Iowa business license

How to Apply for Business Licenses and Permits in Iowa

Our business license report can help you determine what licenses and permits you need to start a business in Iowa.

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Once you have formed your business with the state of Iowa, you will need to obtain all the necessary licenses and permits from the state, city, or county governments to lawfully conduct business. This is an important part of keeping your Iowa business state compliant, and don’t be surprised if your business ends up needing several different licenses or permits. But before you start to feel overwhelmed, this guide and our Business License Report service can help you get it done easily.

What is a business license?

Most businesses need some type of license or permit from the federal, state, or local government to conduct business in a particular state, and Iowa is no different. While licenses and permits are often industry-specific, they can also be broader, such as a general business license or one to sell retail goods or offer services. Your line of business will dictate whether and where you will need to apply for licenses and permits. 

Unfortunately, there is no single agency where you can apply for all the necessary licenses and permits. You will need to check with the federal, state, and local governments to make sure you have covered all your licensing and permitting obligations. It may be helpful at this point for you to begin considering the nature of the goods or services you plan to offer and if you think they might require a license or permit in Iowa. This general thought exercise will get you ready to tackle the next steps below to make sure your business is compliant with Iowa licensing and permitting requirements.

Step 1: Obtain an Iowa privilege license

Iowa does not require a business privilege license. Therefore, simply because you own a business doesn’t mean you need a license. That said, Iowa state and local laws are written in such a way, and cover such a wide range of business activities, that you will more than likely need at least one specific license or permit to operate in Iowa.

Step 2: Search for any necessary Iowa general business licenses

The State of Iowa also doesn’t require a general Iowa state business license. However, that doesn’t mean your city or county won’t require one. Therefore, contact your city or county government to make sure you don’t need a general business license to operate within their city and county limits. 

This is also a good opportunity for us to discuss the difference between forming your business and getting the right business licenses and permits. Forming your business is when you create a legal business entity at the state level, like a corporation. A license or permit allows your business to operate. It may pertain to what your business does (such as being a building contractor) or where it’s located (such as being a home-based business). These are just a couple of examples.

If you need to form your business first, head over to our pages on Iowa LLC formation and Iowa corporate formation to see how we can make things quick and simple. 

Step 3: Obtain applicable federal licenses for your Iowa business

The Federal government requires licenses or permits for several industries. You can go to the Small Business Administration’s website to get more detailed information. However, to get you started in the right direction, below is a general list of federally regulated industries:

  • Agriculture – the transport of animals, animal products, biologics, biotechnology, or plants across state lines (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
  • Alcoholic beverages – the manufacture, wholesale, import, or sale of alcoholic beverages (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)
  • Aviation – the operation of aircraft, transporting goods or people via air, or aircraft maintenance (Federal Aviation Administration)
  • Firearms, ammunition, and explosives – the manufacture, dealing, or import of firearms, ammunitions, and explosives (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives)
  • Fish and wildlife – wildlife-related activity, including the import or export of wildlife and derivative products (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
  • Commercial fisheries – commercial fishing of any kind (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service) 
  • Maritime transportation – ocean transport or facilitation of transport of cargo by sea (Federal Maritime Commission)
  • Mining and drilling – drilling for natural gas, oil, or other mineral resources on federal lands (Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement)
  • Nuclear energy – the production of commercial nuclear energy, operating a fuel cycle facility, or involved in distribution and disposal of nuclear materials (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
  • Radio and television broadcasting – the broadcast of information by radio, television, wire, satellite, or cable (Federal Communications Commission)

If you don’t see your business listed above, double-check with the federal government to make sure you won’t need a federal license or permit.

Step 4: Check for Iowa licenses and permits

In Iowa, a state license or permit is frequently required to sell goods or offer services.  You will want to obtain these licenses or permits before you begin operating your business. Below is a list of business activities that are typically licensed at the state level:

  • Plumbing and mechanical
  • HVAC
  • Building and construction
  • Food service
  • Tattooing
  • Swimming pools and spas
  • Environmental and water treatment

While this isn’t a complete list, it can help you decide whether you need to check with the State of Iowa for the necessary license or permits. You may also need professional licenses and tax permits, discussed in Steps 6 and 7.

Step 5: Check with the city or county for local licensing in Iowa

Even though you may not need a particular license or permit from the State of Iowa, often a city or county will require one. So be sure to check for that license or permit at the local level. In Iowa, an effective way to search at the city or county level is to contact either the city clerk’s office (e.g., The City Clerk of Des Moines) or the county office (e.g., Linn County Office).  

The following is a list of typical city and county licenses and permits:  

  • General business license
  • Beer, wine, and liquor
  • Cigarettes
  • Mobile food trucks
  • Theaters
  • Solid waste

Make sure that you understand how Iowa is organized at the municipal and county levels, and search those government websites to determine all your license and permit obligations. We recommend that you get creative in your search for local government agencies because many have unusual names such as the “local tax office” or “county recorder’s office.”

