Deciding on your business's name? Learn how to file a DBA name.
- DBA stands for "doing business as," referring to the name you want the public to call your company.
- The filing fee for a DBA ranges from $5 to $100 depending on the state.
- To file for a DBA, you must fill out an application through a local, state or county agency. In some cases, you also have to announce your new company's name in a local newspaper.
- This article is for sole proprietors who are legally required to use their personal name as their business name. A DBA gives them the option to file under a name of their choosing.
Once you've decided you want to start a business and have chosen a business structure, it's time to figure out how you want to present your business to the public. Choosing a "doing business as" name, or DBA, is not only one of the first steps to establish your business, but also a good branding move. Some people choose to use their own name for their business, but if you want to give yours a unique name – without registering as a corporation – you'll need to register your alternative business name with the right people, which you can do in two or three steps (depending on the state you file in). This can cost anywhere from $5 to $100 and takes one to four weeks to file.
What is DBA?
DBA stands for "doing business as." Your DBA is the name your business is referred to both 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 small business owners who want to pick their own 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."
Key takeaway: DBA stands for "doing business as," the name your business is referred to as by the public. This is a great option for a sole proprietor who doesn't want their business under their personal name.
How do you file a DBA?
You need to fill out specific paperwork and pay a filing fee when you file a DBA. 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 it 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 offices. Corporations, LLCs, LLPs and limited partnerships, on the other hand, must file assumed names with the New York Department of State. In contrast, the state of Kansas has no requirements for businesses to register fictitious names.
Key takeaway: Depending on the state you live in, the filing process for a DBA may vary. You may have to file through a local, county or state agency. Regardless of where you register, there is paperwork to fill out and a filing fee to pay.
What happens after you file a DBA?
Once you've chosen your business's fictitious name and registered it locally, you might want to consider filing for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect your intellectual property. Trademarks protect words, names, symbols, sounds or colors that distinguish your goods and services.
If the paperwork and filing process seems overwhelming, you can contract a business lawyer to complete all the necessary filings to secure your DBA name. Reputable business lawyers are listed by the American Bar Association.
Key takeaway: After filing for a DBA, filing for a trademark is the next step to protecting your business name and logo from being used by others. You can reach out to a business lawyer to help you with these processes.
Who needs to register a DBA?
The Small Business Administration is a great resource for those who aren't sure if they need to register a DBA, but if you plan on using a business name that differs from your given name or your business partner's name, you'll need to register one. Other reasons could be if your bank requires it to open a business account, if a prospective client requires a DBA to award your company a job, if your company is entering a new business area not reflected in your current name, or if your company operates more than one business or website.
It's important to note, though, that a registered DBA doesn't constitute a business in itself.
"It doesn't set up a business entity, like a limited liability company or a corporation," Hanlon said. "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."
While a person can register as many DBAs as they'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."
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."
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."
Key takeaway: Legally, sole proprietors must use their personal name as their business name. Registering for a DBA allows them to name their business something of their choosing. Sometimes banks or clients will require you to have a DBA.
How much does registering a DBA cost?
"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 $100 in some states. "While the cost to register is insignificant, the penalties and fees for failing to register can be several thousand dollars. 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 a person 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, but it's best to check with your state about the local requirements.
Key takeaway: The filing fees for DBA registration vary by state, running from $5 to $100. Depending on how much you are willing to spend, you can register for as many as you want.
What are the advantages of having a DBA?
A DBA can accomplish several things for a business owner.
"If a business wishes to rebrand itself without forming a new limited liability company or corporation, they can simply register a DBA instead," Babbitt said. "If the business receives bad publicity, they may register a DBA to mislead the public into thinking the business is different."
There are also some less obvious reasons to register more than one DBA. For example, there's a scene in Parks and Recreation where Tom and Ben are looking 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 in a certain mile radius. Babbitt says that this 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."
A DBA also comes in handy for entrepreneurs who want to make a distinction among their numerous businesses.
Finally, if you are a sole proprietor, it gives you the chance to build a brand under a name of your choosing instead of using your personal name. This helps you market better to your audiences and gets your brand out there in a way that is beneficial to your business.
Key takeaway: Filing for a DBA allows you to build your brand under a distinctive business name instead of your own name, which usually isn't as marketable. If you have multiple businesses, filing for multiple DBAs can make it easier to market to different audiences.
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.