Massachusetts licensing and permitting

How to Apply for Business Licenses and Permits in Massachusetts

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

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Opening a successful business can require a lot of planning and paperwork, and some require more work than others. Once you’ve formed your business under Massachusetts law, there’s a good chance you’ll need one or more licenses or permits to actually do business in the commonwealth, or maybe elsewhere in the country. If this sounds confusing, we are here to help. Let’s take a look at what kinds of permits or licenses your business might need and how our Business License Report service can help you get it done easily.

What is a business license? 

Although business formation documents let the government and public know a business exists, business licenses and permits give many businesses the authority to actually operate. Depending on your industry, the nature of your business, or the location of your business, you might need one or several licenses. You might need licenses at the federal, commonwealth, or local levels before you can engage in any kind of commerce. Unfortunately, there isn’t a central place to find out whether you’ve fulfilled all your license and permit requirements, so this part of running your business takes time and plenty of research. 

Step 1:  Search for any necessary Massachusetts general business licenses

Some states require every business to have a general business license. A general business license is just as it sounds: a license to do any kind of business within the commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t require a general business license, but different counties and municipalities within the commonwealth might have different requirements for conducting business. Even if your business doesn’t need a general business license, there’s a good chance that your business will still need some kind of license or permit to operate.

Also, you must remember that obtaining business licenses and permits isn’t the same as registering/forming your business with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Registering your business brings it into official existence, but different permits and licenses give your business the permission it needs to run. 

If you still need help forming a corporation or limited liability company (LLC), we have the tools to get you started. You can use our Massachusetts LLC formation service or our Massachusetts corporation formation service to make starting your business that much easier. 

Step 2:  Obtain applicable federal licenses for your Massachusetts business 

Even if you properly formed your business under Massachusetts law, you might still need to obtain a federal license or permit to legally do business. If your business involves the following activities, you likely need a license or permit from the following federal agencies:

  • Importing or transporting animals, animal products, plants, or certain biological products/technologies across state lines might require licensing/permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Manufacturing, importing, or selling (wholesale or retail) alcoholic beverages might require licensing/permission from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and from the Local Alcohol Beverage Control Board 
  • Operating aircrafts, maintaining aircrafts, or transporting people and/or cargo by air might require licensing/permission from the Federal Aviation Administration
  • Dealing, manufacturing, or importing firearms, ammunition, or explosives might require licensing/permission from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
  • Conducting business in wildlife-related activity and/or wildlife-related products might require licensing/permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Dealing with commercial fishing requires licensing/permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service
  • Providing ocean transportation and/or shipping (or helping ship) cargo by sea might require licensing/permission from the Federal Maritime Commission
  • Dealing with drilling for natural gas, minerals, or oil on federal lands might require licensing/permission from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement
  • Dealing with nuclear materials or being a fuel cycle facility might require licensing/permission from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Broadcasting information over radio, television, wire, satellite, or cable might require licensing/permission from the Federal Communications Commission
  • Operating oversized or overweight vehicles might give you the need for assistance from the U.S. Department of Transportation for help with getting state permits

It’s important to understand the full scope of your business’s operational needs before you open, so you can determine if any of the above-mentioned agencies need to license your activities. You can contact the agencies above to determine if your business activities fall under the agencies’ licensing/permit requirements. 

Step 3:  Check for Massachusetts permits and licenses

Whether you need business licensing from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts depends on certain characteristics of your business. You might even need more than one Massachusetts state business license to do business. You might need licensing from the commonwealth to run businesses involved with the following industries:

  • Healthcare 
  • Transportation
  • Wildlife/fishing 
  • Industries affecting the environment
  • Construction
  • Food/beverage handling and sales
  • Career development/education

Fulfilling Massachusetts business license requirements isn’t the end of the story. Even if you’ve taken care of your licensing obligations at the federal and commonwealth level, you’re likely going to need licenses or permits from your county and/or municipal government. 

Step 4:  Check your city or county for local licensing in Massachusetts

Ironically enough, the smallest governing body in your area might have the largest list of licensing and permit requirements for your business. For example, local permits and/or licenses businesses might need can include: 

  • Signage permits
  • Food handling and manufacturing permits 
  • Permits for storing flammable materials
  • Tobacco sales permits
  • Building permits
  • Liquor licenses
  • Entertainment licenses for dancing, shows, and amusement machines
  • Lodging licenses
  • Licenses regarding public health 
  • Construction permits

Each county or municipality where your business is might have multiple zoning, licensing, and permit requirements for you to fulfill before you sell your goods and services to their community. Because the rules can differ so wildly from local government to local government, it’s important that you contact each relevant county or municipality to find out what they need from your business before it opens. 

Step 5:  Search for applicable Massachusetts professional licenses

You might run a professional corporation, professional limited liability company, or other business that provides professional services. If that’s the case, you and your professional business associates need to keep up with any applicable professional licensing requirements. There’s a long list of professionals that require licenses to practice in Massachusetts, including:

  • Healthcare professionals
  • Architects
  • Dieticians and nutritionists
  • Embalmers and funeral directors
  • Home inspectors
  • Plumbers and gas fitters
  • Engineers
  • Massage therapists and facilities
  • Social workers
  • Electricians
  • Cosmetologists
  • Real estate professionals
  • Veterinarians

Different state boards oversee and license the different professionals. You and the professionals who work with or for your business need to ensure that you have all the licensing you need to provide your professional services to others.

