Are You Operating Your Business in Multiple States? What You Need to Know

The world of small business ownership can often feel daunting, especially when it comes to operating your business in multiple states.

This is a particularly complex area that can stir confusion and misunderstanding, making it feel like you’re expected to be proficient in areas like tax and state law, even though your primary expertise might lie elsewhere.

When your company, initially established in a single state of incorporation or LLC formation, begins to expand its reach and conducts business activities in additional states, it encounters new layers of legalities.

According to legal guidelines, it becomes necessary to register your business in these other states.

This process, officially referred to as ‘foreign qualification’, ensures your business is in compliance with each state’s unique laws and regulations where it conducts operations.

operating your business in multiple states

For example…

  • You have a restaurant in Florida and decide to expand into Georgia and South Carolina. Once you have locations open in those states, you’re doing business there and will need to file a foreign qualification in both Georgia and South Carolina.
  • You incorporated your business as a Delaware LLC, but are physically located in New York. You’ll need to file a foreign qualification to conduct business in New York. (For this reason, it’s often best for small companies with fewer than five shareholders to incorporate in their home state.)
  • You live in Washington and your business partner lives in California. You incorporated your company in Washington, but recently your partner has been finding and meeting with the bulk of your clients near his home in California. You’ll need to file a foreign qualification in California.
  • You’re a consultant who performs the majority of your work online, with clients in multiple states. In this case, you do not need to file a foreign qualification. Just because you’re making money from clients in other states doesn’t mean you’re transacting business there, according to the law.

operating your business in multiple states

What is meant by “doing business?”

This question may seem simple on the surface, but in today’s increasingly mobile and virtual world, the definition can be complex and multifaceted.

With businesses able to operate across state lines or even internationally through digital means, it’s not always clear-cut what constitutes doing business in a specific jurisdiction.

The traditional definition has been expanded and now encapsulates a range of activities which may not be immediately apparent.

If you find yourself uncertain about whether your particular business operations require foreign qualification, it is highly recommended to seek professional advice from your attorney or accountant.

They possess the necessary expertise to navigate the intricacies of state laws and can provide specific advice tailored to your situation.

Before reaching out for professional advice, it can be useful to start by asking yourself some general questions. These can provide an initial insight into whether you might need to consider foreign qualification:

  • Does your LLC or corporation operate out of any physical presence in the state (i.e. office or retail store)?
  • Are you frequently conducting in-person meeting with clients in the state (and not just conducting business via email/phone)?
  • Does a significant portion of your company’s revenue come from the state?
  • Do any of your employees work in the state? Do you pay state payroll taxes?
  • Did you apply for a business license in the state?

If you answered yes to any of these, your business may need to file a foreign qualification in the appropriate state.

The following table presents a checklist to help determine whether your business activities might be considered as “doing business” in a state, beyond your state of incorporation. Depending on your answers, you may need to consider foreign qualification in those states.

Remember, this is a general guide and for a more definitive answer, it’s recommended to consult with a legal or accounting professional.

Checklist for "Doing Business?"Yes/No
Operate out of any physical presence in the state (i.e. office or retail store)?
Frequently conducting in-person meeting with clients in the state (not just via email/phone)?
A significant portion of company’s revenue comes from the state?
Any employees work in the state? Pay state payroll taxes?
Applied for a business license in the state?

What is a foreign qualification?

To register your company in another state, you will need to submit a Certificate of Authority application (sometimes it’s called a Statement & Designation by a Foreign Corporation) with the particular state’s Secretary of State office. You can download the form from the Secretary of State’s website or have your incorporating company handle the filing and requirements for you. Some states will require you to have a certificate of good standing from the state where your LLC/corporation was formed (which means you’ll need to be up to date on your state taxes, fees, etc.).

Why is a foreign qualification important?

Foreign qualifying your company in states where you conduct business is your legal obligation. Failing to properly register your company could result in:

  • Fines and interest for any time when you were not foreign qualified (in addition to paying the standard fees that should have been paid)
  • Liability for back taxes for the time when you were not foreign qualified
  • Inability to sue in a state where you are not registered

Securing Business Licenses and Permits

Expanding your business into new states requires securing relevant business licenses and permits, a process that varies significantly across different jurisdictions. It’s crucial to research state-specific requirements and understand local ordinances to ensure compliance. This may include industry-specific licenses, health department permits, or signage permits.

Additionally, it’s important to be aware of the expiration dates and fees associated with these licenses and permits. Keep detailed records and set up reminders to manage renewal deadlines effectively. Also, factor in the processing time for these applications, as it can vary greatly and affect your business operation timelines.

Stay informed about changes in laws and regulations that could impact your licenses. Regular compliance checks are essential. Considering the complexity of multistate licensing, leveraging professional legal or consultancy services is often beneficial to navigate these requirements efficiently and effectively.

Final Words

When expanding your business operations, it’s advantageous to limit the number of states where you need to foreign qualify. This approach isn’t merely about being frugal; it’s a strategic move aimed at simplifying your business’s administrative duties.

Each additional foreign qualification implies an increase in paperwork, filing or annual fees, and the necessity to acquaint oneself with a new set of legal obligations and regulations.

While the process might seem burdensome, it’s crucial to understand that it’s not an area that can be neglected. Foreign qualification is a legal requirement for conducting business across state lines and failing to comply could lead to serious repercussions.

Despite the upfront investment of time and resources, ensuring that your business is legally compliant with state laws will invariably be cost-effective in the long run.

Non-compliance can lead to financial penalties and legal issues that could significantly exceed the initial costs of foreign qualification.


CorpNet offers business formations, filings, state tax registrations, and corporate compliance services in all 50 states. Express and 24 hour rush filing services available upon request. Click here to learn more.

Nellie Akalp Nellie Akalp is a passionate entrepreneur, recognized business expert and mother of four. She is the CEO of CorpNet, the smartest way to start a business, register for payroll taxes, and maintain business compliance across the United States.