A “small business license” is a bit of a misnomer for the various permits, licenses, and other certifications you need to legally operate a business in Virginia.
It’s a certificate that proves you are compliant with all relevant local, state, and federal laws.
Given the relative breadth of these three categories, however, your small business licensing process could be different from someone in a different city, county, or industry.
For this reason, the specific steps you’ll need to follow to apply for a small business license can vary based on a number of factors.
Below, we’ll outline the basics of the Virginia licensure process.
However, we highly recommend that you also browse through the links provided in our “Other Resources” section below for more information about your specific profession.
How to Apply for a Virginia Small Business License
There are four (and a half) steps to applying for a small business license in Virginia.
However, as noted above, the specific process you should follow will depend on your individual situation.
For this reason, the best advice we can give is to reach out to your local government to make sure your business is compliant with all relevant laws.
It may also be wise to speak with a local attorney in your jurisdiction with experience in helping new businesses get off the ground.
The steps we outline below simply cover the basics of an extremely case-specific process.
For more information on the requirements for your business type, please see the “other resources” section at the end of this article.
Step 0: Speak with a local attorney.
As we noted above, a small business license is essentially a document, issued by your local government, that proves your business is compliant with all relevant local, state, and federal laws.
For example, if you run a bar you’ll have to follow all relevant alcohol laws in these three main areas, since alcohol is regulated on the local, state, and federal levels.
On the other hand, barbers may only have to remain compliant with state licensing laws and certain local zoning regulations.
Since your business may have to wrangle with several different legal frameworks, it’s often beneficial to at least chat with a small business attorney about your licensing requirements.
Doing so can help ensure your business remains compliant with all relevant laws.
While you may not need an attorney exclusively for your small business license, many attorneys offer a variety of services which can help you set up your business for success.
For example, some may act as your registered agent, while others could help you draft your articles of organization or other business documents.
If you hire an attorney for another aspect of your business registration, that attorney may be open to answering questions about your licensing requirements as well.
Step 1: Research local requirements.
Regardless of whether you choose to hire an attorney, you should begin by researching any local and state requirements for your specific business type.
For example, you should always contact the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) to ask about any licensing requirements you may need at the state level.
You may also want to browse the various resources on their website, such as their page on professional and occupational licensing requirements.
Similarly, you should also use a resource like Municode to research any city or county-specific requirements for your occupation.
Richmond, for instance, has very specific local regulations for how “Food Establishments” can operate in the city.
This is one of the reasons that contacting your local government is highly recommended, as it’s nearly impossible to fully grasp the breadth of local zoning and permit laws without either significant research or the help of a professional.
Step 2: Make sure you have the right type of business.
In order to properly operate a small business in Virginia, you need to ensure that you are using an effective business model.
In almost all cases, this means registering your business as an LLC.
However, there are certainly other options available.
Regardless of the permits or certifications you have, your local government will not approve your small business license unless you’ve followed all the specific laws relating to your business structure.
For example, LLCs have to be properly registered with the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC), while sole proprietorships and partnerships should, at a bare minimum, understand the tax and liability implications of their structure.
For a quick rundown of small business legal structures, see “Step 2” of our guide on how to start a business in Virginia.
Step 3: Research professional licensing requirements and other permits.
Some occupations and professions require special licensing and permits at both the state and federal level.
For example, most fishing operations have to apply for (federal) fishing and seafood permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Similarly, you can not obtain some state-level licenses through the DPOR, and must instead apply or test for certification through a separate regulatory board.
As two examples of this, barbers have to apply through the Virginia Board for Barbers and Cosmetology, while lawyers have to be admitted to the Virginia State Bar.
For this step, it’s often beneficial to reach out to a mentor in your specific field of practice to make sure you’re up to date with any professional requirements.
If you can’t find a mentor, you may want to search for any state-level licensing boards in your area to contact.
Step 4: Submit a business license application to your local government office.
After you’ve collected all of the relevant permits and licenses, you can submit your actual small business license application to your local government office.
Generally, this application will ask you questions about yourself, your business, and your finances.
For example, the application for businesses operating in Richmond asks for information about your business structure, your estimated gross receipts for the most recent tax year, and more.
If you have any questions about the specific paperwork you need to submit, it may be helpful to simply reach out to your local government offices.
If you have questions about your small business taxes in Richmond (a part of the application process), for example, you would call the Division of License, Assessment, and Tax Audit.
The process of registering a small business in Virginia is not overly difficult.
However, growing that business, and remaining compliant with all local, state, and federal laws, can often be a bit more complex.
This is especially true when you’re in a profession that requires additional licensing, or if you’re doing business in a locality that has special permits.
In Virginia, “getting a small business license” is a bit of a misnomer for the act of complying with all local, state, and federal laws.
It’s a seal of approval, issued by your local government, that shows you’ve followed all the appropriate small business rules.
For this reason, it’s often helpful to seek out professional guidance in setting up your small business.
While Virginia offers a wide array of free resources (linked below), it’s still often recommended that you reach out to a local business attorney (or your local small business office) with any questions you may have.