Looking to start a small business in Virginia? You could need to obtain one or more business licenses and permits—or complete one or more kinds of state registrations—as part of the startup process. Here's a quick look at some of the main informational resources available and a few of the steps you could need to take.
When starting a business in Virginia, you must:
The types of licenses and permits your business 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.)
Virginia doesn't require businesses to obtain a general business license to operate within the state. But most cities and counties will require a business to obtain a local business license if it wants to operate within that city or county. In general, you'll need to renew your general business license with your city every year. Your city or county might refer to the general business license by a different name.
In most cities, you'll have to submit a business license application. Though it varies from location to location, in general, you should be prepared to provide the following information in your application:
Your city or county might provide a way for you to apply for your general license online, by mail, or in person. Each jurisdiction will determine the license fee. The fee could be a flat rate or based on your gross receipts or industry. For example, Chesapeake's business license tax is based on the business's gross receipts and the tax rate varies by industry. Richmond's license fee depends largely on the business's annual gross receipts. Businesses that make less than $250,000 in gross receipts that year pay a small fee or no fee, and businesses that make more than $250,000 pay at a tax rate related to their industry.
Contact your local government's finance or revenue department for more information.
Many professions and occupations require special licensing or certification. If you fall into one of these professions or occupations, you'll need to make sure you apply for and obtain the proper authorizations before you start practicing in your chosen area. In addition to getting your individual licensure or certification, you could need to obtain a license or certification for your business entity.
The Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) handles most of the state's professional and occupational licensing. The DPOR website has sections listing the various professional regulatory boards and regulated professions and occupations. By clicking on an item on one of these lists, you'll go to a website with detailed licensing information for that profession or occupation.
On the pages for the individual professions and occupations, you can find information about:
The DPOR, however, isn't in charge of all professions. For those professions, such as physicians and attorneys, you should do an online search to locate the relevant state regulatory board. Typically, these professions will have their own dedicated board website.
For example, suppose Sharique wants to work as a certified public accountant (CPA) in Virginia. She'll need to apply for a license through the Virginia Board of Accountancy. By going to the Board's website, she can get information about how to apply for her license, including the education, exam, and experience requirements.
If the products or services you provide are subject to state sales and use tax, then you must register with the DOT to collect and pay sales tax in Virginia. You can register in one of two ways:
After you register, you'll receive a sales tax account number and sales tax certificate of registration. You must display your certificate at your business location. You should keep a copy of both with your business records.
For more, visit the retail sales and use tax webpage on the DOT website.
In some cases—for instance, if you'll be building or remodeling a space—you'll need to get special zoning and building permits. For example, suppose you purchase a building that used to be a dog grooming business but you want to turn it into a restaurant. You want to renovate the space to put in a commercial kitchen and add a deck for outdoor eating. You'll need to get building permits before you can begin construction. You should also check to make sure these changes are in compliance with your city's zoning laws.
Oftentimes, cities will require you to get a certificate of zoning compliance, certificate of occupancy, or similar permit before you can apply for your general business license. In general, these certificates simply demonstrate that your proposed business activities and use of the space comply with current city codes and ordinances.
For example, Richmond requires most businesses to get a certificate of zoning compliance before they can obtain a business license. Businesses that involve gatherings of individuals require a certificate of occupancy instead of a certificate of zoning compliance.
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.
Many sole proprietorships and partnerships don't simply operate under the names of their owners. Instead, they operate under a trade name. For example, Ali Hassan might run a motorcycle repair shop under the trade name "Mass Motors."
In addition, some businesses, such as corporations and LLCs, might originally register with the state under one name (referred to as its "legal name" or "registered name"), but later choose to operate under another name. For instance, Fresh Brew Coffee L.L.C. might open a 24/7 cafe called "Midnight Brew."
In Virginia, a trade name is usually referred to as an "assumed name" or "fictitious name." However, you might hear it called a "doing business as" (DBA) as well. All businesses operating under an assumed name must file a certificate with the Clerk's Office of the SCC. (Va. Code §§ 59.1-609 and following (2023).)
The process to file for a fictitious name is relatively simple in Virginia. The type of form you file depends on your business structure:
You can file the certificate online through the Clerk's Information System or by mail. As of 2023, the fee to file the fictitious name certificate is $10.
Be aware that filing a fictitious name certificate doesn't mean you have the exclusive right to use the name. Others can file a certificate for the same name. While not required, you should choose a name that's unique. Search the SCC's entity name database to check whether the assumed name you want to use is available.
To learn more, read the fictitious names webpage on the SCC website.
Apart from the licenses, permits, and registrations discussed above, you could be required to comply with other laws and regulations. These laws could be related to safety, health, and the environment. If you're in a highly regulated field, you're more likely to need additional licenses and permits.
While this article has focused mainly on state and local licensing requirements in Virginia, be sure to check federal laws that might pertain to your business. For example, if your business will have a substantial environmental impact—for instance, your products and services will be related to agriculture, manufacturing, or waste disposal—you could need to pay special attention to laws and regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Small business owners should take advantage of the many publicly-available resources provided under the Commonwealth:
This article covers only the very tip of the iceberg regarding small business licenses and registrations in Virginia. You can find more information in our small business section.
If you're looking to dive in further, 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.
The Commonwealth has a number of resources to help guide you through the various licensing, permit, and registration processes ahead of you. You can also directly contact the different departments and agencies for more personalized assistance. Even with help available, your situation could call for legal expertise. For instance, you could need to undertake an extensive process to apply for a special use permit or you might need to decode the seemingly indecipherable tax code.
If you need extra legal assistance, contact a Virginia business attorney. Depending on your situation and needs, it might be more useful to talk to a tax lawyer or land use attorney. Look for local attorneys who have experience with the type of license or permit you need. You could ask a lawyer to help you with one issue or with the whole process.