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How to Get a Business License and Permit

With the right legal structure and documents in place, a business can get started. It is important to research what licenses and permits are required at the state, city and industry level and obtain them.

Licensing requirements vary wildly, but you can find out more about how to get a business license by searching our resources for your state or city. Also, be sure to keep up with license renewal requirements.

Types of Licenses and Permits

There are a wide variety of licenses and permits needed for business operations, which can vary by state, locality and industry. These are typically required at three levels of government – state, federal and local (city or county).

Some types of licenses, such as sales tax permits and health inspection certificates, may be required for nearly all businesses. Others, such as special permits for planning, zoning, building or signs, might be required only in certain industries.

A few industries require federally regulated licenses such as alcohol and firearm sales, aviation and some forms of medicine. You should check with your local Small Business Administration office for more information about the types of licenses and permits you may need. Depending on your industry and location, some types of licenses are fast to obtain while others might take days or weeks to process. Some expire at regular intervals, so you will need to keep an eye on when renewal is due.

Requirements for Licenses and Permits

The information that you need to provide on your license or permit application varies by state, county and municipality. Generally, you need to supply your business name, owners’ names and addresses, the number of employees and if applicable, the federal employer identification number (EIN).

You might need a state license or permit if you operate a franchise, work with animals, sell food products, conduct medical research, manufacture FDA-approved pharmaceuticals, or engage in other activities regulated by your state. You might also need a permit to use a specific name or address in your business location or to make certain changes to your premises.

Local business permits include those for planning, zoning, building, fire and signs. Look for step-by-step resources from your state, your local Small Business Administration office or a private consultant to help you identify and apply for the appropriate licenses. Some states, including New York, have online tools, such as the NYC Business Wizard, that can help you determine which types of licenses and permits you need.

How to Apply for Licenses and Permits

Since business license requirements vary by state, county and city, it’s important to research the regulations for your specific area. The SBA has a small-business resource page for each state where you can enter your zip code and find a detailed list of requirements in your area.

If you’re operating a business under a name other than your legal name, you might need to register for a fictitious name permit, also known as a DBA (doing business as) permit. You can often do this online through your local government’s website.

If your business requires construction, alterations or other physical work, you may need a building or zoning permit. You can find more information on these permits at your secretary of state’s office or your local Small Business Administration office. Some of these permits take weeks or even months to process, so plan accordingly. It’s best to obtain these permits before you sign any leases or purchase real estate, so that your business can open on time.

Fees for Licenses and Permits

In most cases, licenses and permits require an initial fee to apply and a renewal fee each year. These fees vary by state, county and city. It’s always best to check with the city and county in which you intend to operate. For example, New York City (NYC) has a Business Wizard website that helps you determine which licenses you might need.

In addition to a state or county license, some businesses need a federal or private professional license. This type of license is typically required if your business involves medical services, engineering, teaching or any other profession that requires a particular level of education, degree and/or training. This type of license can also be referred to as a privilege license. In most cases, these licenses expire and you’ll have to pay a fee on a regular basis to renew them. Also, many of these licenses are subject to specific regulations by state regulatory agencies.