How to Start a Business in Washington D.C.

From licenses and permits to taxes and insurance, learn what you need to do to start a business in the District of Columbia.

By , Attorney
Updated by Christine Mathias, Attorney · Penn State Dickinson School of Law

Here's an overview of the key steps you'll need to take to start your own business in Washington, D.C.

1. Choose a Business Idea

Take some time to explore and research ideas for your business. At this stage, take into consideration your own interests, skills, resources, availability, and the reasons why you want to form a business. You should also consider the likelihood of success based on the interests and needs of your community. Read our article for more tips on how to evaluate business ideas.

After you select an idea, consider drafting a business plan to evaluate your chances of making a profit. When you create a plan, you will have a better idea of the startup costs, your competition, and strategies for making money. Typically, investors and lenders will ask to review your business plan before providing financial assistance. To learn more about the benefits of business plans and how to create one for your enterprise see Why You Need to Write a Business Plan.

2. Decide on a Legal Structure

The most common legal structures for a small business are:

  • sole proprietorship
  • partnership
  • limited liability company (LLC), and
  • corporation.

There also are special versions of some of these structures, such as limited partnerships and S corporations. You'll want to consider which business entity structure offers the type of liability protection you want and the best tax, financing, and financial benefits for you and your business. Read our article for information on how to choose the best ownership structure for your business.

3. Choose a Name

For LLCs and corporations, you will need to check that your name is distinguishable from the names of other business entities already on file with the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). You can check for available names by doing a Business License Verification on the DCRA website. You can reserve an available name for 120 days. File name reservations online at the DCRA website or on paper by filing Form NR-1, Application for Name Reservation. There are certain name requirements for LLCs and corporations (like including a word such as "L.L.C." for LLCs or "Company" for corporations). See How to Form an LLC in the District of Columbia and How to Form a Corporation for more information.

Is your business is a sole proprietorship or partnership that uses a business name that is different from the name of the business owner (for a sole proprietorship) or names of the individual partners (for a partnership)? If so, you have the option to register a trade name with the DCRA.

If you plan on doing business online, you may want to register your business name as a domain name. See Choose and Register a Domain Name for more information. In addition, to avoid trademark infringement issues, you should do a federal and state trademark check to make sure the name you want to use is not the same as or too similar to a name already in use. See How to Do a Trademark Search for more information.

4. Create Your Business Entity

Note: All business entities in the District of Columbia need some kind of business license (see next section).

5. Apply for Licenses and Permits

Tax Registration. If you will be selling goods in Washington, DC, you must register with the Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) to collect sales tax. If your business will have employees, you must register with the OTR for employer withholding taxes. You can register for both types of tax, among others, either online via the DC Taxpayer Service Center (TSC) or on paper using Form FR-500, Combined Registration Application for Business DC Taxes/Fees/Assessments.

EIN. If your business has employees or is taxed separately from you, you must obtain a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS. Even if you are not required to obtain an EIN, there are often business reasons for doing so. Banks often require an EIN to open an account in the business's name and other companies you do business with may require an EIN to process payments. You can get an EIN by completing an online application. There is no filing fee.

Basic Business License (BBL). All businesses operating in the District of Columbia must be licensed in some way by the D.C. government. In many cases, this means getting a Basic Business License (BBL). However, some businesses where the principals are required to be licensed by a certification board or body—which often means licensed professionals (see below)—are not required to have a BBL. BBLs are issued by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA).

Regulatory licenses and permits. These cover areas such as:

  • health and safety
  • the environment
  • building and construction; and
  • specific industries or services

Your particular business may need a regulatory license or permit. For example, you may need an environmental permit issued by the Department of Energy & Environment.

Professional and occupational licenses. These cover people who work in various fields. The DCRA's Occupational & Professional Licensing Administration (OPLA) licenses, for example, certified public accountants, architects, real estate agents, master electricians, plumbers, and asbestos workers. However, other professions and occupations are licensed through agencies such as:

  • Department of Health
  • Department of Mental Health
  • Department of Insurance, Securities and Banking, and
  • Metropolitan Police Department (for security officers).

6. Find a Business Location and Check Zoning

You'll need to pick a location for your business and check local zoning regulations. Before you commit to a location, take time to calculate the costs of running your business in the desired spot, including rent and utilities. You can refer back to your business plan to evaluate whether you can afford your desired location during your company's early months.

It is important to verify that the spot is zoned for your type of business. You might find zoning regulations for your town or city by reviewing your local ordinances and contacting your town's zoning or planning department. Read our article for more tips on picking a location.

One alternative to opening your business at a new location is running your company out of your home. If you decide to run a home-based business, again check your local zoning laws. In addition, review your lease (if you rent your home) and homeowners association rules (if applicable), either of which might ban some or all home businesses.

7. File and Report Taxes

The District of Columbia taxes every kind of business. All forms of unincorporated business, such as sole proprietorships, general partnerships, and LLCs, that have at least a certain minimum amount of gross receipts and are not otherwise exempt, are subject to D.C.'s Unincorporated Business Franchise Tax (UBFT). To pay the Unincorporated Business Franchise Tax, use Form D-30.

Corporations are subject to D.C.'s Corporate Franchise Tax. To pay the Corporate Franchise tax, use Form D-20.

Sole proprietorships. Pay state taxes on business income as part of their personal state income tax returns (Form D-40). They are also subject to the UBFT.

Partnerships. Partners pay state taxes on partnership income on personal tax returns. In addition, some District of Columbia partnerships also must file Form D-65, Partnership Return of Income. They are also subject to the UBFT.

LLCs. Members pay state taxes on their share of LLC income on personal tax returns. In addition, LLCs themselves are subject to either the UBFT or the Corporate Franchise Tax. D.C. LLCs classified as corporations for federal tax purposes also have to file a D.C. corporate tax form. Furthermore, District of Columbia LLCs are required to file a biennial report with the DCRA. See District of Columbia LLC Annual Filing Requirements for more information.

Corporations. Shareholders must pay taxes on their dividends from the corporation. A shareholder-employee with a salary also must pay income tax on his or her personal state tax return. Moreover, the corporation itself is subject to the District of Columbia's Corporate Franchise Tax. And, finally, corporations must file a biennial report with the DCRA.

If you have employees, you must also deal with state employer taxes.

And, apart from District of Columbia taxes, there are always federal income and employer taxes. Check IRS Publications 334, Tax Guide for Small Business, and 583, Taxpayers Starting a Business.

8. Obtain Insurance

Business insurance can protect your company and your personal assets from the fallout of unexpected disasters, such as personal injury lawsuits or natural catastrophes. An insurance agent can help you explore the different coverage options, which might include general liability insurance to protect your business against claims relating to bodily injury or property damage. To learn more, see Nolo's article, What Types of Insurances Does Your Small Business Need?

9. Open a Business Bank Account

No matter the type of business you form, you should consider opening a separate business account to make it easier to track your income and expenses. For some business types, like LLCs and corporations, a separate bank account is necessary to maintain your liability protection. To learn more, see Opening a Business Bank Account.

Find the business structure that fits your business. Take our business formation quiz for help deciding the best structure for your business.

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