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How to get your business license (A guide for all 50 US states)

If you’re getting your business off the ground, one of the first things you’ll need to do is get all the appropriate licenses and permits so you can operate legally. The bad news is that this often involves a stack of paperwork. The good news? We’re here to walk you through it—as simply as possible.

Quick Index

So, how do you get a business license? Let’s get into it.

What is a business license?

Great question. The term “business license” sounds simple enough, but it actually includes a wide range of licenses, permits, and other paperwork you might need to run your small business legally. Broadly speaking, though, a business license is any document issued to you by a government agency that grants you the right to operate in your area. It could refer to an operating license (which gives you permission to run your business) or a seller’s license (which allows you to sell your product).

It’s important to know, too, that just about every business needs some kind of license to operate. So if you’re asking yourself, “Do I even need a license?” the answer is—yes. Almost definitely. But the business licenses you need will depend a lot on your area and what industry you operate in. (We’ll talk more about that below.)

Why is a business license required for your small business?

It can be frustrating to realize that you need to ask for permission to operate. But there are some good reasons for licensing requirements. Here are the three main ones:

A license is required to identify your business

Applying for a license lets your local authorities know what your business is and how you plan to make money. This is important information, because they’re in charge of making sure business runs smoothly and legally in your area. If the local regulators didn’t know what businesses were in the area, they’d have a much harder time ensuring everyone follows the law and conducts business fairly—and, in the long run, that would be bad for everyone.

Licenses help protect public health and safety

The licensing requirements help local leaders know exactly which businesses are selling products and services to the community—and what kinds of product or services they’re selling. If a business gets a license for food, for example, authorities know that this particular business is selling a product which could potentially cause sickness, and they can do safety checks accordingly. (Because no one wants to live in a world where food isn’t held to a high safety standard.)

Licenses identify your business for financial and tax purposes

And, finally, licenses are one way that local governments know who should be paying taxes in their area. Pretty straightforward.

The different types of business licenses

First, know that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, because the licenses your business needs will depend on where you are and what kind of business you run. And you might even need separate licenses at the county, city, and state levels. (Sorry.)

You’ll also need to get a federal license if you work in any of the following industries:

  • Agriculture
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Aviation
  • Firearms, ammunition, and explosives
  • Fish and wildlife
  • Commercial fisheries
  • Maritime transportation
  • Mining and drilling
  • Nuclear energy
  • Radio and television broadcasting
  • Transportation and logistics

Also, if you’re in an industry which is regulated by a commission, association, or a board, know that you might need to present your certification before you can get your business license. (For example, if you’re looking to start your own landscaping business, you may need to present evidence of your landscaping education in order to get a license—depending on which state you’re in.)

A quick word of advice here: If you have any doubts about what kind of business licenses you need for your small business, we recommend you contact your local chamber of commerce or the Small Business Administration (find a local SBA office here). They’ll be well-versed in local laws and should be able to give you some specific, helpful advice on which licenses you’ll need to stay legal in your area.

How much does a business license cost?

The cost for licensing your business varies a lot by location and industry. Getting a San Francisco business license for your new restaurant, for example, will cost a different amount than getting a license for a hair salon in Los Angeles. You could spend anywhere from $50 to hundreds of dollars. The important takeaway here: Licenses do cost money and you’ll need to make room in your budget accordingly.

Another important point: Many business licenses have an expiration date, and that means you’ll need to keep track of which licenses will expire and be ready to pay the fees to renew them.

That means you’ll have to get—and stay—organized! (We provide some suggestions a little further down the article.)

How long does it take to get a business license?

How long it takes to get your business licenses depends mostly on what kind of licenses you need and what state you plan to operate in. It could take anywhere from a few days to a few months.

For example, if you plan to open a clothing shop in a small town—which probably doesn’t process many business applications—there’s a good chance you’ll get approval in a few days or less. But if you’re planning to open a restaurant which sells alcohol in a large suburb, you should plan for a long lead-time getting your liquor license—it could take a while!

The moral of the story? It’s a good idea to ask your local business organization how long business permit approvals usually take in your area. Then apply early for any permits which have long approval times. You don’t want to put off your grand opening because you’re stuck waiting for a license.

