- DBA stands for “doing business as.” It refers to the name you want the public to call your company.
- The filing fee for a DBA ranges from $5 to $150, depending on the state.
- To file for a DBA, you must complete an application through a state, county or local agency. In some cases, you also have to announce your new company’s name in a local newspaper.
- This article is for sole proprietors legally required to use their personal name as their business name who want to register a DBA. It’s also for any business that wants to operate under a different name from its government-facing name.
Once you’ve decided to start a business and have chosen a business legal structure, it’s time to figure out how to present your business to the public. Choosing a “doing business as” name, or DBA, is one of the first steps you’ll take when establishing your business, and it’s also a good branding move.
Some people choose to use their own name for their business. In fact, sole proprietors are legally required to use their name as their business’s legal name. However, if you want to give your business a unique name – without registering as a corporation – you’ll need to register your alternative business name with the right people. We’ll explain the process of filing a DBA and what this means for your company.
What is a DBA?
Your DBA is the name your business is referred to legally and by consumers. A DBA has a few aliases itself: It is also known as a fictitious business name, assumed name or trade name.
A DBA is ideal for sole proprietors who prefer not to use their own names as their company name and entrepreneurs and small business owners who want to select their business name without becoming a corporation.
Having a DBA “means that the person or business entity intends to use that name to identify itself to the public,” said Kimberly Hanlon, attorney at Lucēre Legal LLC. “The legal name remains the person’s name – if an unregistered sole proprietorship – or the business entity – if a corporation or a limited liability company – but the name that the public knows the business as is the DBA name.”
Tip: When choosing a business name, focus on the message you want to portray, and ensure it reflects the values you want customers to recognize.
How do you file a DBA?
To file a DBA, you must complete specific paperwork and pay a filing fee. You can do all of this with a local or county agency, but some states require you to file with a state agency instead of or in addition to the county. Some states and counties might also require you to publish your DBA filing in a local newspaper, giving the public notice that you have filed a DBA.
For example, in New York, sole proprietorships and general partnerships must file a business certificate listing their assumed names with the county clerk’s office. On the other hand, corporations, limited liability corporations (LLCs), limited partnerships and limited liability partnerships (LLPs) must file assumed names with the New York Department of State. In contrast, Kansas has no requirements for businesses to register fictitious names.
What happens after you file a DBA?
Once you’ve chosen your business’s fictitious name and registered it locally, consider filing for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect your intellectual property. Registering a business trademark protects any words, names, symbols, sounds or colors that distinguish your goods and services.
If the paperwork and filing process seems overwhelming, contact a business lawyer to complete all the necessary filings to secure your DBA name. The American Bar Association lists reputable business lawyers.
Who needs to register a DBA?
If you plan to use a business name different from your given name or business partner’s name, you’ll need to register a DBA. Other reasons for registering a DBA include the following:
- Your bank requires it to open a business bank account.
- A prospective client requires a DBA to award your company a job.
- Your company is entering a new business area not reflected in your current name.
- Your company operates more than one business or website.
The Small Business Administration is an excellent resource if you’re unsure if you must register a DBA.
Here are some crucial facts to note if you’re considering registering a DBA:
- Registering a DBA doesn’t create a business. Notably, registering a DBA doesn’t mean you’ve created a business. “[Registering a DBA] doesn’t set up a business entity, like a limited liability company or a corporation,” Hanlon explained. “It simply identifies a name and notifies the public who is behind that name. A person or business entity could conceivably have many DBAs, each with a different product or service market.”
- Two LLCs can’t have the same DBA. While you can register as many DBAs as you’re willing to pay for, two LLCs cannot have the same DBA. “A DBA, like any other business name that is registered, can only be registered once and only has one owner,” Hanlon said. “That said, there could be multiple LLCs who are all owners of the company that registered for the DBA. For instance, North LLC and West LLC are each owners of Northwest LLC, and Northwest LLC has a DBA of Compass Point Consulting.”
