Thinking about starting a business in Wisconsin? You may be required to obtain one — or several — business licenses in order to begin operating.
It’s important to note that, since the state doesn’t issue a general Wisconsin business license, the licenses and/or permits you’ll need will depend on your specific industry and location.
In this Wisconsin Business License article, we’ll break down everything you need to know into simple, scannable steps. Let’s get started!
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Do I Need a Business License in Wisconsin
Wisconsin does not have a general business license. This means that whether your business will require licensing will ultimately depend on where you are based, as well as on what services and/or products you plan to sell.
Type of Business
Below, we’ve detailed common ways in which your business type can dictate the licenses you’ll be required to obtain, as well as specific examples of these:
- Business Tax Registration: While most businesses in Wisconsin will need to complete the business tax registration, only those involved in selling certain goods and/or services will need sales and use tax permits (or sales tax licenses). The sales and use tax permits are obtained as part of the business tax registration application process
- Professional Licenses: In Wisconsin, a variety of professional services are regulated and require licensing. Some common examples include accountants, barbers, home inspectors, interior designers, and real estate brokers. The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) administers licensing for businesses that need occupational licenses
- Environmental Permits: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has created a Permit Primer in order to help business owners manage all licensing requirements that relate to environmental regulations
However, this is not the only factor influencing the exact combination of licenses you’ll need — the location of your business within Wisconsin plays an important role as well.
In this section, we’ve provided a succinct overview of the potential licenses and permits that your business may need due to local, state, and federal requirements:
- Local: Specific local counties or municipalities may require additional licensing. For example, while Waukesha County doesn’t mandate a permit for home-based businesses, the City of Milwaukee requires businesses to submit a Home Occupation Statement under certain conditions. We recommend consulting with county and city websites, the county clerk’s office, and the local tax office for detailed information on your business’s applicable local requirements
- State: While Wisconsin doesn’t require a statewide general business license, the majority of businesses operating in the state must complete a sales and use tax permit application (i.e., obtain a sales tax license.) in order to collect sales tax
- Federal: Federal business licenses are generally required for businesses that are regulated by a federal agency. This includes businesses that relate to aviation, broadcasting, pharmaceuticals, transportation, and alcohol, among others
Since the exact permits and licenses your business will need are entirely unique to your situation, you’ll have to conduct thorough research into your own local, state, and federal regulations to smoothly launch your business.
Alternatively, many entrepreneurs opt to leverage the expertise of third-party services to handle this on their behalf.
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How to Get a Business License in Wisconsin
In order to get your business license(s) in Wisconsin, you will need to complete the following steps:
- Form Your Business
- Obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN)
- Apply for the Required Licenses and Permits
Let’s take a look at each step in more detail below.
Step 1: Form Your Business
Before setting out to obtain a business license in Wisconsin, it’s pivotal that you first choose an appropriate structure for your business. Sole proprietorships, general partnerships, and corporations are all common choices, however it’s often seen as the most advantageous for small businesses in Wisconsin to register as a Limited Liability Company (LLC). Here are a few reasons for why:
- Limited Liability: Members are protected from personal liability for business debts, safeguarding personal assets
- Tax Benefits: LLCs typically enjoy a pass-through tax treatment, avoiding the double taxation that corporations are subjected to
- Management Flexibility: LLCs allow for flexibility in management structure, either being member-managed or manager-managed based on the preferences outlined in the certificate of formation
- Ease of Formation: With the Wisconsin Secretary of State providing forms that meet the minimum state law requirements and the option to file online, setting up an LLC is relatively straightforward
Many small business owners opt to avoid the tricky process of forming an LLC by instead leveraging the help of third-party LLC formation services.
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Northwest Registered Agent ($29 + state fees)
Step 2: Obtain an EIN
The second step you’ll need to complete before applying for your business license is to obtain your EIN. This is a unique nine-digit number assigned by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to businesses in the United States so that their financial transactions can be identified and tracked.
