How Do I Search for and Reserve a Business Name?

The Process of Acquiring a Business Name

How to Register a Business Name

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One of the most important first steps in starting a business is finding and using a business name. Your business name is important because you'll be placing everywhere - on documents, advertising, contracts, filings with state and federal government agencies, products and services, and, of course, your business tax documents. Take care in selecting a name.

Let's assume you have found a business name and you're ready to begin using it. Before you put your business name on anythings, there are some steps you need to take to make sure you can legitimately use that name and keep others from using it. 

Search Business Name Availability

As you start your business, you must check on the availability of the business name you want to use in that state. If another business has the same name or a very similar name as the business name you want to use, the state will not allow you to register a business (corporation, LLC, or another business type) using that name.

The process of checking name availability varies with each state. Many states have an online database you can search to see if another company has already registered the name you want to use. Some states, like California, require you to mail in your request to check name availability. California requires you to send in a Name Availability Inquiry Letter to check name availability.

Reserve or Register a Business Name

There's a difference between reserving a business name and registering one. Which one you select is important.

Reserving a Business Name

When you receive confirmation from your state that a business name is available for your use, you may want to reserve the business name. Reserving a business name establishes your intent to use the name and keeps others from using it in the meantime.

Reserve a business name when you don't plan to use it right away as part of registering it with your state. Also reserve a business name if your business is a sole proprietorship that doesn't need to register with a state.

Business name reservations are limited in time; in California, for example, you may reserve a business name for 60 days. Check with your state business division (usually in the state's secretary of state office) to see how long a reservation lasts.

When you don't need to reserve a business name
If you are planning to immediately file the documents to start a corporation, form an LLC or other business entity in your state, you do NOT need to reserve the business name. The filing of the documents (Articles of Incorporation for a corporation or Articles of Organization for an LLC) serves the purpose of registering your business name.

If you don't plan to form your organization immediately, or if you aren't sure how long it will be before you file documents to start your business, you should reserve your business name.

Registering a Business Name

A business name registration is permanent, unlike reserving a business name. As mentioned above, you don't need to register a business name if you are filing documents to form a business in your state. But if you plan to run your business as a sole proprietor, you should register your business name with your state.

Sole proprietors (and, in some states, some partnerships) don't have to formally register a business with a state, so registering the business name protects you against another company using your business name in your state.

How to Reserve or Register Your Business Name

For both reserving a name and registering a name, go to your state's secretary of state website and find the information on how to complete this process and the fee. (This division is usually included under the state Secretary of State.) There will be a fee to register your name.

There's No Guarantee of Getting the Business Name You Want

Reserving a business name does not guarantee that the name meets the requirements of your state for business entity names. For example, a corporation in many states must include the words "Incorporated," or "Corporation," or an abbreviation or variant of one of these words. The name you reserve may still be rejected by the state during the formal filing process, if it doesn't meet the state's specifications.

Doing More Research on Your Business Name

Just because your state has no record of a business name similar to the business name you want to use, don't stop there with your research on business name. The name may be registered in another state or it may be trademarked through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

First, go through this list of places to research business names to be sure the name isn't being used somewhere else.