The 4 steps to apply for a business license

The process for getting a business license depends a lot on where you are, but, in general, here’s how to obtain a business license:

1. Do your research

The first major step is to gather all the information you’ll need to get your licenses—and we recommend you get organized.

Start by creating a spreadsheet or word document to gather your research—you’ll want to keep track of the information so you don’t repeat your efforts later. Then, for each kind of license you need, find and write down the following:

  • The requirements of the license
  • How often the license needs to be renewed
  • What the license currently costs
  • The contact information of the agency which will issue you the license
  • How long it typically takes to get the license (this is often informal information which you can get from other entrepreneurs or from the local chamber of commerce)

2. Submit your business license applications

Turn in any paperwork that’s required to the licensing agency. (Be sure to double- and triple-check all the details so your application doesn’t get delayed.)

3. Get your licenses

The best part is next: getting approved!

Depending on where you are and what kind of business license you’ve applied for, you may need to wait to see if you’ve been approved. Sometimes it’ll only take a few days. Sometimes it can take weeks—or longer.

(And, hey, if you’re waiting, now’s a great time to grab your Business Owner’s Policy—most small businesses need one and you can get it in about five minutes. Everything’s easy and online.)

4. Renew your licenses as they expire

Many business licenses expire after a set period of time. So, as you acquire the necessary permits and licenses, keep careful notes of the specific date each license was issued and the date when each license will expire. You can use the license organization document you started in Step 1.

Then, check on your organizational document periodically—every six months or so—and stay on top of renewals. You definitely do not want to run your business illegally.

A state-by-state guide to getting a small business license

Finally—in case it’s not obvious by now—no two states are exactly alike when it comes to getting a business license. Because of that, we’ve put together this handy reference guide with links directly to the rules in your state. Nice, right?

Just scroll down and tap the link next to your state to get full details on what you’ll need in your area. (And don’t forget to visit the Small Business Association’s resource page, too. When you enter your zip code, you’ll get a useful list of what you’ll need to start a small business in your specific area.)

State Business license resource center
Alabama Atlas Alabama
Alaska Department of Commerce
Arizona Department of Revenue
Arkansas State of Arkansas
California CalGold
Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA)
Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection
Delaware State of Delaware
District of Columbia Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)
Florida Library and Information Services
Georgia Secretary of State
Hawaii Department of Commerce & Consumer Affairs
Idaho State of Idaho
Illinois State of Illinois
Indiana State of Indiana
Iowa State of Iowa
Kansas State of Kansas
Kentucky State of Kentucky
Louisiana State of Louisiana
Maine State of Maine
Maryland Department of Labor
Massachusetts State of Massachusetts
Michigan State of Michigan
Minnesota State of Minnesota
Mississippi Small Business Development Center
Missouri State of Missouri
Montana Department of Revenue
Nebraska Nebraska Secretary of State
Nevada Secretary of State
New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration
New Jersey State of New Jersey
New Mexico Regulation & Licensing Department
New York State of New York
North Carolina Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina
North Dakota State of North Dakota
Ohio State of Ohio
Oklahoma Oklahoma Commerce
Oregon State of Oregon
Pennsylvania State of Pennsylvania
Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation
South Carolina State of South Carolina
South Dakota State of South Dakota
Tennessee Department of Revenue
Texas Secretary of State
Utah Department of Commerce
Vermont Secretary of State
Virginia State of Virginia
Washington Department of Revenue
West Virginia State of West Virginia
Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
Wyoming Economic Development Agency

Hey, hope this was helpful. While we’ve got you: A quick reminder that you can insure your small business online with Huckleberry in about 5 minutesway less time than it takes to get a business license.


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Disclaimer

All content on this page is for general informational purposes only and does not apply to any specific case, is not legal, tax or insurance advice and should not be relied upon. If you have any questions about the situation for your small business or the latest information in your state, you should contact an attorney for legal advice, an insurance agent or broker, and/or your state's labor or industry agency, board, commission or department. Please note that the information provided on this page may change at any time as a result of legislative action, court decisions or rules adopted or amended by any state or the federal government.

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