When planning to start a California LLC, first comes your big idea, your product or service, the meat and potatoes of your business. After all, that’s how you’ll build a dream business.
But after the initial rush of deciding to take your idea to market, you have to answer an important and pressing question: “what do I call it?”
Every LLC needs a name, preferably a catchy one, specifically one that isn’t already in use. After all, despite how clever it may be, you can’t steal someone else’s name.
“But,” you may ask, “how do I know if a name is already in use?” It’s a good question. There are a lot of businesses in California, a lot of names to check. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to go about it: performing an LLC name search.
Quick Note: If you’d like to save time, an LLC formation service (like LegalZoom and ZenBusiness) can perform an LLC name search and register the business on your behalf. No need to navigate confusing state-website portals or file anything yourself.
Reasons to Perform an LLC Name Search
Checking for California LLC name availability is the most common reason to perform a search, but it’s far from the only one. Here are a few other reasons you might search for a name:
1) Finding Similar Names
You don’t want potential customers confusing you with another company, especially if that company is a competitor. Your proposed name might be available, but there could also be multiple businesses out there with deceivingly similar ones. If you don’t want your LLC getting mixed up with other businesses, this might prompt you to find a new name.
2) Checking Your Business Status
Once you’ve filed the Articles of Organization and started your California LLC, you can periodically check its status by searching for your existing name. This will confirm your business’ good standing with the state and provide your Entity Number, which you may need for certain filings.
3) Agent for Service of Process Name and Office Information
At some point, you might need to send a business service of process. Or, more positively, you might want to partner with them. In either case, you’ll need their California agent for service of process name and office address, readily available through a name search.
4) Maintaining Current Business Information
When modifying your LLC’s information – like changing your agent for service of process or principal address to a member or a registered agent service – you will want to confirm the information that the Secretary of State already has on file. A name search will take care of this for you.
How to Perform a California LLC Name Search
The Secretary of State website has a simple Business Search page on which you can enter a full or partial business name to conduct a search.
However, if your end goal is determining name availability, an online search is not considered official. To formally check a name’s availability, you’ll need to complete a “Name Availability Inquiry Letter” and mail it to:
Secretary of State
Name Availability Unit
1500 11th Street, 3rd Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
The Secretary of State will respond, letting you know if your name is available. If it is, great! You can go ahead and reserve it or use it on your Articles of Organization. If it’s already in use, you’re out of luck, and you’ll need to come up with a new one.
On the other hand, if you’re seeking information on an existing business, the Business Search page is all you need. Simply select the business type (corporation or LLC/LP), then enter the full or partial business name (or its Entity Number), and it will return your results. If you provided an exact name or number, you’ll likely only receive one result, but if you provided a partial name or keyword, you may receive many.
Clicking any listed business will reveal the following information:
- Entity Number
- Entity Name
- Registration Date
- State of Jurisdiction
- Domestic or Foreign
- Status (active, canceled, etc.)
- Agent for Service of Process Name and Address
- Entity Address
- Filed Documents and Filing Dates
This information is incredibly helpful if you’re trying to contact another business, or just checking up on your own. But, again, if you only want to see if a name’s available, you need to do so via postal mail.
What If My Name Is Unavailable?
So you submitted a Name Availability Inquiry Letter, sent it off, and received a response from the Secretary of State, who confirmed that yes, your perfect name is already in use. What now?
If your LLC is domestic (formed in California), your only option is to start brainstorming ideas for a different one. Just don’t use one that’s too similar. Then, when you’ve found an acceptable, available name, go ahead and reserve it.
There are some additional steps if you run a foreign LLC, though. You’ve already been operating under a business name in other states, but if that name is unavailable in California, you will need to provide an “alternate name.” This is the name that you will use in California only. To register an alternate name, provide it on your Application to Register when you file for foreign qualification.
How to Make a California LLC Name Distinguishable
All California business names, actual or alternate, registered or reserved, must adhere to the state’s naming requirements. They state that your LLC name must:
- End with “Limited Liability Company,” which may be abbreviated to L.L.C. or LLC.
- Not contain the words “bank,” “trust,” “trustee,” “incorporated,” “inc.,” “corporation,” “corp.,” “insurer,” “insurance company,” or suggest that it’s an insurance or banking company.
- Be distinguishable from all other business entity names in the California Secretary of State record.
- Not be misleading to the public. For example, if you run a dry cleaner, your business name shouldn’t be “New Company Construction.”
But how do you make a name distinguishable? Fortunately, the state provides some guidelines. According to California Code Section 21005.5, a name is considered distinguishable only if “contains one or more different letters or numerals or has a different sequence of the same letters or numerals that is plainly recognizable by means of sight by the Secretary of State.” This means that changes in capitalization, punctuation, articles, entity type identifiers, and/or spacing are not enough to distinguish one name from another.
Essentially, to create a fully distinguishable name, you must change the name itself, not just the syntax. Need a clever way to distinguish your name? Try using a unique spelling, rearranging the words, finding a synonym, or adding/subtracting a word. This way, your name will be distinguishable without changing it completely.
What you do next depends entirely on what your goal. If you’re checking for name availability and your name is free in California, you can proceed to reserve it or use it on your Articles of Organization.
Reserving a California business name costs $10 and holds your name for 60 days. Or, you can use the name on your Articles of Organization when you start your LLC, which will register it automatically.
Need Help Starting an LLC?
Like we mentioned earlier, an LLC formation service can take care of all the paperwork for you. Using a formation service guarantees that your filings will be completed and submitted correctly. It also eliminates the stress of doing it yourself and gives you more time to develop your business plan, network, or just relax.