Guide to Getting a Business Licence in the UK

Learn about the different types of licenses to consider for your business.

Please note that this article is intended for educational purposes only and should not be deemed to be or used as legal, employment, or health & safety advice. For guidance or advice specific to your business, consult with a qualified professional.

Most businesses need to complete some administrative formalities to be able to trade legally. What specific business licences you need depends on your location and your business activities. Here is a quick guide to what you need to know.

It’s easy to find out what business licences you need

The UK government has a licence finder tool on its website. Input your business activities and location, and it tells you exactly what licences you need. It also points you towards where you can get them. Most of the time, this is your local authority’s website.

This tool is hugely useful. There are a few points to remember about it.

You may need extra knowledge to use it

Firstly, some of its options require you to have at least some knowledge of the business licensing requirements in your field. For example, the financial services option asks you if you plan to operate a business subject to money laundering requirements.

This is only likely to be an issue for anyone planning to open a business that may be subject to particularly stringent licensing requirements, typically professional services businesses. If you’re planning on opening this type of business, do extra research.

Some types of business are hard to find

The tool seems to be very much orientated towards long-established business types; for example, currently there is no option for virtual assistance. Even then there are gaps; for example, currently there is no option for bookkeeping, and the nearest option is probably Secretarial and PA.

You need to look through the list of options carefully

The tool does not make any assumptions about your business plans, not even ones that seem to be obvious. For example, if you indicate that your general business type is running a Public House, you still need to add that you plan to serve alcoholic beverages.

Furthermore, the lists of options can be very long, so you need time to read through them properly. The fact that the lists are so long means that they are very thorough, so you should find everything that applies to you.

It only covers business licences

On the one hand, this could be stating the obvious, given that this is a tool for finding business licences. On the other hand, remember that the tool will not give you a full representation of what legal formalities to complete before starting your business.

For example, it does not mention registering for tax although that is a requirement for all businesses. Similarly, it does not mention the requirements of GDPR although they apply to many, if not most, businesses.

Lastly, it omits working from home as a potential business location even though it is becoming increasingly common. It does show running a market stall and street trading, and correctly advises that you need a street trading licence. Running a business out of a residential address is likely to need some form of local authority permission, even if it’s not a specific business licence.

It does not give you guidance on how to make the relevant business licence application(s)

Again, this isn’t really the tool’s job. However, it is vital that you apply for your business licence(s) in the correct way. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, it increases your chances of having your licensing application accepted.

Secondly, it ensures that your business licence is actually valid. If you accidentally put the wrong information on your business licence application, you may end up getting a business licence that is inappropriate for your business, and hence invalid.

Business licences in brief

Here is a quick guide to the top ten main licences most businesses are likely to need.

Activity Licence for England & Wales Issuing authority
Sell alcohol Premise licence + Personal licence OR TENS licence + Personal licence Local authority
Distribute leaflets Permission to distribute leaflets Local authority
Put displays on the pavement Pavement or street display licence Local authority
Use the pavement for business furniture (e.g. tables and chairs or displays) Permission to place temporary furniture on the pavement Local authority
Run CCTV yourself (if you use an agency, they should have the relevant licence) Public space surveillance licence Security Industry Authority (SIA)
Show real-time TV programs (e.g sport) TV Licence BBC (via the TV Licensing Agency)
Play background music TheMusicLicence PPL PRS Ltd
Manage waste Register as a waste carrier, broker or dealer Local authority
Process personal data (including images captured on CCTV) Register with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ICO
Employ minors (13+) Child work permit Local authority

Scotland and NI generally have their own equivalents of these business licences

How to apply for a business licence

Apply for a business licence by filling in an application form on your local authority’s website. There is a strategy for maximising your chances of having your application accepted. Here is a quick guide to the best approach to use.

Check if you need to fulfil any criteria

Before you apply for any business licence, make sure that you fulfil any prerequisites. For example, if you want a personal licence to sell alcohol, show evidence of suitable training. You cannot apply for the licence with proof that you have signed up for this training: you must have it fully completed. If you don’t, your application is automatically declined.

Check how to pay the business licence fee

You often need to pay a fee to get a business licence. The application form should tell you the process for doing so. Follow the instructions exactly. In particular, if you have to input details into a form, make sure that they are totally correct. Mistakes here might not get your application declined, but they can delay it and create unnecessary administration for you and your local authority.

Show how you will conduct your business responsibly

The whole point of designating certain categories of business as licensable activities is to ensure they are carried out responsibly. The four main reasons for requiring business licensing are as follows.

  • To ensure that law and order are maintained.

  • To ensure safety.

  • To prevent nuisance.

  • To prevent harm, especially to vulnerable people.

Different types of business licences may have different levels of emphasis on each of these criteria. Similarly, the potential concerns felt by local authorities vary, depending on the type of business licence you want.

For example, if you’re applying for an alcohol licence, showing that you will help to maintain law and order is a high priority. By contrast, if you’re applying for a street trading licence, it’s probably going to be much less of a concern.

Similarly, if you’re applying for an alcohol licence, then concerns about safety probably relate to the effects of alcohol. If you’re applying for a street trading licence, they are more likely to be about ensuring that you only park in safe locations.

Whatever type of business you run, research the potential issues it can cause and show how you will prevent or at least mitigate them.

Useful resources

The government’s licence-finder tool is here.

Information at any stage.

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