How to Get a Small Business License in North Carolina

Find out what you need to do to obtain a small business license in North Carolina.

By , Attorney University of North Carolina School of Law
Updated 3/12/2024

If you want to launch your business in North Carolina, you need to understand the state's regulatory requirements. You'll need to obtain the proper licenses and permits for your small business.

Below are the different licenses, permits, and registrations you need to start your North Carolina business.

Which Business Licenses Do You Need for Your Small Business?

When starting a business in North Carolina, you must:

The kinds of licenses and permits your small business needs depend 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 North Carolina

North Carolina, like many other states, doesn't have a state-issued general business license. Instead, your company's location and business activities will determine whether you need a license from the state or your local government.

North Carolina issues nearly 500 business licenses and permits at the state level. The North Carolina Department of Commerce (DOC) has a Business and Occupational License Database (NCBOLD). The database includes:

  • business licenses
  • professional licenses, and
  • privilege licenses (for sales and use tax).

By clicking on a license, you'll be taken to that license's webpage to find out more about the requirements and licensing process. Each license's webpage includes information about:

  • the license application
  • the duration of the license
  • the relevant state law
  • exam and education requirements
  • continuing education requirements
  • certification and experience requirements
  • licensing fees
  • exemptions
  • the licensing authority's contact information, and
  • other requirements.

You could need to obtain special licensing at multiple levels, including through the city, county, state, and federal governments. Cities often require people and businesses to obtain a license to operate within the city limits. Some cities require every business to have a license while others require only businesses in particular industries to get a license.

For example, the City of Raleigh doesn't require a general business license to operate within the city. Only some business activities require a license or permit, such as selling beer and wine or providing outdoor seating. Likewise, the City of Charlotte also doesn't require a general business license to operate within the city. (The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library provides a checklist of the legalities for starting a business in Charlotte.)

Visit your city's website or contact local officials to determine whether your business operations require a license. In general, every city will have its own procedure and license fees.

Professional and Occupational Licenses for Businesses and Individuals in North Carolina

Before you start practicing under your profession or occupation, you need to make sure you're legally allowed to do so. Many occupations and professions require practitioners to have special licenses or certifications. For example, cosmetologists are usually required to have a cosmetology license and doctors are required to have medical licenses. Depending on your area of practice, you might have to obtain two separate licenses: one for you and one for your business.

You can find out information about your occupational or professional license through NCBOLD. Your license's webpage will likely have a link to the license application and the associated regulatory authority's website.

Your occupation or profession might not be included on these websites. Instead, you could need to directly contact your department, board, or commission to learn more about the licensing requirements in your industry. You should start by doing an internet search of your occupation to find your regulatory authority's website.

Keep in mind that every profession and occupation has its own rules and requirements. For instance, your profession might require you to pass an initial licensing exam or complete continuing education courses. Make sure you're aware of what you need to do to obtain your license and maintain it.

North Carolina Certificate of Registration for Sales Tax

In general, if you sell or lease tangible personal goods or provide taxable services, you must collect and pay sales tax in North Carolina. You must register your business with the NCDOR for sales and use tax to get your Certificate of Registration.

You can register your business for sales tax using either:

You can register your business for income withholding tax and other taxes using the same application. You won't need to pay a fee to obtain your retail sales permit. The NCDOR provides a business registration checklist to help you prepare for the registration process. After you register your business, you'll receive an NC tax ID number and Certificate of Registration.

Visit the sales and use tax section of the NCDOR website for more guidance, including current tax rates, links to tax forms and certificates, and resources.

You should also check with your city or county to learn about their tax reporting requirements.

Local Zoning and Building Permits

In some cases—for example, if you'll be building a new space or renovating an existing space—you'll need to get special zoning and building permits from your city or county. To get the required permits or special zoning, you'll typically need to go through a review process that usually consists of filing an application, attending meetings with local officials, and passing final inspections. For more extensive work, you could also need to submit site plans or hire a professional architect or engineer.

For example, the Land Development section of the Charlotte Department of Transportation oversees land use and development in the city through the CLT Development Center. The CLT Development Center handles zoning and permitting. On the Center's website, you can find detailed information about:

  • the commercial plan review process
  • how to schedule meetings for your construction project
  • zoning maps
  • city ordinances
  • checklists and manuals
  • online services, and
  • other resources.

You should talk to your local officials or visit your city or county website for information related to zoning and building permits. You should also review your local code and ordinances to determine which zoning and building requirements apply to your business and planned operations.

Zoning laws. If your type of business isn't in line with the zoning code, you can either look for another space for your business or 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'd like to lease a commercial space, be sure to have a section in the commercial lease that ensures that the building and your use of the space are in line with the zoning laws.

Filing an Assumed Business Name Certificate in North Carolina

In general, if you use an assumed name (also called a "trade name," "DBA," or "fictitious name") in North Carolina, then you must file an Assumed Business Name Certificate. You must file your certificate with the register of deeds of the county where you'll do business. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 66-71.1 and following (2024).)

An "assumed name" is any name that's different from:

(N.C. Gen. Stat. § 66-71.3 (2024).)

The SOS has a statewide database of all assumed names filed across the state. You can search for assumed business names on the SOS website. If your name is already taken by someone else, you should choose a different business name.

As of 2024, the fee to file an Assumed Business Name Certificate is $26.

Find more information, including links to forms, on the SOS's assumed business name webpage.

Other Licenses and Permits Your Business Might Need

Other than the licenses and permits discussed above, your business could be required to comply with other laws and regulations. For example, your business could need to apply for special licensing or follow special rules related to:

  • safety
  • health, and
  • the environment.

These regulatory areas could be included within other licenses, permits, and registrations. However, at other times, these licenses and permits will require a separate process altogether. If you're in a highly regulated field, be prepared to apply for multiple licenses and permits.

The regulatory requirements vary depending on the city or county involved. You should check the websites for the city and county where you'll operate your business for more information. Some businesses might be exempt from local licensing requirements under state or federal law.

You should check with your federal, state, and local governments for more information.

Additional Information for Small Businesses in North Carolina

The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC), a nonprofit that partners with the DOC, offers great step-by-step instructions for starting your small business in North Carolina. The steps include:

  • getting necessary licenses and permits
  • applying for a sales and use tax number
  • obtaining insurance
  • complying with regulations
  • protecting intellectual property, and
  • other great guidance and resources.

You should also consider working with the EDNPC Small Business Advisors. This free service provides entrepreneurs with business licensing information, one-on-one counseling options, online filing forms, and public and private sector referrals.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is a fantastic free resource for new businesses, particularly for finding funding and financial counseling. The SBA has four district offices across the state in Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Asheville. At each location, you can schedule a call or in-person appointment, get business tips, and attend business training and other events.

North Carolina businesses can also take advantage of the Small Business and Technology Development Center (SBTDC). The SBTDC provides many free services to help launch and manage your small business. You can work with the SBTDC to identify funding opportunities, create a business plan, meet regulatory requirements, and more. The SBTDC has 16 locations across North Carolina, all located on college campuses.

This article covers only the most common small business licenses and registrations in North Carolina. Other regulatory requirements might apply to your business. In addition to the state and federal resources, you can find more information on the small business section of our website. If you want to learn even more, you can read Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold (Nolo), and The Small Business Start-Up Kit, by Peri Pakroo (Nolo).

Many business owners can identify and obtain the licenses and permits for their business on their own. But, for one reason or another, you might find it helpful to seek professional help for your business's needs. Businesses in highly regulated fields or that have multiple locations or categories of business activities might find consulting with an attorney especially useful. If possible, you should try to work with a lawyer with experience assisting businesses in your industry.

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