How to Get a Small Business License in California

Take a look at which licenses, permits, and registrations your small business might need in California.

By , J.D., New York University School of Law
Updated by Amanda Hayes, Attorney (University of North Carolina School of Law)

The Golden Bear state is home to many entrepreneurs who must decipher how to get a small business license in California. You need to know which licenses and permits are required for you and your business and how you can apply for them.

Let's look at the legal requirements for starting a business in California.

Which Business Licenses Do You Need for Your Small Business?

When starting a California business, you must:

Which licenses and permits you must apply for depends on your business structure, industry, and location. The main types of business licenses, permits, and registrations are:

(For more general guidance, see our article on the legal requirements for starting a small business.)

General Business License in California

California doesn't issue a statewide business license. Instead, you'll likely need to obtain one from the city or county you'll be operating in.

Some cities call this general business license a "business tax certificate" or a "business registration certificate." Businesses that are operated in unincorporated sections of the state must obtain their license or tax certificate on a county basis.

If your business has multiple locations, you might be required to obtain a business license in each city where you operate your company. For example, if you run a business with separate locations in Fresno and San Diego, you'll need a business license and tax certificate from Fresno and a business tax certificate from San Diego.

Based on the jurisdiction, you might be able to submit your registration application online, by postal mail, or in person. The license costs could be a flat rate, gross sales percentage, or a combination of these elements based on your industry and the city or county where your enterprise is situated.

Typically, you'll need to provide the licensing authority with:

  • the owner's name and address
  • the business's name and address
  • additional contact information
  • business type and structure
  • federal tax ID number (usually an EIN)
  • the number of employees, and
  • projected annual sales.

The California State Association of Counties provides a list of incorporated cities within each county. You can also find links to county websites and other information.

Professional and Occupational Licenses for Businesses and Individuals in California

Depending on your industry and the regulations within your industry, you could need to obtain professional or occupational licenses. Some occupations and professions require you to obtain a license at the individual and business levels.

California Departments that Issue and Regulate Professions

In California, the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) and the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) are in charge of professional permits, licenses, registrations, and certificates for individuals and businesses.

On the DCA website, you can find webpages with:

The DIR has a webpage dedicated to permits, licenses, certifications, and registration. This page hosts a table where you can learn more about the types of work and businesses managed by the DIR.

In addition, the California Office of the Small Business Advocate (CalOSBA) provides a professional licensure guide. This guide provides links to the appropriate regulatory authorities and is categorized by business type.

Search the CalGOLD Business Permit System

The Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development aids businesses by offering a CalGOLD Business Permit System, a searchable online database of regulated professions and industries with relevant contact and website information.

Just choose your city or county and your business type to get a list of all the licenses, permits, and other requirements that could apply to your business at the city, county, and state levels. For example, if you selected the city of Montclair in San Bernadino County and "restaurant," then your list would include information about the city business tax certificate, the county health permit, and the state alcoholic beverage tax.

California Seller's Permit

If you sell or lease taxable goods or services in California, you must apply for and obtain a seller's permit. The California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA) administers this permit.

You can apply online to obtain your license and register your account. (The CDTFA is also in charge of other licenses and permits.

Local Zoning and Building Permits

In some cases, especially if you'll be building or renovating a space, you'll need to get special zoning and building permits. Some cities require zoning clearance before applying for a general business license. Zoning clearance simply means that your proposed business activities and use of the space comply with current city codes and ordinances.

Zoning laws. If your type of business isn't in line with the zoning code, you can find another space or potentially apply for a special use permit. A special permit can provide your business with an exception to the current use laws.

Building code. You can work with local departments and agencies to apply for building and construction permits. You'll likely need to have inspections related to your space's structural, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing features.

If you'll be leasing a commercial space, make sure you have a section in the commercial lease that ensures the building and your use of the space are in line with the zoning laws.

Fictitious Business Name Statement for California Businesses

If you use a name that's different from your legal name (for sole proprietors and general partnerships) or the business name you've registered with the SOS, you're using a trade name—also known as a "fictitious business name" (FBN) or "doing business as" (DBA). For example, suppose you've registered the name ABC Company with the SOS but you run a personal fitness center called "FitWorld Unlimited." Your legal name would be "ABC Company," and your DBA or FBN would be "FitWorld Unlimited."

If you use an FBN, you'll need to file an FBN statement with the county recorder in the county where your business is located. In general, you'll need to file an FBN statement within 40 days of starting your business. The statement is good for five years and can be renewed. (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17900 and following (2023).)

California requires you to publish your FBN statement in a local newspaper within 45 days of filing your statement with the county. You must publish the notice once a week for four weeks in a row. You'll also need to provide proof (an affidavit) of the publication with your city or county. (Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17917 (2023).)

Typically, a small fee is associated with the FBN statement. The city or county will determine the filing fee.

The FTB offers a guide to DBAs. You can find a list of California counties by visiting the California State Association of Counties.

Other Licenses and Permits Your Business Might Need

Apart from the licenses and permits discussed above, you might be required to comply with other laws and regulations. For example, your business might need to obtain special licensing or follow special rules related to:

  • safety
  • health, and
  • the environment.

Sometimes these areas are encompassed within other licenses, permits, and registrations. Other times, these licenses and permits will require a separate process. You should check with your federal, state, and local governments for more information.

California Business License Resources

Seeking to encourage new business activity, the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) provides a central clearinghouse on business incentives and information about starting or relocating a business in California. The GO-Biz office provides an interactive map for new businesses to find relevant local resources.

The CalOSBA can further aid small businesses with information on start-up issues in California. It provides information and support (such as grants and programs) to help start, manage, and grow small businesses. For license and permit information, check out the CalOSBA webpages on:

These webpages provide basic information on these topics and direct you toward other resources where you can find additional instructions and guidance.

Talking to a California Business Attorney

Obtaining all the required licenses and permits and navigating the laws related to your business can be intensive. Sometimes, applying for a single license or permit can be difficult. If you only need a general business license along with a seller's permit or DBA, you can likely complete the process on your own.

But if you need to comply with building code inspections or you apply for a zoning permit, consider consulting with a California business attorney with experience applying for those kinds of licenses and permits. They can help you navigate the regulatory process and make sure your business is following all the necessary laws before you open for business.

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