How to Establish a Sole Proprietorship in Ohio

Once you start a business, you automatically become a sole proprietor in Ohio. But you should still take steps to start your sole proprietorship, including choosing a business name, applying for licenses and permits, and obtaining an EIN.

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Updated by David M. Steingold, Attorney

If you've started selling your homemade jewelry online or running personal training sessions out of your garage, you've likely formed a sole proprietorship already—and you're not alone. When an individual starts a business (sells goods or services) and that person hasn't filed any legal documents with the state officially registering the business, then the person automatically created a sole proprietorship.

A sole proprietorship is low maintenance. It doesn't typically require you to file any creation documents or submit renewal filings or fees, and you can usually report your income on your personal tax return. But sole proprietors are personally liable for the business's debts and obligations, so you might need to dip into your personal funds to satisfy any debts your business can't pay.

In Ohio, you can establish a sole proprietorship without filing any legal documents with the Ohio state government. Though no action is required to legally create a sole proprietorship, you should follow four simple steps to start your business:

  1. Choose a business name.
  2. File a trade name with the Secretary of State.
  3. Apply for licenses, permits, and zoning clearance.
  4. Obtain an employer identification number (EIN).

For more information, read our article on how to start a business in Ohio.

1. Choose a Business Name

As a sole proprietor in Ohio, you can use your own legal name or a trade name—also known as a "fictitious name" or "DBA" (for "doing business as"). The difference between a trade name and a fictitious name in Ohio is a bit technical—if you have questions, consult a lawyer. If you plan to use a trade name for your business, it can't be the same name as any other company currently registered with the state.

It's also a good idea to choose a name that's not too similar to another registered business to avoid trademark infringement. Under trademark law, your trade name can't be used by someone else in a way that would cause confusion among consumers. So, if you use a name that's the same as or too similar to someone else's trademark and you both provide similar goods or services, then you could be infringing on their trademark. If you find a competitor company already exists with a similar name, then it's best to choose another name.

For example, suppose you want to operate a computer repair shop in your garage under the name Apple Bytes Computer Repair. In the next town over, there's a computer sales and service store called Apple's Byte Computer Repair and Sales that has been in business for years. Because your repair business would have a similar name to a store that already exists, you should choose a different name.

To make sure your business name is available, you should run a search in the following government databases:

(For more information, read our FAQ on choosing and registering a business name.)

2. File a Trade Name or Fictitious Name With Ohio

If you use a business name that's different from your legal name, Ohio requires you to register that trade name or fictitious name with the Secretary of State. Ohio defines a trade name as a name that's used to designate a business that the owner has exclusive rights in. Ohio law defines a fictitious name as a name that hasn't been registered or can't be registered as a trade name. (Ohio Rev. Code § 1329.01 (2023).)

A trade name must be distinguishable from any name registered with the Secretary of State. So, for example, a name that's not distinguishable could be a fictitious name but not a trade name. Again, you should talk to an Ohio business attorney about the distinction between trade names and fictitious names.

Regardless of whether your name qualifies as a trade name or fictitious name, you should register it. For instance, suppose Rashida Gonzalez runs a lawn care service under the name Endless Green Landscaping. Because Rashida's business name, Endless Green Landscaping, isn't the same as her legal name, she'll need to register her business name.

Use the Secretary of State's Name Registration Form 534A to register a trade name or report a fictitious name. You can download the form from the Secretary of State website and mail it to the address provided on the form. You can also file online. As of 2023, the filing fee is $39.

3. Apply for Licenses, Permits, and Zoning Clearance

Depending on your business activities, you could need to apply for business or professional licenses. The Ohio state government has a licenses and permits webpage where you can search for information on a wide variety of state business licenses. Specifically, the website has a list of occupations and their corresponding agency or department and contact information.

For professional licenses, check the state's eLicense Ohio webpage. There, you can apply for and renew your license from a different state agencies, boards, and commissions.

You might also need to comply with local regulations, building permits, and zoning laws. Check with your city and county governments, such as your city hall or county clerk, for more information.

4. Obtain an EIN

Sole proprietors who wish to have employees need to obtain an EIN. This is a nine-digit number issued by the IRS for tax reporting purposes. All businesses with employees are required to report wages to the IRS using an EIN. You can register for an EIN online with the IRS.

Sole proprietors without employees aren't required to have an EIN. Instead, you can use your Social Security number to report taxes. Nevertheless, you might want to obtain an EIN. Some banks require an EIN to open a bank account, and having an EIN can reduce the risk of identity theft.

In Ohio, businesses are required to report taxes and file various employee reports. You might need to use your EIN when reporting business taxes.

Next Steps for Sole Proprietors

You should consider taking the following steps once you've established your sole proprietorship:

  • Open a business bank account for your sole proprietorship. Using your trade or fictitious name and EIN, set up a bank account to keep your business and personal finances separate. You should keep your business income and expenses separate from your personal funds so you can easily distinguish your business's financial profile for tax purposes. For instance, you can more easily report business deductions on your tax return if you've created a separate account.
  • Obtain general liability insurance. Because sole proprietors are personally liable for all debts and obligations of the business, a business liability insurance policy can offer financial protection against unforeseen events. You should also consider other types of insurance for your business, including property and auto insurance. For more information, read our article on the types of insurance your small business might need.
  • Report and pay taxes. Depending on your specific business activities, you could be required to report such items as sales tax and use tax. You can get more information about sales and use taxes, employer withholding taxes, and other business taxes in the Ohio business taxes section of the Department of Taxation website. (For more information, see our section on business taxes and deductions.)

To find out how to form a sole proprietorship in any other state, see our state guide to establishing a sole proprietorship.

Consulting a Small Business Attorney

You might not need to submit paperwork to start a sole proprietorship in Ohio. But your specific circumstances could require you to file certain forms and comply with certain rules and regulations. As a business owner, it's important to understand what steps you need to take to legally start and operate your sole proprietorship.

If you have business experience and only need to meet a few requirements to establish your sole proprietorship, you can probably do the work yourself. But if you need specific guidance or run into a complicated issue when starting your business, you should talk to a small business lawyer. A lawyer can help you register your name, file your taxes, and obtain licenses and permits.

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