How to Get a Small Business License in Tennessee

Learn the steps required to obtain a business license in Tennessee.



Looking to start a small business in Tennessee? You may need to obtain one or more state licenses or permits, or complete one or more kinds of state registration, as part of the start-up process. Here’s a quick look at some of the main informational resources available and a few of the steps you may need to take.

Tennessee Small Business Information

The Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development (ECD) website has pages devoted to small businesses. The pages provide information on such things as entrepreneurship events, regional business accelerator programs, and connection to capital and investors. There is also a How to Start a Business section with step-by-step guidance.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has a district office in Nashville. The office’s website lists upcoming events, resources, and news for small businesses. The SBA also publishes a Tennessee-specific Resource Guide for Small Business that you can download from the SBA website.

The Tennessee Small Business Development Centers (TSBDC) are another good resource. The TSBDC website has links for free advising and training services, as well as other useful information. The TSBDC is part of a national network of SBDCs.

Get One or More Business Licenses

Not every Tennessee business needs a license. However, many types of business either can or must get one or more licenses or permits. Some of those licenses and permits are handled at the state level. Different licenses and permits are issued by different agencies. Some of the most important issuing agencies are:

In most cases, the latter agencies issue what are sometimes called regulatory permits and licenses. This is as opposed to professional and vocational licenses. The Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI), for example, is important for professional licensing.

Apart from state-issued licenses, many required business licenses and permits in Tennessee are issued locally. Local business licenses often are associated with local business taxes. You must register for these local licenses at the appropriate County Court Clerk or the city tax collection authority or both. You can find more details by checking the website for the cities and counties where you’ll be doing business. As examples, Knox County,Davidson County, and Shelby County all have websites providing information on local licensing. Some businesses may be exempt from local licensing requirements under state or federal law.

File Records For Your Form of Business

Beyond obtaining required licenses or permits, some legal forms of business, such as corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs), are required to file records with the state. More specifically, corporations, LLCs, and certain other types of business must file organizational documents with the Tennessee Secretary of State (SOS; also known as the Department of State). You can find additional information by going to the Business Entity Filingssection of the SOS website.

Obtain Professional Licensing

If you’re a member of any one of many professions and occupations, you’ll need to be licensed by the State of Tennessee. The Department of Commerce & Insurance (TDCI) oversees many (but not all) of the regulatory boards and commissions for licensed professions and occupations. The Regulatory Boards section of the TCDI website lists the professions and occupations the TCDI handles. The list runs from Accountancy to Soil Scientists. By clicking on a listed item, you’ll be taken to a website with detailed information for the state regulatory board for that profession or occupation.

Some professional regulatory boards are not handled through the TCDI. For example, boards for health related professions are handled through the DOH’s Health Professional Boards, which you can access from the DOH website. Attorneys are regulated by the Board of Professional Responsibility (BOPR). The BOPR website is separate from other state agencies.

Example: Manuel wants to work as a limited licensed plumber. Plumbing is regulated at various levels in Tennessee (state and local). Among other things, Manuel will have to pass an exam and file a license application with the Tennessee Board of Licensing Contractors. He can get extensive information about the Board and its licensing requirements by clicking on the Limited Licensed Plumbers link on the TCDI website.

Assumed or Fictitious Business Names

Many small businesses don’t simply operate under the names of their owners. Instead, they operate under a business name. In addition, some businesses, such as corporations and LLCs, may originally register with the state under one name (sometimes called the registered name, actual name, or true name), but later choose to operate under another name. Depending on where you’re doing business and how your business is structured, this alternative business name technically may be known as an assumed name, a fictitious name, a trade name, or a DBA (for “doing business as”). In Tennessee, corporations and LLCs must file a form with the SOS if they intend to operate under a trade name.

Example: Belinda originally organized her car repair business as a Tennessee corporation named Bel’s Nashville Garage, Inc. She now wants to operate under the assumed name Opry Foreign Auto Repair, Inc. Belinda must file a Form SS-4402, APPLICATION FOR REGISTRATION OF ASSUMED CORPORATE NAME, including the filing fee, with the SOS.

Register a Trademark or Service Mark

There are separate legal definitions for trademarks, service marks, and trade names. However, speaking very generally, trademarks, service marks, and trade names are used to uniquely identify goods (products), services, or a business. This includes distinguishing a product, service, or business from potential competitors. Trademarks and service marks can be registered with the state. (This is distinct from federal registration.) You can find more information by going to the Trademarks section of the SOS website.

Example: Malik wants to sell his coffee-cocoa candy bars under the name “Mal’s Sweet Brown Buzz Bars.” So—after checking to make sure the name isn’t already in use—he files Form SS-4264, APPLICATION FOR REGISTRATION OF TRADEMARK OR SERVICE MARK, including the filing fee, with the SOS.

Additional Information

This article covers only the very tip of the iceberg regarding small business licenses and registrations in Tennessee. You can find much more information in the many other articles in the Small Business section here on Nolo.com. Many of those articles are part of 50-state series—so you can get plenty of information that’s specific to the State of Tennessee. You can also find expanded information in many Nolo books, such as Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred S. Steingold, and The Small Business Start-Up Kit, by Peri Pakroo.

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