Step 6: Search for applicable Iowa professional licenses

If your business is engaged in professional activities, such as medicine, law, or engineering, you need to check with the State of Iowa for any professional licensing requirements. Iowa maintains state boards for most professional activities. A few of the larger government clearinghouses for professional licenses are the Iowa Professional Licensing Bureau and the Iowa Department of Public Health. Listed below are some of the more common licensed professions in Iowa:

  • Accountants
  • Architects
  • Attorneys
  • Barbers and cosmologists
  • Engineers
  • Landscape architects
  • Nurses
  • Paralegals
  • Physicians
  • Psychologists
  • Real estate appraisers
  • Real estate agents

Check with each professional licensing board because they often contain subsets of professions under a general heading. For example, the Department of Health regulates athletic trainers, but that isn’t obvious in its title.

Step 7: Obtain any other necessary Iowa business licenses and permits

The State of Iowa and its local governments often require specific business licenses or permits based on specific activities at your place of business, or because of where your business is physically located. You may need to apply for certain zoning, building, signage, health, and environmental licenses or permits. 

If you sell goods or offer services that otherwise don’t require a license or permit, you may still need a sales and use tax permit. Since sales and use tax is collected at the state and/or city and county level, you may need more than one permit — one from the state and then possibly one from the city or county. Finally, keep in mind that Iowa can tax sales that are 100% online, so check to make sure that you don’t need a sales and use tax permit for your online sales.

Step 8:  Apply for Iowa home-based business licenses

If you plan to run a home-based business, check with your city or county government for any specific requirements. In Iowa, the city or county planning and zoning department often handles these inquiries. You’re usually expected to disclose to the local government that you’re operating a home-based business, and you will sometimes need to submit an application and fee. Below are some of the common requirements to operate a home-based business in Iowa:

  • Restrictions on changing the external character of your home (e.g. no exterior signage or product storage)
  • Restrictions on obnoxious noises or odors
  • Limit on floor space used for a home-based business
  • Limit on non-resident employees at a home-based business
  • Limit on parking spaces for a home-based business
  • Limit on traffic congestion and dust generation
  • Prohibited activities (e.g., barber or beauty shops)
  • Prohibited zones (e.g., single family residential zones)

As you can see, operating a home-based business is possible, but it may require you to comply with some specific restrictions to secure that privilege.

Step 9: Maintain your Iowa licensing

Now that you have obtained all the licenses and permits at the state, city, and county level, make sure to note when to renew each one. The renewal periods can be in months or years, so don’t assume it’s always an annual renewal. Also keep in mind that licenses and permits frequently require some type of recertification or reapplication, not just the payment of a new fee. Give yourself plenty of time to comply with all renewal requirements, taking into account that state, city, and county governments move slowly. Your submission of a renewal application and payment may not prevent the expiration of your current license or permit.

We can guide you to Iowa license and permit compliance

Getting the proper Iowa business licenses, including local licenses and permits, is not only legally required, it’s smart and responsible business practice. Licenses and permits almost always need to be obtained before you begin your business activity, so don’t wait until you receive a non-compliance notice or fine from the state or local government. We can help you achieve that peace of mind with our Business License Report service and Worry-Free Compliance service, allowing you to focus on making your business successful and profitable.

Disclaimer: The content on this page is for information purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax, or accounting advice. If you have specific questions about any of these topics, seek the counsel of a licensed professional.

FAQs

  • Do all Iowa businesses need a license?

    No. Not all Iowa businesses need a general license or permit to operate. However, the likelihood is high that you will need some sort of license or permit. Check thoroughly at the state, city, and county levels before you conclude that you don’t need a license or permit.

  • Can you sell things in Iowa without a license?

    No. If you operate a business to sell things, you will need either a retail sales or use tax permit. To determine which permit is applicable, you can visit the Iowa Department of Revenue.

  • Is it legal to run a business from a home in Iowa?

    It depends. Municipal planning and zoning laws can prohibit certain home-based businesses in a zone or completely prohibit home-based business in a zone. Check with your city or county planning and zoning department to see if you can operate a home-based business. Restrictions are very specific to each city and county.

  • What kind of license do I need for an online business in Iowa?

    It depends. If you have a physical presence in Iowa, you will need a retail sales or use tax permit (see above question — Can you sell things in Iowa without a license?). If you don’t have a physical presence in Iowa, whether you need a retail sales or use tax permit depends on if you use a third party that does or doesn’t collect use tax. Check with the Iowa Department of Revenue for more information.

  • Do I need a sales license to collect sales tax in Iowa?

    Yes. The Iowa Department of Revenue requires that you obtain a retail sales tax permit to collect sales tax in Iowa. Visit the Iowa Department of Revenue website to check on how to obtain this license.

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