Business name registration is the only way to fully claim your company name—otherwise, you run the risk of having the hard work you’ve put into marketing materials, merchandise, and building your brand taken away from you.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about how to register a business name, including why registration is so important, how you can determine whether your business name is available, and the steps to take to ensure that you have full ownership over your name.
Reasons to register your business name
You can register your business name even before you have a business plan laid out. There are several benefits to registration:
- Customers won’t confuse your business with a different company: When you follow business name registration procedures, you’ll learn if other companies in the vicinity already have your name. If there are too many businesses with the same legal name in a single area, customers might not be able to find the one they’re looking for. This might also make it hard for you to develop brand recognition and could mean that customers don’t remember who you are.
- You may be challenged by other businesses with the same name: Having a similar name to another company puts you at risk of lawsuits. If you start operating but your name isn’t registered, you may be forced to change your name, as well as all signage, websites, social media, merchandise, swag, and other branded items.
- You could lose the name to a new business: Failing to properly register a business name leaves it open for other entrepreneurs to claim. If they follow the proper procedures to claim ownership, they’ll have the right to send you a cease and desist letter and ask you to change your name.
How to determine business name availability
To form a business entity, you must file formation documents with your state. The law requires that business names are distinguishable from the name of every other existing company in the state, so no duplicates or slight modifications are allowed. For example, if you’re a technology startup in California, it’s likely that applications for businesses named “Apple Computing” or “Apple Technologies” will be denied.
You can find out if a name is available before you file formation documents by using the following resources.
Business name search
A business name search is the most formal method for researching name availability. This search lets users parse state registrar archives for entities including limited liability companies (LLCs), C- and S-corporations, sole proprietorships, partnerships, and even DBAs. There are several third party services available through an internet search that allow you to search these records for free.
Domain name search
A domain name search will help determine the availability of web addresses. This information can dictate your name choice because your company name can play a major role in SEO. If your business relies heavily on digital traffic, consider creating a name that won’t have a lot of competition on search engines. The same strategy is true for social media platforms.
Federal trademark records
Federal trademarks are the ultimate tool for claiming a company name. Violating a trademark, even unknowingly, can invite a civil lawsuit—and trademark infringement cases are very expensive.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a free search tool you can use to make sure your business name won’t infringe upon any protected words or phrases.
Searching the web
A basic internet search of your company name can give you an idea of how it’s used outside of your state and your country.
If the search results are dense, it may be a sign to consider alternate names or marketing strategies to lower competition for search traffic.
Steps to registering your business
Once you’ve done your preliminary research, the next step is business name registration.
1. Form a business entity
Decide on a business structure. It dictates the kind of tax rules you will have to follow and how much protection you’ll have from personal liability. Common types of business entities include sole proprietorships, LLCs, S-corporations, C-corporations, and non-profits.
The Small Business Association has a guide on how to form each type of entity. Additionally, you may want to consult with a qualified bookkeeper or tax attorney for guidance on the type of corporate entity that will be best for your company. (If you’re a startup, it’s a corporation.)
When you form an entity, you’ll be asked to register a name. Each business structure has unique requirements for a chosen name. Corporations, for example, generally require that your name contains the word “corporation,” “company,” “incorporated,” “limited,” or a similar variation.
2. Register an assumed name
In some cases, the name you’ve chosen to register is not the name you want to do business with.
For example, you've registered your business as John’s Cookies Company but have decided after launching that you’d also like to sell brownies. Your registered name doesn’t reflect your business name anymore, and you’d like to go by John’s Baked Goods. In order to use John's Baked Goods as a name, you will need to register it as an assumed name of your business. This is also known as a doing business as, or DBA.
DBAs are useful if your business structure requires that you have a specific word within your name. For example, it is required that the word “LLC” is present in every registered LLC’s business name. With a DBA, John’s Cookies Company, LLC can become John’s Cookies.
3. Trademark and trade name registration
If you plan to stick with your company name for a long time and hope to scale your company far and wide, it may be worthwhile to trademark it. A trademark grants businesses complete exclusivity over their names.
Trademark infringement carries steep penalties and will likely deter competitors from creating knock-off merchandise or otherwise copying your brand. If someone does steal your name, trademark protections will make it easier to win in court.
Frequently asked questions
How much does it cost to register a business name?
Business name registration fees vary widely based on the type of business entity that you are forming, the state you've chosen to file in, and the cost of your attorneys or filing services. Consult with your state office for more information about specific fees you’ll incur in your area.
Can you register a business name for free?
No, all states in the U.S. charge filing fees to process an application.
What happens if you don’t renew your business name?
Letting a DBA or corporate entity expire can cause major problems for business owners. You might lose your business name and incur hefty penalties for letting refiling or renewal fees lapse.
How do you file a DBA?
Filing procedures vary from state to state, but they always involve an application and filing fees. Check with your state or county registrar’s office for more information.
When do you not have to reserve a business name?
Company name registration is a requirement when you form a company. There are no situations in which you won’t have to reserve a business name.