Whenever a business operates under a name different from its owner's name or the name it registered with the state, California treats it as a "doing business as" name, or DBA for short. Before you choose a name for your business, check that no other business is using it in the state. The primary way to do this is by checking the name databases of both the California Secretary of State and county clerk's office.
What Qualifies as a DBA
When a business is operated by an individual, the business name is a DBA if it doesn't contain the owner's legal name. For instance, if Jennifer Goldilocks Hair Salon is owned by a woman named Jennifer Goldilocks, the business name is not a DBA. If Goldilocks named her salon Three Bears Outpost instead, the name is a DBA and must be registered as such.
In the case of a business organized as a corporation, its name is a DBA if it differs from the name registered with the Secretary of State. For instance, if a business is registered under the name ABC Corporation but uses the name ABC Imports when interacting with customers, it must register ABC Imports as a DBA.
Certain business structures operating in California must register with the Secretary of State. These are corporations, limited liability companies and limited partnerships. To check whether your business name is already in use by a business that falls under one of these categories, run a name search on the Secretary of State website. Search corporations by selecting the "Corporation Name" option. To search LLCs and partnerships, select "Limited Liability Company/Limited Partnership Name." The search is free.
You also can check names by mail. Complete the Name Availability Inquiry Letter, available on the Secretary of State website. The form requires your name and address, types of businesses to check -- corporation, LLC or limited partnership -- and up to three name selections. Mail the completed form to the Secretary of State, Name Availability Unit, 1500 11th Street, 3rd Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814. There is no fee for this service, but you must include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your request.
County Clerk's Office Inquiry
If you want to check the DBA name of sole proprietorships or general partnerships in a particular county, contact the clerk-registrar's office. Corporations, LLCs and limited partnerships also may register DBAs at the county level. Several county clerks, including those in Los Angeles and Orange County, make it possible to run a name search online via their official websites. County clerks also process requests made in person or by mail, but you may have to pay a fee. For example, the Orange County Clerk-Recorder's Office charges $7 per name when the request is submitted by mail, while the Kern County Clerk's Office charges $8 per name.