Do I need a license to practice as a consultant or coach?

Q and A by C.J. HaydenFinding the correct information about business licenses and permits can be a frustrating and time-consuming process to do on your own. Depending on your type of business, licenses and permits can be required at the city, county, state or provincial, and federal levels.

The good news is that most (but not all) consultants and coaches in the U.S. and Canada don’t need a license or permit specific to your profession. But in most areas, you will need a business license, even if you are doing business from your home.

While local requirements vary, most cities in the U.S. and Canada require a business license or tax registration certificate for anyone who earns business income, including earnings from contract or freelance employment. If you live in an unincorporated area, you may need to obtain a license from your county.

Check the website of your city’s Tax, License, Finance, or Treasurer’s Office, or your county’s Tax Collector’s Office, for requirements and fees. If you’re not sure where to look, U.S. residents can check this directory of city business license offices or this directory of county websites. A typical license fee is $50-250, unless you qualify for a small business exemption.

Cities or counties may also require special permits for certain businesses (restaurants, parking garages, or pet shops, for example), but a consulting or coaching business typically doesn’t require one of these. It’s more likely to be your state or province that regulates professional practices (see below).

If you give your business a name that is different from your own, you must file a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) statement, also known as “doing business as” (DBA). In some areas, this is necessary even if the business name includes your name within it, such as “Jane Smith & Associates”. You’ll need to check local requirements.

In the U.S., you file fictitious names with your County Clerk’s Office, and in Canada, with your province’s Ministry of Finance. Filing the statement will cost from $10-50. In some areas, the filing must also be published in a newspaper, which will cost another $25-50. Partnerships, corporations, and LLC’s do not have to file FBN statements unless they use a business name that is different from the legal name they originally filed.

At the state or provincial level, some business activities require either a license or posted bond, including some that could potentially apply to consultants or coaches. For example, states and provinces often regulate professions as diverse as accounting, counseling, financial advice, insurance, job placement and employment counseling, legal services, and real estate.

Visit the website of your state or province and look for a list of professions requiring a license, permit, or bond. You can find the sites in this directory of U.S. states or this directory of Canadian provinces. On your state or provincial site, lists of required licenses are often available from the Department of Consumer Affairs, Department of Licensing, Department of Labor, or One-Stop Business Shop.

State licenses are issued by many different agencies, and fees can range from $40-500. Only a handful of businesses must post a bond, but the amount can be $10,000 or more. Some licenses also require specific education, experience, or examinations.

If you plan to produce, sell, or lease any products subject to sales tax, you will also need a Sales and Use Tax License, also called a Resale License or Seller’s Permit. These are issued by your state or provincial Comptroller’s Office, Tax Commission, Ministry of Revenue, or Board of Equalization.

Check your state or provincial website to find the correct agency. A deposit may be required if your sales projections warrant it. Canadian businesses should also register to collect the national Goods and Services Tax (GST) with the Canada Revenue Agency.

As a consultant or coach, you shouldn’t need a federal license of any sort unless you are offering investment advice, which in some cases requires both state and federal licensing.

This should be all the licenses and permits you might need. In practice, you will encounter many business owners who avoid becoming licensed. For example, it’s quite common for home-based business owners to ignore their city’s requirement for a business license. But if you get caught, the penalty for avoiding the requirement can be quite a bit more than you would have paid for the license.

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