Opening a business is an exciting time for a small business owner. The first steps you take to form your company are critical—they'll set up the framework for how your business legally operates. One of the most important tasks you'll face when starting your Pennsylvania business is obtaining all of the required business licenses and permits.
Let's take a look at the key licenses, permits, and registrations your business will need to apply for in the Keystone State.
When starting a business in Pennsylvania, you must:
The licenses and permits you must apply for will depend on your business structure, industry, and location. The main kinds of business licenses, permits, and registrations are:
(For more general guidance, see our article on the legal requirements for starting a small business.)
Pennsylvania, like many other states, doesn't issue a statewide general business license. But you'll probably need to obtain a business license from the city, town, or county you'll be operating in. General business licenses are usually issued annually so you'll probably need to review yours every year.
Your municipality might have its own name for this kind of general license. For example, the City of Philadelphia requires you to obtain a commercial activity license to do business in the city. Harrisburg requires you to get a business privilege and mercantile license to do trade within the city.
To apply for this general license, you'll likely need to submit an application and fee. Your city will set the fee, which can vary. For example, Harrisburg charges a flat $50 annual fee, and Philadelphia doesn't charge a fee at all to obtain a license. Regardless of the license fee, you should expect to pay a yearly tax, which usually depends on your gross receipts for that year.
In general, you should be prepared to provide the following information when applying for your general license:
You could also be expected to provide your estimated annual gross receipts, number of employees, and other information about you and your business.
You should your city, town, or county website for more information. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development has a list of municipalities in Pennsylvania organized by county and class.
If you're part of a specific profession or occupation, you'll likely need to obtain special licensing or certification before you can start practicing in your area. Depending on the requirements for your profession or occupation, you might need to obtain two levels of licenses or certifications: one for you as an individual and one for your business.
The DOS's Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs provides information and support to more than two dozen licensing boards and commissions. You can find a variety of professional licensing information from the Bureau on the professional licensing section of the DOS website. Through the Bureau, you can find:
Each individual board and commission webpage has:
You can use the DOS's Pennsylvania Licensing System (PALS) to apply for, renew, and review your professional license.
Not every regulatory authority is included under the DOS. You should contact your licensing board, commission, or association directly to check the requirements for your profession or occupation. Some regulatory authorities have their own websites.
If you sell or provide taxable tangible personal property or services, then you must obtain a sales tax license from the DOR. This sales tax license requirement applies to:
Once you obtain a sales tax license, you can collect and pay sales tax in Pennsylvania. You can register for a sales tax license online using Pennsylvania's Online Business Tax Registration. This service is provided through myPATH, Pennsylvania's tax hub.
In some cases—like if you'll be constructing or remodeling a space—you'll need to get special zoning and building permits. You might need to obtain zoning clearance for your location before you open your business. 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.
In Pennsylvania, any business that intends to operate under a fictitious name (also called a "trade name" or "DBA") must register that name with the DOS. You must register your fictitious name if:
(54 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 301 and following (2023).)
For example, Joe Roman might run a car repair shop under the trade name "Brotherly Love Auto Repair," or ABC Corp. might do business under the name "Steel Eagle Repairs."
To register your fictitious name, you can either:
As of 2023, the fee to register a fictitious name is $70.
Your fictitious name must be distinguishable from any name that's already been reserved or registered with the DOS. Your fictitious name also can't be the same or too similar to the name of a board, commission, department, or agency in the Commonwealth. In addition, if you'd like to include a specific descriptive designation in your fictitious name—for instance, "bank," "cooperative," "engineering," or "college"—then you'll need permission from the proper authority to do so. (54 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 311 (2023).)
If any individual is claiming the use of the fictitious name, then you must publish notice of your intention to apply for the fictitious name. The advertisement requirement would apply to, for example, sole proprietors and partnerships. You must publish the notice before or on the day you register your fictitious name. (54 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 311 (2023).)
You must publish the notice in two county newspapers of general circulation. If your business is located in a county with only one newspaper, then publishing a notice in that newspaper satisfies this publication requirement. You must publish the notice at least once. (15 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 102 (2023).)
Apart from the licenses, permits, and registrations discussed above, you could 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:
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.
The Commonwealth's Business One-Stop Shop offers a wealth of information for small business owners. This helpful state resource guides you through the process of opening your business and includes information on local registrations, permits, and zoning as well as professional licensing and state operating permits.
If you need more personalized guidance, consider talking to a Pennsylvania business lawyer. Because permits and licenses can be specific to a business's commercial activities, you should, if possible, look for an attorney who has experience working with businesses in your industry.
If you'd like additional resources, check out Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold, and The Small Business Start-Up Kit, by Peri Pakroo. You can also find more helpful articles in our small business section.