Step 6:  Obtain any other necessary Massachusetts business licenses and permits

We know we just said a mouthful about licenses and permits, but there are still more licenses and permits you might need to obtain from a governing authority.

Environmental permits

Depending on the nature of your business and its location, you may need to obtain environmental permits before you can conduct business. 

Zoning, building, and sign permits

Local governments normally handle permits for zoning, building, and signage. Failing to get these permits at the local level can literally shut your business’s doors, so you want to check with your county and municipality to make sure you’ve covered your bases. 

Sales and use tax registration certificates

A lot of businesses need to have a Sales Use Tax Registration Certificate to make sure their state tax obligations are covered. Businesses that require this kind of certificate are generally:

  • Businesses that sell, rent, or lease
  • Business that buy certain goods for resale, including tangible personal property and telecommunications services
  • Marketplace operators that directly or indirectly sell more than $100,000 in a year
  • Businesses that deal with parts for manufacturing and selling goods 
  • Businesses that deal with selling, repairing, or installing goods or telecommunications services to Massachusetts residents
  • Businesses that remotely sell more than $100,000 in a year to Massachusetts buyers
  • Businesses involved in getting Massachusetts orders for tangible personal property or telecommunications services

You apply for your Sales Use and Tax Registration Certificate with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue. You have to display your certificate at each of your business locations. 

Employer identification number

On the federal level, you normally need to apply for an employer identification number (EIN) with the IRS if your business meets one of the following criteria: 

  • Your business has employees
  • Your business is a corporation or partnership
  • Your business files employment, excise, alcohol, tobacco or firearms tax returns
  • Your business withholds taxes on non-wage income for non-resident immigrants
  • Your business has a Keogh plan
  • Your business is involved with certain trusts, organizations, or entities

Generally, you can also use your EIN to open bank accounts and identify your business for certain transactions. 

Step 7:  Apply for Massachusetts home-based business licenses

Sometimes a home-based business is bliss. You can cut overhead and forget about phrases like “daily commute.” But the bliss and ease don’t necessarily come without fervent preparation on the front end. Before you open for business, it’s important to know how you plan to advertise your business’s existence, interface with your patrons, meet your workforce needs, and fulfill your business facility needs. 

Municipalities like to keep their residential spaces looking and feeling residential, so you need to be careful with how you run your home-based business if you want to legally get it off the ground. You might need permits for your home-based business if your business requires some or all of the following:

  • A certain number of employees
  • Regular visits from customers/clientele 
  • Parking for patrons
  • Signage
  • Conducting activities that fall outside of the local zoning codes

The home-based business permits you might need can change from municipality to municipality in Massachusetts, so you need to reach out to your local governing body to find out what permits your home-based business needs well before opening up to the public. Don’t forget that you’ll likely need state and/or federal licenses and permits to run your home-based business as well.  

Step 8:  Maintain your Massachusetts licensing

Like most factors of a business, many (if not most) business licenses and permits need constant maintenance or renewal. Some renewal deadlines can come up faster than others, so it’s paramount to have an organized schedule of when each fulfillment of your renewal obligations becomes due. You worked hard to get your business off the ground legally and you need to keep an eye on your licenses and permits so you can keep your business going strong. 

We provide the support you need to help keep your Massachusetts business legally compliant 

Don’t carry your business burdens alone if you don’t have to. When it comes to the burden of fulfilling your business license obligations, you don’t have to do it alone. 

We have partnered with Licenses, LLC, to provide our Business License Report service. Using your business’s characteristics and location, the Business License Report can give you a single, comprehensive report that identifies which licenses, permits, and registrations your business needs at the federal, commonwealth, and local levels. In addition, we provide a comprehensive Worry-Free Compliance service to help ensure your business remains legally up to date with state law.

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 Massachusetts businesses need a license?

    The Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn’t have a general business license requirement for all businesses, but it’s unlikely that a Massachusetts business can legally operate without some kind of Massachusetts business license or permit.

  • Can you sell things without a license in Massachusetts?

    Likely, no. Generally, sellers, lessors, and renters need a Sales and Use Tax Registration Certificate to do business in Massachusetts. Even tax-exempt organizations that sell need this certificate to operate.

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

    Depending on your location, yes. But your home-based business will likely have to follow some local, commonwealth, and/or federal regulations to run legally.

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

    The kinds of licenses you need for an online business depend on the nature of your online business and its operational needs. There’s a good chance your online business will need a Sales and Use Tax Registration Certificate to operate because the requirement applies to some remote sales of over $100,000 in a year and certain sales of goods and communications services.

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

    Yes. You apply for a Sales and Use Tax Registration Certificate through the Department of Revenue. Once approved, the Department of Revenue sends you certificates that you must put on display at each of your business locations.

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