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DBA means “doing business as,” and is also referred to as your business’s assumed, trade, or fictitious name. Filing for a DBA allows you to do business under a name other than yours, or the name under which your business is legally registered.
If you’re starting a business for the first time, you have important decisions to make. But you’re (probably) not a lawyer—and you might be unfamiliar with all the legal terms and acronyms that get thrown around when you’re taking the steps you need to start a business, from LLCs, S corps vs. C corps, to filing a DBA. We’re going to look at the details of that last one—what is a DBA, exactly?
Basically, DBA stands for “doing business as,” and filing your DBA is just one way to register your business. Registering your DBA alone doesn’t legally protect your business, but it might be legally required, depending on the state, city, or county in which you operate, as well as your business entity.
That’s the short (and likely unsatisfying) answer. Now, we’ll dig deeper into the DBA meaning, when your business needs one, and a few more reasons why filing a DBA is a good idea for any business.
As we mentioned, DBA stands for “doing business as.” It’s also referred to as your business’s assumed, trade, or fictitious name.
Filing for a DBA allows you to conduct business under a name other than your own—your DBA is different from your name as the business owner, or your business’s legal, registered name. That’s because when you form a business, the legal name of the business defaults to the name of the person or entity that owns the business. That is, unless you register your business as a certain legal entity (more on that below), or if you rename and register your business with a DBA.
So, if Laura Smith wants to start a tech repair business, her business will operate under her own name—unless Laura chooses to register her DBA name as “Laura’s Tech Repair Shop.” After registering her DBA, Laura’s full name isn’t legally attached to her business’s.
Also keep in mind that, depending on where you live, you’ll need to comply with your state DBA requirements.
Now that you know the DBA meaning, your next question is likely, “Do I need one?” Not all businesses do—it depends upon a combination of the business’s legal entity, the locale’s requirements, and the business owner’s preference.
If you’re a sole proprietorship or general partnership, you’ll need to file a DBA if you want your company to operate under a name that’s not your full, legal name, or your partner’s name. That’s because sole props and GPs are unincorporated, and they don’t need to file entity formation papers, and a business entity name, with the state. (Though they do still need to acquire the necessary business licenses and permits.)
So, they and their business are one in the same entity—which means they and their business have the same name, too—unless they file a DBA.
Unless their state, city, or county requires them to, corporations (both S-corps and C-corps), general partnerships, and limited liability companies (LLCs) technically don’t need to file a DBA name. Unlike sole props and GPs, these business types have already registered their entities and a business name with the state.
However, any business formed under one of these entities still has the option to register a DBA name. That would allow them to do business under a name other than the name on their incorporation documents.
The most common case of a corporation or LLC registering a DBA name is when the business wants an alternate name for a specific line of their business. By filing a DBA name for a new branch of the business, the corporation doesn’t have to fully form a whole new business just to operate under a different name. For example, John’s Cosmetics Inc. might want to have a separate name for their upcoming skin care line, “John’s Skin Care Solutions.” This saves an expanding business both the money and time it takes to launch a whole new business under an additional LLC or corporation.
Right off the bat, you’ll want to file a DBA if you don’t want to operate under your own name, or the name under which your business is legally registered. But even other than that, there are a few crucial reasons why you should consider registering a DBA name.
We recommend that every business owner opens a business bank account separate from their personal bank account. Separating your business and personal finances will protect your personal assets in case of a lawsuit, preserve your personal credit score if your business fails, make your bookkeeping and taxes that much easier, and generally make you look more professional in the eyes of your clients (and small business lenders).
But if you’re operating a sole proprietorship or general partnership, you’d run into a roadblock here: If you haven’t registered your business with the state, you don’t have a federal tax ID number (EIN). And without an EIN, you can’t open a business bank account.
And that’s just one reason why DBAs come in handy: When you file a DBA, you’ll also get an EIN. Problem solved.
The added clarity of separating your finances (and names) isn’t the only benefit of a DBA name. Registering your DBA name can also help keep your business compliant.
Owners of LLCs or corporations have certain legal protections, like safeguarding the owner’s personal assets if the business is sued. But if you operate your business under a name other than what’s on your incorporation documents and didn’t file for a DBA, those legal protections won’t hold. So, if you’re incorporated as John’s Cosmetics Inc. and sign a contract with a client as John’s Skin Care Solutions, without registering the latter as your DBA, then that contract won’t hold up.
And although a DBA doesn’t provide you with legal protections in itself, it does further separate you from your business. In the unlikely scenario that your business is sued, for instance, you could offer up your DBA as evidence that your business and its assets are an entity separate from you and your assets.
One last thing—in some cases, a client or partnership might require you to have a DBA in order to go through with a deal. Some clients might require that you have a DBA in order to contract with you, or some business lenders might require that you have a DBA before extending any small business loans to your business.
Your business name isn’t everything, and many successful businesses have been built off the backs of pretty straightforward names (think Home Goods, for instance).
But your brand name is the public’s first impression of your business. So, ideally, your business’s name should reflect your products or service, and give people a reason to become paying customers. If sole proprietor Laura Smith kept her business’s name as just “Laura Smith,” who would know what she offered until they walked into her shop? And why would they feel compelled to walk into that shop at all?
Choosing the perfect name for your business before you’ve even opened your doors can be hard, though. When your business is in its infancy, who knows where you’ll be in five years? If you’re struggling to come up with an awesome name to file as a DBA, try a business name generator for a little inspiration.
As we’ve mentioned, registering a DBA allows businesses to operate multiple firms under one ownership, without having to form a separate business entity each time they expand. So, if there’s any hope that your original venture will want to expand into multiple websites, stores, services, restaurants, and so on, you’ll want to register each under a separate DBA name.
When it comes down to it, filing a DBA name is the easiest way for sole proprietorships to register their business’s name, and establish their businesses as entities separate from themselves. It’s also relatively inexpensive.
Now that you know what is a DBA—and why you might want to file a DBA for your business—how would you actually go about registering a DBA name?
DBA requirements vary by state, county, city, and business structure. But in general, registering a DBA comes with paperwork and filing fees anywhere from $10 to $100. You’ll either go to your county clerk’s office to file your paperwork, or you’ll do so with your state government.
In some states, all you have to do is go to the county clerk’s office or state government office. In others, you might also have to place a fictitious name ad in a local newspaper for a certain amount of time. This fulfills the “public notice” requirement for some states—giving the local area an official announcement of your business name.
One logistical restriction to note: Your DBA name can’t have a corporate ending such as “Inc,” “LLC, or “Corp.” That gives the impression that your business is a corporation or has some type of corporate status, when in fact it doesn’t.
Other than that, there aren’t any restrictions on what you can file for a DBA name. It’s probably best to do a simple business name search within your jurisdiction to make sure no other business has your DBA name, though.
Filing a DBA name isn’t hard—you just need to work within your state or county’s requirements to go about it the right way. It’s usually best to get this all done before you operate under your intended “doing business as” name—somewhere between 30 and 60 days before you open your doors.
You’ll usually hear back with approval in one to four weeks, depending on your jurisdiction. Once you’ve been approved for your DBA name, you’re all set to start operating your business—meaning you can open your doors, take on new clients, and set up your business bank account.
After that, make sure you’re staying compliant by operating under your business name, and check with your state government offices to see if you need an annual renewal!