Step 1: Choose a Business Structure
The type of business structure you choose to form will determine how you register the business with the state. Use our how to choose a business structure guide to help choose which business structure is best for you, whether it’s sole proprietorships, general partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs), and corporations.
The factors you should consider when choosing a business structure will depend on your needs and wants for personal liability protection, tax liabilities, and paperwork to keep the company in compliance.
Sole Proprietorships and General Partnerships
By default, sole proprietorships operate as the same name as the owner while general partnerships must include the surnames of all the partners.
LLCs and Corporations
Both LLCs and corporations require unique names in California that must follow certain naming requirements:
Step 2: Check Name Availability
When registering a business name, it's important to make sure it's unique and no one else in your state formed a company with it or has control of it online as a domain name.
Domain Name Search
We strongly recommend that you also check to see if your business name is available as a web domain (URL). Even if you don't plan to create a business website today, you may want to buy the web address to prevent others from acquiring that domain name. If the web domain is available then it’s likely the name will also be available in a business search.
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California Business Name Search
Next, search the California Secretary of State’s business database tool. This is an important step in the process because your filing will be denied if you try to file for a name already in use.
Search requirements can vary depending on your business needs. For example, a unique and available name is required to:
- File for formal business structures like LLCs and corporations.
- File a DBA name for any business structure.
A state-level name search isn’t required for informal business structures like sole proprietorships or general partnerships in California. But, if you decide to register a fictitious business name or DBA name, you’ll need to search the database to see if your desired name is unique and available.
Step 3: Form Your Business With the State of California
Once you have selected your business structure and name, you will need to file your formation documents with the state, which will register your business with the state of California.
To register your California LLC, you'll need to file the Articles of Organization with the California Secretary of State. You can apply online, by mail, or in person. Read our Form an LLC in California guide for details.
To register your California corporation, you’ll need to file the Articles of Incorporation with the California Secretary of State. Read our Form a California Corporation guide to learn more.
Protect Your Business Name With a Trademark (Optional)
Once you confirm the availability of your business name and secure it, you can choose to apply for a trademark for your business. This typically costs around $225 to $400 plus any attorney fees as well as a renewal fee every 10 years.
While this cost can be high for a start-up or fledgling business, it will give your company brand nationwide protection backed by federal law. That means if others try to do business with the same — or a similar — name as yours, you’ll have legal precedent on your side. For most small businesses, this really isn't necessary unless they are thinking of going national.
How to Change the Name of a California Business
Changing the name of a business in California can be done in two ways: by filing for a fictitious business name or by submitting an amendment to the legal name of an existing business.
The first method, filing for a fictitious business name (also known as a DBA name), is the easiest way to operate your business using a different name without needing to change its legal name.
A DBA name is the only way for sole proprietorships and general partnerships to have a different business name. It’s also the easiest method for LLCs and corporations to follow because it allows them to avoid filing an amendment or complicating their business operations while enabling them to operate with brand names that don’t include the necessary LLC or Inc. suffix required in a legal name.
If you want to change the legal name of your LLC or corporation, however, filing an amendment to the legal name of an existing business is your best option. Here are links to forms for both options:
Both must be mailed with the $30 filing fee.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I get a small business license in California?
You can get a business license through your local government in California. To find where to obtain a business license in your area, use the CalGold website.
Do I need to file a fictitious business name in California?
Filing a fictitious business name is not required in California. Youwill, however, need to file a fictitious business name in order to operate your business by a name other than its legal name.
How much does it cost to start a business in California?
Forming an LLC in California requires filing Articles of Organization with the California Secretary of State, which costs $70 online or by mail.
Does an LLC need a fictitious business name?
California doesn’t require LLCs to have a fictitious business name. However, you should use one if you plan to operate your LLC by a name other than its legal business name and you don’t want to file an amendment to change your business name.
How long does it take to get a DBA in California?
Depending on your location, you may be able to file for a DBA name in California instantly online. You might have to wait longer in counties that require businesses to file in person or by mail.
How can I file a DBA online in California?
You can file a DBA online in some California counties through your county’s website. Other counties, like Sacramento County, will require you to file in person or by mail.
How can I register a business name for free?
In California, you must pay fees in order to register a business name. The required fee amount will vary based on your location. In Los Angeles County, for example, the fee is $25 for the first DBA or fictitious business name and $5 for any additional names.
How much does it cost to register a business in California?
It depends on the type of business you’re forming. For example, starting an LLC in California costs $70 to file Articles of Organization with the Secretary of State. Forming a corporation in California, however, costs $100 to file Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of State.