- DBAs are typically spelled out only on legal documents. Writing a DBA is simple; you would just write it out as the different name you’ve chosen to do business as. “A sole proprietor would not have business cards saying ‘Jim Smith DBA Jim’s Gutter Repair,'” said Anthony Babbitt of Babbitt Consulting. “Instead, the business cards would read ‘Jim’s Gutter Repair.’ DBAs are typically only spelled out on legal documents, such as lawsuits, bank statements and contracts.”
- You don’t need a DBA if your business is an LLC. If your business is an LLC, no DBA is necessary. “If the limited liability company was named Jim’s Gutter Repair LLC, then this would be the correct way to list the name on business cards,” Babbitt said. “Each state has its own laws designating how sole proprietors, limited liability companies and corporations must note the legal entity from which they operate. If an owner created an LLC and wanted to drop the ‘limited liability company’ part of the name, then he would need to register a DBA. The same holds true for a corporation or partnership.”
Did you know?: When you start a sole proprietorship, you must use your personal name as the business name. Registering for a DBA allows you to name the business something of your choosing.
How much does registering a DBA cost?
DBA filing fees vary. “The fee will vary by state, but it is typically between $5 and $50 – but closer to $20 on average,” Babbitt said, although it can be up to $150 in some states.
Failing to register comes at a greater cost. “While the cost to register is insignificant, the penalties and fees for failing to register can be several thousand dollars,” Babbitt explained. “This is a function of consumer protection. The state wants to know who to contact when a consumer complains. While this is usually handled when obtaining a business license, some states do not require business licenses. Almost every state requires DBAs to be registered.”
While there’s no numerical limit to how many DBAs someone can register, it can get expensive if you register multiple names.
Alabama, Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Rhode Island are the only states that don’t require everyone operating under a DBA to register. Still, it’s best to check with your state about local requirements.
What are the advantages of having a DBA?
A DBA can accomplish several things for a business owner.
- DBAs can help rebrand a company. A DBA is an excellent way for your organization to change its direction. “If a business wishes to rebrand itself without forming a new corporation or limited liability company, they can simply register a DBA instead,” Babbitt said.
- DBAs can help business owners distinguish between multiple companies. A DBA also comes in handy for entrepreneurs who want to distinguish among their numerous businesses.
- DBAs help sole proprietors build a brand. If you’re a sole proprietor, registering a DBA gives you the chance to build a brand under a name you choose instead of using your personal name. This helps you reach target customers and gets your brand out there in a way that benefits your business.
There are also some less obvious reasons to register more than one DBA. For example, there’s a scene in the TV show Parks and Recreation where Tom and Ben look for a tent for an event. The deal falls through with one tent company, so they call another one, only to find that it’s owned by the same person. In fact, that same person owns all the tent rental companies within a certain-mile radius. Babbitt says this type of thing actually happens.
“Some businesses will create multiple DBAs to create the illusion of competition,” he said. “For instance, four taxis could all have separate DBAs even though they are all owned by the same person.”
Did you know?: Sole proprietorships have unique tax considerations. Read our sole proprietorship tax guide to ensure you comply with federal and state laws.
What are the disadvantages of having a DBA?
You could argue that the cost of filing a DBA is a disadvantage. However, realistically, all growth and structure steps your business takes will cost money. By that logic, the cost of a DBA is barely a disadvantage at all.
There’s also the common mistake of conflating DBAs and business structures such as LLCs. Only the latter provides liability protection if your business faces a lawsuit and shapes how your business earnings are taxed. DBAs also aren’t themselves trademarks.
In other words, DBAs are disadvantageous only if you misunderstand their purpose.
Doing business as you please
Filing a DBA can give you the branding you’ve long sought, whether you’re a sole proprietor or the owner of a small business. Even in states where DBAs aren’t necessary, filing one can be useful if you’re operating under a different name than your business’s government-facing name. After all, an enticing name can attract more customers – why not make it official?
Max Freedman, Michael Keller and Jennifer Post contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.