Filing a Federal Trademark Application FAQ

Applying for a federal trademark has many complications. Learn the basics of registering a trademark.

By , Attorney · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Brian Farkas, Attorney · Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law


Your trademarks, the names and logos that you assign to your goods and services, are valuable business assets. Federal registration offers numerous benefits to trademark owners. In this article, we address the following questions about registration:

What marks qualify for federal registration?

To register a trademark with the USPTO, the trademark's owner first must use it in "interstate commerce." This means the mark must be used on a product or service that crosses state, national, or territorial lines, or that affects commerce crossing such lines, for example, an Internet business or a restaurant or motel that caters to interstate or international customers.

The trademark owner must also be able to answer "no" to all of the following questions:

  • Is the trademark the same as or similar to an existing mark used on similar or related goods or services within the same trademark class?
  • Is the trademark on the list of prohibited or reserved names?
  • Is the trademark descriptive, meaning that it merely describes the good or service (such as "Cold and Sweet" for ice cream)?
  • Is the trademark generic—that is, does the mark describe the product itself rather than its source (for example, "Bagel Shop" for a bagel shop)?

Below, we discuss types of marks that are not eligible for registration.

How do I apply for federal trademark registration?

You file your trademark application online with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO or PTO) using the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS). Within TEAS, you have two options: TEAS Plus or TEAS Standard. Despite the confusing terminology, TEAS Plus is likely your first option. You would use TEAS Standard only if 1) you're applying for goods or services not listed in the PTO's Trademark ID Manual (most goods and services are listed in the manual), or 2) you don't have the information needed to complete a TEAS Plus application.

The TEAS Plus application fee is $250 per trademark class. The TEAS Standard application fee is $350 per class. Fees do change, but you can check the PTO's trademark fee schedule

For most trademark applicants, registration is a relatively straightforward process. Your application includes:

  • a "drawing" of your mark (for word marks, simply type the word; for graphic marks, you can include a photo file of graphic images)
  • the date the mark was first used in interstate commerce (that is, when you first used the mark to identify your company, products or services in the marketplace)
  • a description of the products or services on which the mark will be used
  • samples of how your proposed mark is being used, and
  • the registration fee

In a TEAS Plus application, the system will assign the trademark class(es) based on your description of the products or services. In a TEAS Standard application, you use the Trademark ID Manual to determine the class(es) of your good or service.

What types of trademarks can't be registered?

Certain types of marks are not eligible for trademark registration. The PTO will not register marks that contain:

  • names of living persons, unless they have given their consent
  • the American flag
  • other federal and local governmental insignias (such as federal department seals), or
  • the name or likeness of a deceased U.S. President, unless his or her widow(er) has given consent, or

In the past, the PTO refused to register marks that it deemed immoral, scandalous, or disparaging of a living or deceased person. The Supreme Court did away with those limitations in the cases of Matal v. Tam 582 U.S. 218 (2017) and Iancu v. Brunetti, 139 S. Ct. 2294 (2019). Matal involved a disparaging mark and Brunetti an immoral or scandalous mark. In both cases, the Court ruled that the PTO's refusal to register the mark was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.

What happens once the PTO determines that my mark is eligible for registration?

If your trademark examiner at the PTO determines that your mark qualifies for registration, the mark will be published online in the PTO's Official Gazette . Publication in the Gazette is known as "publishing for opposition" because the public has 30 days from publication to oppose the registration of the mark.

If a member of the public believes that they would be harmed by the registration of your mark, they can file a notice of opposition within the 30-day period. You then have 30 days to respond to the notice of opposition. If you and the opposer are unable to reach a settlement, the PTO will schedule a hearing on the dispute at the office's Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB).

If no one opposes your registration, you should receive official notice from the PTO that your mark has been registered within 3-4 months of the time the mark was published.

What are the Principal Register and the Supplemental Register?

The USPTO maintains two trademark registers: the Principal Register and the Supplemental Register. The Supplemental Register is a secondary register for marks that don't qualify for registration on the Principal Register (usually because they're not distinctive enough). Registration on either register allows you to use the ® on your goods or services, but registration on the Principal Register conveys certain benefits that registration on the Supplemental Register doesn't, including:

  • the legal presumption of ownership (which is important in a trademark infringement suit)
  • trademark incontestability status after 5 years of continuous use (making the mark immune from most legal challenges)
  • the ability to use the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to stop importation of infringing goods

Learn more about registering your trademark on the Supplemental Register.

How long does federal trademark registration last?

Unlike patents and copyrights, which have fixed terms, a trademark registration lasts as long as you continue to use the mark in commerce and comply with certain maintenance and renewal requirements. Examples of old trademarks that are still active include COCA-COLA (registered 1893) and LEVI'S Jeans (registered in 1928)

Once your trademark or service mark is registered on the Principal Register, the registration good for an initial term of ten years.

The registration may lapse before the ten-year period expires, however, unless the owner files a statement within six years of the registration date (called a Section 8 Declaration) stating that the mark is still in use in commerce.

The original registration may be renewed indefinitely for additional ten-year periods by filing the required renewal applications (called a Section 9 Declaration).

If you fail to renew a trademark, the PTO declares the mark to be dead and you lose all the rights you gained through registration, including the right to use the ® symbol on the mark.

Can I file a trademark application without an attorney?

You can file a trademark application yourself, without an attorney. The TEAS application system is pretty straightforward to use if you know what you're doing (see below). You can learn how to use it through tutorials and other resources on the PTO website. For a comprehensive look at trademarks, including the application process, read Nolo's book Trademark: Legal Care for Your Business & Product Name, by Stephen Fishman.

The complexity of the trademark application process isn't so much in the mechanics of the TEAS system (although you need to pay attention to technical requirements, such as the types and sizes of your uploaded files), but rather in knowing how to present your mark to give it the best chance of being accepted. By "present the mark" we mean describing your goods and services to best fit your classification, determining what sample or samples best demonstrate use of the mark in commerce, and other decisions that help or hurt the chances of an application being accepted.

Your application might not be accepted on the first try. In fact, it's more likely that you'll need to respond to questions and objections from your PTO examiner. These questions and objections come in the form of "office actions" and can raise such issues as similarity to an existing registered mark, inadequate description of goods or services, failure to demonstrate use in commerce, and lack of distinctiveness. You'll need to learn how to respond to office actions to address your examiner's concerns and make the case that the mark should be registered.

An experienced trademark attorney can navigate the application process for you, from an initial trademark search for similar marks to the application to responses to office actions. They know how to describe a mark, what makes for a good sample to show use in commerce, and how to make an argument that your mark is sufficiently distinctive. We recommend at least consulting with a trademark attorney, after which you can decide whether to handle the application yourself or turn the job over to the attorney.

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