Close up of DBA registration form
Derek Tallent
By: dtallent
Read in 12 minutes

What is DBA? Do You Need One?

If you’ve ever seen “DBA” next to a business name on a business card or website, you may wonder what exactly those three letters mean. 

Or maybe you want to start your own business, and you’re not quite sure what legal name you should have.

Don’t worry; this article will answer all your questions.

What is DBA?

These three letters stand for “Doing Business As,” which is typically when a company wants to use a different name from their legal one. There are other ways that “Doing Business As” is also referred to, like “trade name,” “assumed name,” or “fictitious name.”

Why would someone need this? Well, for example, Sole proprietorships have businesses listed under their own personal name. But all companies need a business name. That’s where DBAs come in.

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#DidYouKnow
If you have a Sole proprietorship or a General partnership, then, by law, you must have a DBA.

What does it mean to have a DBA?

A DBA name actually serves a fundamental legal purpose. Before this denomination became widely used, many sole proprietors or companies would simply change their name if they got into any legal or contractual trouble.

This led to customers becoming increasingly frustrated when businesses mistreated them with no way to know who they could seek legal reparations from.

This is where the “Doing Business As” name came in. This title forces businesses to register their names (the name under they are “doing business as”) and allows the public to know precisely who is behind a business (and who they can sue if necessary).

Now that you know the DBA, meaning let’s move on!

When Do You Need To Register a DBA Name?

There are several reasons why you would want to (or in some cases legally have to) register a “Doing Business As” name with your state:

  • When You Are a Sole Proprietor

Let’s say Jane Smith has just gotten out of a job she really doesn’t like. After years of following her passion for sewing and making clothes, she decides to turn her passion into a career.

If Jane Smith starts making and selling her own style of clothing, she will eventually need to create her brand to get her work recognized throughout the community.

So Jane decides to take the leap and create her own clothing company. As any savvy business owner, Jane knows that a key to a good brand is a great name. After some deliberation, Jane decides she wants to name her business “Stylin’ by Smith.”

However, to legally do business under that name, she must register a DBA name in her state. Otherwise, her company will have to be referred to as just her name, and “Jane Smith” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

If you are looking to start your own business and want to do business with a catchy name, you will likely have to file a “Doing Business As” name with your local government.

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  • When You Need a Business Bank Account

As many business owners are all too aware, money is integral in all aspects of a business. Trying to keep track of finances can be hard enough, but trying to balance your business funds with your personal funds can be a real nightmare. This leads many business owners to open a bank account to use for any funds related to their business.

However, most banks require sole proprietors or other family-owned businesses to register a DBA name to open a bank account and receive payments in the business name.

While registering a “Doing Business As” business name is not a requirement per se to apply for a business loan, have in mind that your lender will want to review your bank statements (and to hold a business bank account, you need a DBA).

  • When You Want to Be Legally Compliant

There are several legal reasons why a small business owner would need to register a DBA business name.

Going back to the “Smith’s Styles” example, if Jane wanted to hire an accountant to handle her finances, she would need to write up an employment contract. However, if in the contract she used the name “Smith’s Styles” without a “Doing Business As” name registered, the contract would be null and void.

This would, of course, open Jane up to a lot of legal trouble.

Keep in mind that you must get a DBA fully registered before doing any business under a different name than your own name. Even selling inventory before the title is fully registered could lead to legal issues down the road.

  • When You Want to Operate Multiple Business Without Making Multiple LLCs

We have previously been discussing a “Doing Business As” name in terms of sole proprietorships, but corporations and or LLCs can also utilize this denomination.

Let’s say the “American Cookie Cakes Corporation” decides to diversify and begins running a website selling chocolate covered fruits called “Fine Fruits and Chocolate.” It would be rather expensive and time-consuming to create a subsidiary or other LLC. Still, it may also hurt the company’s branding to sell chocolate fruits under a name that mainly refers to Cookie Cakes.

The solution would be for American Cookie Cakes Corporation to file a DBA for “Fine Fruits and Chocolate.”

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What Kind of Businesses Can Get a DBA?

Sole Proprietorships

As we have seen, the law in most states is that unless you make a DBA filing, you can only do business under your own name.

Corporations and LLCs

If you have filed to become a corporation or LLC (Limited Liability Company), then you’ve already registered your business name and don’t need a DBA. However, you will need to get a “Doing Business As” name if you plan on conducting business using a name that’s different than the name filed with your LLC/corporation paperwork.

In other words, a Corporation or an LLC, on the one hand, and a DBA on the other can be used in conjunction with one another because otherwise, these two types of business entities can only do business under the name on their formation document.

These types of legal formations can also file multiple DBA names for purposes of expansion or diversification, as we have seen in the previous section.

Do I need a DBA or LLC?

An LLC is a legal structure of a business, while a DBA refers to the registration needed for any company to do business under a commercial name different from the owner’s name. You can have an LLC and a DBA simultaneously.

So, is a DBA a legal entity?

Sole Proprietorships, Corporations, and LLCs are legal entities that have their own rights and obligations separate from their owners; however, a “Doing Business As” is not a legal entity.

If you need to know more and to refresh the different types of legal business structures, read the difference between Sole Proprietorship, LLC, and Corporation.

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How to Register a DBA Name

Like many other legal processes, each state can have different rules and procedures regarding filing for a DBA business name. You must research the process in your state or county to understand what you would need to do.

You can typically find information on filing this title on your state’s Secretary of State website. To get a general idea of what filing the title entails, in this article, you can learn how you would file a DBA in California.

Nowadays you there’s an easier way to file your DBA on your own, thanks to digital platforms like LegalZoom. Learn here how to set up a DBA with LegalZoom.

What does a DBA cost?

The fee for registering a DBA varies among states and counties. On your state’s Secretary of State website, you’ll find the information you need regarding costs.

Do you need an EIN or ITIN to file a DBA name?

Not necessarily. They are separate entities.

An EIN, or in default, an ITIN (for those business owners with no SSN), is a tax identification number that is used for tax purposes. Think of it as a unique nine-digit number, much like your SSN, but for your business only. Your DBA, on the other hand, is like your business nickname, and therefore, you don’t need a separate EIN or ITIN for a DBA.

Also, remember that not all businesses need an EIN or ITIN. It all depends on how your business and what kind of taxes it pays. Sole proprietors and single-member LLCs that do not have employees and do not pay excise taxes are not required to obtain a tax number.

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Need a refresher on Tax Numbers? Read here everything you need on EIN and ITIN.

The Dangers of a DBA Name

While registering a business as “Doing Business As” is very often a good practice (and sometimes legally required) for small businesses to have, small business owners must know what they are getting into when starting the process.

The biggest thing to remember is that a DBA, at its core, protects customers, not business owners. A DBA DOES NOT provide any liability protection to businesses. In fact, liability is often the greatest danger for companies that comes with this title.

A DBA name lets the public know exactly who is behind a business, which also gives them an idea of who to sue. While in a perfect world, lawsuits would only happen for actual transgressions or acts of dishonesty, some lawsuits can be frivolous and harmful to businesses.

To make matters worse, a lawsuit under your DBA  name does not only involve the assets of your business. Unlike an LLC, a sole proprietor sued under a DBA name could find their personal assets and finances at risk as well.

Manage Your Business Like a Pro

We hope that this article has given you a better grasp on the DBA meaning, what a “Doing Business As” business name means, and why you might need this title.

To receive more useful information about business requirements, subscribe to our Newsletter. It’s free, and every week you’ll receive in your mailbox the latest trends in the world of small business, along with tools and resources that can grow your business.

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