Entrepreneurs in Boston face significant regulatory hurdles in getting their businesses off the ground. Although the city’s general business license is simple and relatively low-cost—with few categories of additional business licenses—officials must streamline zoning and permitting rules and provide clear online guidance to aspiring small business owners.

Key Takeaways

In Boston, the cost, delays, and complexity created by the regulatory process for small businesses make it difficult—or sometimes even impossible—for entrepreneurs to start their ventures.


Building permits are expensive, ranging from $800 to start a barbershop to $1,850 to start a restaurant. These fees do not include costs for zoning, sign, or trade permits.


The city’s website does not effectively centralize information for entrepreneurs in an intuitive and organized way, scoring just one out of five in our one-stop shop analysis. This creates confusion and causes additional delays.


Food trucks are popular in Boston, but unfortunately the process for opening up is complex, as entrepreneurs must obtain multiple permits to get up and running. In total, food truck entrepreneurs must complete 37 steps. Restaurant and barbershop owners must complete 92 and 81 steps, respectively.

Starting a Business in Boston: By the Numbers

Total Cost
We calculated this metric by totaling the fees for all the licenses, permits, and registrations each business needs to get started.
Number of Fees
We calculated this metric by counting how many fees governments impose on each business for completing registrations and paperwork.
Agencies Involved
We calculated this metric by totaling the number of agencies entrepreneurs must work with in order to get up and running—whether in the form of submitting paperwork to an agency’s staff, or in terms of abiding by regulations that an agency has promulgated.
In-Person Activities
We calculated this metric by counting the number of compliance activities each entrepreneur needs to complete in person, rather than online or by mail.
Number of Forms
We calculated this metric by counting the various forms and applications each business needs to submit
Number of Steps
We calculated this metric by totaling the discrete tasks an entrepreneur must complete to start each of the business types.

Business Licensing


One-Stop Shop Score

  • Connecting city requirements with processes from other levels of government
  • Completing forms and registrations through the portal, not through each agency’s own website
  • Covering all city requirements, not just requirements for getting a business license
  • Providing a single log-in opportunity so entrepreneurs can organize information and track progress in one location
  • Guiding entrepreneurs effectively through the process

Boston Fast Facts

Notable Barriers and Roadblocks

Applications for permits and licenses—including renewals—can be denied in Boston if the applicant does not have “clean hands,” meaning that entrepreneurs cannot start the businesses of their dreams if they owe even small amounts of debt in fines and fees to city government.

Meanwhile, Boston has several regulatory roadblocks that single out specific kinds of businesses. For example, the city’s zoning restrictions make it impossible to start a home-based tutoring business, as the rules prohibit clients from visiting the home altogether—even for applicants who obtain a conditional use permit. In-home sales are also prohibited. Food trucks face similarly unwarranted restrictions: They are subject to GPS tracking by the government.

The city checks an applicant’s criminal history when considering restaurant license applications, which can deter those most in need of access to economic opportunity, like returning citizens, from applying in the first place. And state laws impose additional barriers: The barber license application asks applicants about their criminal histories and the peddler license application requires applicants to submit a certificate of character.

Accommodations for New or Small Businesses

Boston allows businesses to register a trade name on their general business certificate applications, consolidating steps to reduce red tape.

Policy Recommendations

Officials and policymakers have the opportunity to make it cheaper, faster, and simpler to start a business in Boston. City officials should:

  • Create a true one-stop shop for starting a business, with step-by-step guides and well-organized information that cover city and state requirements.
  • Simplify the process to obtain building permits by combining steps and paperwork, creating more guides for complying with agency rules, and lowering fees.
  • Eliminate “clean hands” requirements to ensure those working to lift themselves out of poverty are not immediately disqualified.
  • Remove unfair barriers that burden specific types of work, such as home-based businesses and food trucks, with unnecessary restrictions.
  • Work with the state to eliminate state-level barriers to work, such as criminal history checks, that often target vulnerable residents.