A Guide to Australian Business Numbers (ABNs)

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An Australian Business Number, commonly known as an ABN, is the unique identifier of your business to the government and community.

As well as confirming your business identity when ordering and invoicing, having an ABN means you can access tax benefits, claim energy grants credits and get an Australian domain name. Getting an ABN is one of the first steps to properly setting up your business. This guide covers what you need to know about obtaining an ABN.  

What is an ABN?

An Australian Business Number (ABN) is an 11 digit number that’s used to identify your business to your customers, suppliers and the government. It’s held in addition to a Tax File Number and is different to an Australian Company Number (ACN) and a business name.

Having an ABN allows you to:

  • Confirm your business identity to others when ordering and invoicing
  • Avoid having business clients withhold a percentage of any payments they make to you
  • Register a business name
  • Register a .com.au, .net.au, or .org.au domain name.

Who needs an ABN?

From large corporations to freelancers, many different kinds of businesses have an ABN.

If you’re starting or carrying on an enterprise in Australia you need an ABN. Carrying on an enterprise means running a business or engaging in commercial activity, like selling goods and services. The Australian Business Register (ABR)’s definition of an enterprise also includes charities, superannuation and property renting and leasing.

You need to have an ABN if you register for Goods and Services Tax (GST).

Each business structure has different eligibility requirements:

  • Sole traders
    Sole traders are the only owner and legally responsible for all aspects of the business. They are eligible for an ABN
  • Partnerships
    Partnerships are eligible for an ABN as two or more people or entities who run a business and distribute income and losses between themselves
  • Companies
    Companies that are registered with the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) can apply for an ABN
  • Trusts
    A trust holds property or assets for the benefit of others (beneficiaries) and is eligible for an ABN

You don’t need an ABN if you’re located in the Christmas or Cocos Islands, or if you have a joint venture where the partners have their own ABNs.

How do I get an ABN?

Once you know what your business structure is (company, trust, sole trader or partnership), you can apply for an ABN.

The ABR website is the best place to apply, and you can also choose apply for an ACN and business name at the same time.

What do I need to apply for an ABN?

Applying for an ABN is free. However, if you get a tax agent to do it on your behalf you may incur fees that way.

Depending on your circumstances, you’ll need the following to apply for your ABN:

  • Any ABNs you’ve previously held
  • Your tax file number (TFN)
    You’ll also need the TFNs of any associates like partners, directors and trustees
  • Your Australian Company Number (ACN) or Australian Registered Body Number (ARBN)
    If you already have these, remember your ACN can be applied for at the same time as the ABN
  • Your entity legal name
    This name appears on all official documents or legal papers and can be applied for at the same time at the ABN as well
  • The date your ABN is required
    This should be the date that you expect to start any business activities and can’t be more than six months ahead of when you apply
  • The licence number of your professional advisor
    If you’ve engaged one, for example an Australian Financial Services (AFS) licence
  • Your tax agent registration number
  • Any other authorised contacts
    They must be authorised to make changes or update information on behalf of the entity
  • Any associates’ details like shareholders or directors
    Associate requirements are different for each entity type
  • Your business activity
    This is usually the main source of income for your enterprise, for example agriculture, construction, investment and manufacturing
  • Your business locations
    Provide business locations for all premises operated by your enterprise, unless there’s a risk to the safety of individuals, for example a women’s refuge.

You will receive your ABN as soon as you complete your application. If you omit important details or they cannot be verified, it can take up to 28 days to complete your application.

ABN Lookup

ABN Lookup is a tool that allows you to search for Australian businesses that have registered for an ABN. It’s also how you can find your own ABN once you’ve registered for one!

ABN Lookup is useful in confirming the identity of your suppliers and customers and gives you a public view of the following details of a business:

  • Their legal, registered and trading names
  • Their entity type
  • Their location/s including state and postcode
  • Their status as a superannuation fund or charity
  • If they’re entitled to receive tax deductible gifts
  • If they’re registered for GST
  • Dates of their relevant registrations

The Australian Business Register states there were over 1 billion lookups for Australian businesses in the last financial year.

How do I update my ABN details?

Because the government, other businesses and the community rely on ABN details being accurate, it’s important to let the Australian Business Register know if your details change. Within 28 days of a change, be sure to provide an update via the ABR website. Note the following cannot be updated:

  • Your business name
  • The legal names of individuals and sole traders. They need to contact the Australian Tax Office (ATO) directly
  • The legal names for companies registered with Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC)

How to cancel an ABN

You can cancel your ABN – and should do so – if your business has closed down, been sold or is no longer operating in Australia or making supplies connected with Australia. Cancelling an ABN will cancel your registrations for GST as well as luxury car tax (LCT), wine equalisation tax (WET) and fuel tax credits (FTC). Before you cancel, be sure to meet any lodgement, reporting or payment obligations you have first. You cancel your ABN via the ABS website.

Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice – if you’re unsure, contact the Australian Business Register for more information.

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