Registering your business name as a trade or service mark protects your IP (intellectual property) rights and prevents confusion among consumers.

For example, if a company with a similar name as you starts selling a similar product, customers may purchase from your competitor thinking they are buying from you.

Business owners planning to do business in more than one state may want to file for a federal trademark. But federal trademarks will cost up to $750 if you DIY and thousands of dollars if you need an attorney’s help.

Applying for a trade or service mark

The same state agency that oversees company and DBA registrations generally also handles trademark registration.

With fees ranging from $50 to $150, a state trademark is a cost-effective option over a federal registration.

Conclusion

Forming an LLC or corporation is the fastest way to get your business name registered in your state. But trademarks and “doing business as” names can be used if you operate as a sole proprietor.

And regardless of which method you choose, recording your company’s name provides benefits that can help your company grow and protect it from competitors.

FAQs about registering a business name

Answers to the most common questions entrepreneurs have about business name registrations.

What is the benefit of registering a business name?

Using a business name, like a DBA or an assumed name, helps maintain privacy for sole proprietors who run a business under their personal name.

Also, if you’re planning to incorporate a company (an LLC or Inc), you’ll need to list a legal name on business registration documents. Changing the company name later on can be problematic.

Melissa Pedigo

Article by:

Melissa Pedigo

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

Melissa Pedigo is a US CPA with more than 20 years of experience. She’s worked at Big 4 firms, for the government, and internationally. Now a full-time writer, she enjoys translating complex financial and tax topics into plain English. When she’s not keeping current reading IRS rules or tax legislation, you’ll find her studying foreign languages or playing tennis.

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