Step One: Search Business Name Availability
Before you file documents with your state to incorporate or form an LLC, 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 other 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.
Step Two: Decide if You Want to Reserve or Register a Business Name
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. 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 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, 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.
Step Three: 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.
More about Reserving a Business Name
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). You don't want to register a business in your state and start getting business cards, using the business name in a domain name, and spending a lot of money adding your business name to signs and other advertising materials. First, go through this list of places to research business names to be sure the name isn't being used somewhere else.