Qualifying to Do Business Outside Your State

LLCs and corporations may have to "qualify" to do business outside their home state.

If your LLC or corporation operates in multiple states, you may have to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of each state in which you do business -- a process called "qualifying to do business" in a state. Whether or not you must qualify to do business in a state depends on a number of factors, discussed in this article.

For state-specific information on qualifying as a foreign business in another state, see our 50-State Guide to Qualifying Your LLC to Do Business in Another State.

When an LLC or a Corporation Must Qualify to Do Business in Another State

If you plan on doing business in a state other than where you incorporated your LLC or corporation, you'll have to check out the rules of the state where you'll be providing your services or goods. Every state has its own variations on when a business must qualify as a "foreign" (out-of-state) corporation or LLC, but they all follow this same basic principle -- companies must qualify in a state if they are engaged in intrastate business in that state. If the business in which they are engaged in a state is merely incidental to a larger interstate business operation, they may not have to qualify.

Intrastate LLCs and Corporations Must Qualify to Do Business

Your LLC or corporation must qualify to do business in any state where it is engaged in intrastate business. This means that at least part of your business is conducted entirely within that state's borders. For example, if your business has a warehouse in another state and you sell and ship from that warehouse to customers within that state, you are engaged in intrastate business in that state.

Interstate LLCs and Corporations Do Not Have to Qualify to Do Business

On the other hand, a state can't make you qualify or pay taxes in that state if you only engage in interstate business with other states -- meaning that all of your business is conducted across state lines. For example, if you sell and ship merchandise from your home state to residents in other states, you are engaged in merely interstate business, which cannot be regulated by other states.

Exceptions to the Intrastate Rule

States exempt certain types of business from the definition of intrastate business. Here are some examples of the types of business activities that out-of-state corporations and LLCs can conduct without having to qualify:

  • mail order or telephone sales, if they are the only business activities the company engages in within a state
  • maintaining a website, if the website is the only presence you have in other states
  • national (not local) advertising campaigns to customers in that state
  • selling through independent contractors in that state.

How to Qualify to Do Business in Another State as a Corporation or LLC

Qualification is simply a registration process that involves filing paperwork and paying fees -- similar to the procedures and fees required for incorporating your business or forming your LLC. As part of the process, you must also designate a registered agent -- a person or company who resides in the state who agrees to accept legal papers on your behalf in the state. Qualification fees range from $100 to $500 or more depending on the state.

Once you are registered in a state, you must report and pay state income and sales taxes, as well as abide by state employment tax filings if you have sufficient payroll, property, and sales in the state.

If You Don't Register Where You Should

If you don't qualify in a state where you meet the requirements for qualifying, there may be consequences.

Penalties. You may be subject to financial penalties known as late-qualification penalties. Under California law, for example, there is a late-qualification penalty of $250 plus $20 per day for willful (knowing, not inadvertent) failure to qualify.

Disallowed from bringing lawsuits. Most states prevent companies that have not qualified in that state from bringing a lawsuit in that state's courts. Under these laws (known as closed-door statutes), a court will delay or dismiss your lawsuit if the defendant objects because you did not qualify your business in the state.

Play It Safe – Qualify to Do Business

It makes sense for you or your lawyer to find out the rules in the states in which your business is engaged in any intrastate business. If you conclude that your activities might be considered intrastate business in some states, it's best to qualify to do business in those states. Better to deal with the inconvenience and modest filing fees ahead of time rather than face penalties and court delays if the state determines that you should have qualified, but didn't.

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