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Wisconsin Business License Basics

Wisconsin Business License Basics

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Wisconsin Business License Basics

Starting a small business in Wisconsin often means registering with several federal, state, and local agencies. Let’s review common Wisconsin business license registrations so your business starts off right.

Related: Guide to starting a business in Wisconsin

Setting Up the Business

Before you can apply for business licenses, you should first establish the business structure. This decision impacts your legal responsibilities, taxes, and how much personal liability you might face. Here’s a brief explanation of each type of entity:

Sole proprietorship: This is the simplest form of business structure, where one person owns and runs everything. There’s no separation between the owner and the business, meaning the owner is personally responsible for all debts and legal actions against the business. Taxes are straightforward as the owner reports business income on their personal tax return.

General partnership: Similar to a sole proprietorship, but with two or more people running the business. Partners share profits and losses, and like sole proprietors, they are personally responsible for the business’s debts and legal issues. Partnerships also don’t pay taxes as a separate entity; instead, each partner includes their share of profits or losses in their personal tax filings.

Corporation: A corporation is a more complex entity that is separate from its owners, providing personal liability protection. Owners, known as shareholders, are not personally responsible for the corporation’s debts or legal problems. Corporations can raise money by selling stock and are taxed separately from their owners. This entity requires more requirements, like having board meetings and record-keeping.

Limited Liability Company (LLC): An LLC blends elements of sole proprietorships, partnerships, and corporations. Owners (members) have limited personal liability for business debts and actions. Like sole proprietorships and partnerships, an LLC can pass income directly to owners to avoid double taxation, a common issue with corporations. This structure offers flexibility in management and less strict requirements than a corporation.

Wisconsin Business Registrations

With the business structure out of the way, we can begin looking at the different types of registrations businesses in Wisconsin may need. There isn’t a standard business license, as requirements vary depending on where the business is located and what it does. Here is a general overview of the different registrations your business may need.

General Wisconsin Business License

There is no general state of Wisconsin business license; however, many cities require businesses to be licensed in order to operate. Rules for business registration vary depending on location and the business’s activities. Below are a few cities that have licensing requirements. 

  • Milwaukee: Certain businesses operating in the city limits of Milwaukee need to obtain a business license. A few businesses required to register include food dealers, limo services, pawnbrokers, and tattoo studios. 
  • Madison: Certain businesses such as bicycle dealers, tattoo parlors, secondhand dealers, and others operating in the city limits of Madison are required to obtain a business license from the City Clerk’s Office.
  • Green Bay: Some businesses will need to obtain a business license in Green Bay, such as junk dealers, businesses selling alcohol, mobile food vendors, tree trimmers, and more.
  • Kenosha: Business registration is required for businesses operating in Kenosha, such as gas stations, dog kennels, massage studios, towing services, and more.
  • Racine: The City Clerk issues business licenses and permits for billiard halls, bowling alleys, bars, and more.
Take the guesswork out of figuring out what licenses and permits are required to start your business with license research packages from Bizee and LegalZoom.

For as little as $99, you can save a lot of time and know your business is in compliance with local, state, and federal requirements. 

Trade Name Registration

While not a business license, it’s common for Sole Proprietorships and Partnerships operating under a name other than the full name of the owner(s) to register for a Trade Name (also known as a Doing Business As or DBA) with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.

These are just some of the most common business licenses a new business will need to register before starting. Before starting your business, be sure to check with City Hall, County Clerk, Chamber of Commerce, and/or Economic Developer in your area to get more information regarding business licensing.

Building & Zoning Permits

  • Zoning: Depending on the business’s location, it’s important to verify whether it needs an occupancy permit or has specific zoning regulations to follow. Depending on city requirements, home-based businesses may need to apply for a home-based business occupation permit.
  • Building Permit: If a facility is being constructed or renovated, a building permit may be needed from the city or county building and planning department.
  • Signage Permit: Some municipalities require a permit before adding signage.

Seller’s Permit

Every individual, partnership, corporation, or other organization making retail sales, leases, or rentals of tangible personal property or taxable services in Wisconsin must register for a Wisconsin Seller’s Permit (also called a sales tax permit) from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.

Sales Tax Exemption Certificate

Businesses purchasing merchandise to resell usually want to obtain a Wisconsin Sales Tax Exemption Certificate to avoid paying sales tax on merchandise being resold to customers.

Professional License

A variety of professional services in the state are regulated and need to be registered before offering certain services.  A few common occupations that require licensing in Wisconsin include; barbers, home inspectors, interior designers, manicurists, and many more.   Additional information, fees, and licensing requirements for professions in Wisconsin are available from the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services.

In addition to professional licenses from the Department of Safety and Professional Services, businesses in a variety of industries such as food establishments, daycares, and salvage yards, also require licensing.

Employer Identification Number (EIN)

Many businesses register with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for an EIN (also referred to as a FEIN, Federal Employer Identification Number, or Federal Tax ID Number). The EIN is the business equivalent of an individual’s Social Security Number. Corporations, Limited Liability Companies, partnerships, and sole proprietorships with employees will all need to register for one. Sole Proprietorships without employees can use the owner’s Social Security Number.

There is no cost for an EIN, and it only takes a few minutes to get.

Learn how to apply for an EIN

Next Steps

These are some of the most common business licenses a new business in Wisconsin will need to register for. While it’s a good start, there are so many different licenses that may be needed, be sure to double-check with the City Clerk’s Office, Chamber of Commerce, and/or Economic Development office in your area before opening your doors.

Wisconsin Business License Basics

Wisconsin Business License Basics

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