An EIN is often necessitated when applying for various permits and licenses as it allows local and state governments to ensure your business is operating within the confines of the law. You can obtain it in a number of ways:
- Online: You can apply for your EIN on the IRS’s official website by using the EIN Assistant. You should be granted your EIN shortly after completing this application
- By Fax/Mail: After completing Form SS-4, you can apply for an EIN by submitting it to the IRS via mail or fax
- By Phone: International applicants and businesses located outside US Territories are required to call the IRS at (267) 941-1099 to obtain their EIN — which they should receive during this call
Note: If you are a sole proprietor, you will be able to use your Social Security Number (SSN) instead (as long as you do not have employees).
Step 3: Apply for Licenses and Permits
After settling on the appropriate structure for your business and initiating the application for your EIN, the next step is to focus on securing the necessary licenses and permits to operate legally within your locale and industry.
- Local Licenses: Applying for local licenses will ultimately come down to where you are based. You will need to check in with your local government’s office and find out exactly what licenses are required, as well as how you can go about obtaining them
- Statewide Licenses: If your business is required to obtain a Wisconsin seller’s permit, you will need to complete a Business Tax Registration form. Similarly, businesses that need occupational licenses can obtain them through the Secretary of State’s LicensE portal
- Federal Licenses: While the federal government doesn’t mandate licenses for general business operations, if your business falls under any government-regulated category, such as agriculture, fishing, firearms, and alcohol sales, it may be required to obtain additional federal licenses or permits
Note: For more detailed information on municipalities and their respective websites, check out the League of Wisconsin’s Municipalities website.
Step 4: Renewal of Licenses and Permits
Your business tax registration will need to be renewed at the end of the initial two-year period, and will last an additional two years. Keep in mind that you will need to pay a $10 renewal fee in order to renew.
When it comes to local business licenses in Wisconsin, you will need to contact the local city or county government where your business is situated in order to obtain additional information on all renewal processes and potential requirements. This is because these can vary significantly depending on where your business will be based.
For example, In Milwaukee, businesses can renew their licenses through the City Clerk’s Office, which handles all licenses and permit-related applications, including renewals.
Alternatively, you can use a third-party service or a professional attorney for this process. This can be a good choice if you want to ensure that you avoid potential fines, as well as if you want to be as time-efficient as possible.
If you’re interested in finding out more about this process, see our article on How to Get a Business License.
How Much is a Business License in Wisconsin
The initial business tax registration fee in Wisconsin is $20, which covers a period of two years. The cost of any additional local business license will vary depending on the municipality and the type of business in question.
For example, in some local municipalities, the fee for a Class “B” Beer Retailer License is around $100 per year. In the Village of Pleasant Prairie, secondhand article or jewelry dealers will need to apply for a local business license from the Village Clerk, which costs $75 per year.
All in all, knowing your license cost information will help you budget and plan wisely, ensure legal compliance, and help you avoid potential fines and penalties. If this is not something you feel comfortable handling independently, we recommend working with a third-party service or hiring a business attorney instead.
Wisconsin Business License FAQ
Do you need a business license in Wisconsin?
You might do. In Wisconsin, there is no general state-level business license that is required for all businesses. Having said that, specific industries and/or specific locations can impose certain licensing requirements. See our Wisconsin Business License article for more information.
How much is a small business license in Wisconsin?
Your business’s Wisconsin business license cost will depend on your industry, as well as on your exact location. If you want specific information that relates to your Wisconsin business licenses, we recommend either consulting with your relevant local agency, speaking to a business attorney, or hiring a third-party service.
How do I start my own business in Wisconsin?
To start a business in Wisconsin, you will need to a) choose a business structure, b) register your business with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, and c) obtain business licenses applicable to your industry and location. For more information, see our How to Get a Business License article.
How much does it cost for an LLC in Wisconsin?
If you choose to handle all filings independently (as well as act as your own registered agent) you will need to file your business’s Articles of Organization with the SOS in order to form your LLC. This includes a $130 filing fee (online submissions) or a $170 fee (paper filings). Additional costs may include obtaining state and local licenses, annual report fees, and investing in workforce development.
For all related articles, have a look at our How to Get a Business License page.