What is a DUNS Number and Why Do Government Contractors Need One?

marketing May 30, 2020

I spent 20 years as a government contractor and just came to take “DUNS numbers” for granted. Someone told me to get one, so I got one and then basically stopped thinking about it. But there’s a lot more involved and there’s big changes starting in 2020 related to the DUNS number.

A DUNS number is a nine-character, numeric, unique identifier assigned by Dun & Bradstreet (D&B). DUNS numbers are assigned (for each physical location) to businesses, organizations, etc. that wish to pursue contracts or grants from the United States federal government.

In my 20 years as a federal government contractor, I knew enough to have a DUNS number, but never understood the purpose and how it compares to all the other numbers I have.

In researching this article, I’ve realized the broader purpose of a DUNS number, where it is helpful to the government (the buyer) and how it ties together with the other unique identifiers used in federal government contracting. Also, that it’s also being replaced.

What is the Purpose of a DUNS Number?

A DUNS number is one of four key numbers related to your business.

  1. Social Security Number (SSN) | This is assigned to you by the Social Security Administration (SSA), primarily for social security benefits. But the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses it as your individual Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN). This is the unique identifier of the business owner… you.

  2. Company’s EIN | The Employer Identification Number (EIN) is assigned to companies by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), primarily for tax purposes. Think of the EIN as the social security number for your company; it is the unique identifier of the business.

  3. Company’s DUNS number | The Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number is assigned by Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), a commercial company that the federal government contracted with to provide unique identifiers. While your social security number and EIN are sensitive, private information and shouldn’t be broadly shared, the DUNS number was designed to be publicly shared as a unique identifier.

  4. Company’s CAGE code | The Commercial and Government Entity (CAGE) code is the full name of this unique identifier, but in government contracting we just use “CAGE code” when referring to it. CAGE codes, created in a nonproprietary system created by the Department of Defense (DoD), are assigned and managed by the Defense Logistics Agency’s (DLA) CAGE Program Office. Unlike your social security number and company’s EIN, CAGE codes are designed to be publicly visible, unique identifiers.

Does Every Company Have a DUNS Number?

For companies NOT selling to the federal government, DUNS numbers are optional.

DUNS numbers are REQUIRED for federal government contractors; FAR regulated since 1998. Over 80 federal government systems use DUNS numbers for tracking purposes.

DUNS numbers are assigned at the lowest organizational level which, for small-business federal contractors, typically are unique business locations.

Your headquarters would typically reflect the first DUNS number your company gets, and any new DUNS number related to this business would be requested as a “child” DUNS number under the “parent” number assigned to your headquarters.

The government uses DUNS numbers to identify your company. You can avoid all the deep details around DUNS numbers, but the reality is… if you want to sell to the federal government, you must have a DUNS number. This will change in late 2020 (see below) when DUNS numbers are replaced with government generated unique identifiers.

Do DUNS Numbers Expire?

DUNS numbers do not expire.

According to Dun and Bradstreet, the only company to issue DUNS numbers:

“Once assigned it will not be re-issued or re-assigned. The DUNS Number stays with a business throughout the duration of its life cycle, including name and address changes, changes in corporate structure and even bankruptcy.”

Note – DUNS numbers will be replaced (see below) but for companies that already have a DUNS number, they will retain those numbers for federal government tracking systems and purposes.

How Do I Get a DUNS Number?

To apply and receive a DUNS Number is FREE for all businesses required to register with the federal government.

It takes Dun & Bradstreet one (1) business day to create a DUNS number for your company if you are seeking it in order to sell products and services to the US federal government or are pursuing federal grants.

Companies wishing to sell products and services to the federal government can obtain a DUNS number during the registration process in the System for Award Management (SAM).

The first popup screen when you “Start Registration” in SAM reminds you that you must have a DUNS number to complete the application. There is a link on that reminder popup window that will take you to the D&B request page specific to federal government related applications.

How Do I Find a Company’s DUNS Number?

For businesses serving the federal government, use SAM.gov search page– it provides a lot of valuable information in the results. You can type in the name of a company and you’ll see their DUNS number as part of the returned results.

For all other businesses use D&B website. They do require you to provide your contact information and an email address to see any DUNS number.

Should I Put My DUNS number on My Website?

Often, small businesses owners are concerned about sharing their DUNS number on their company website and other marketing material. Go ahead and put your DUNS number on your website – it was designed specifically to be a publicly available unique identifier.

Unlike your social security number (SSN) and your Employer Identification Number (EIN) which are sensitive information and should not be publicly shared, the DUNS number was designed to be used in the many publicly accessible systems used by the United States federal government.

For example, USA Spending and the Federal Procurement Database System (FPDS) provide data about contract awards made by federal government agencies. This information includes the terms of agreement, amount of the award, and details about the company that won each award. These tools use the DUNS number as a way of keeping the information in sync among the government’s systems.

Protect your social security number. Protect your employer identification number. But proudly and broadly share your DUNS number. That’s one way a federal buyer can research you to see if you are “procurement ready” and evaluate any of your past performance.

HOT TIP - DUNS Numbers Being Replaced

In 2016, a final rule went into effect to remove all references to the DUNS number from the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) – replaced instead by the term “Unique Entity Identifier” – allowing the federal government to prepare for replacing DUNS numbers as the unique identifier federal contractors are required to have.

Beginning in June 2020, new applicants will not be required to apply for a DUNS number. Instead, they will automatically be given a Unique Entity Identifier (UEI) by the System for Award Management tool.

The U.S. General Service Administration is managing the transition from DUNS numbers to the government operated “Unique Entity Identifier” (UEI). Their plan is to start issuing UEIs by June 2020.

Learn more about this transition on GSA’s “Unique Entity Identifier Update” page.

Beware of Companies Selling SAM Registration

Each year, hundreds of small businesses are convinced to spend money with a vendor promising online SAM registration and will help you get a DUNS number.

Some vendors even use scare tactics such as telling you the task is “highly detailed”, or a “cumbersome registration process”, or that you just don’t have the time to learn the procedures.

The fact is, only you should fill out the SAM registration and along the way get your DUNS number. If you cannot complete the SAM registration process, then you really need to rethink selling to the federal government.

Selling to and supporting federal government agencies is detailed and regulation driven. It’s no harder than anything else you had to learn but will take some time.

By completing the SAM registration process, yourself, and going through the steps to get your DUNS number, you’ll begin to learn the complexity and regulations that guide federal procurement.

Keep your $500-1,000 instead of paying to have someone to register you in SAM and help you get a DUNS number. Spend it on web design.

If you have questions, talk to one of the many free resources available to you; e.g. Small Business Development Center, Women’s Business Center, Procurement Technical Assistance Center, etc. They all offer their help with SAM registration at no additional cost.

I created a very detailed, free course on registering in SAM, getting your DUNS number, and getting started in federal contracting. It is a free course designed specifically to give you the start I wish I had when I started my small businesses years ago.

Beware the DUNS Number Hype

Dun and Bradstreet is a commercial company with commercial products. For small business, federal government contractors, those products are unnecessary.

Government contractors must have a DUNS number. You do not need to maintain a profile or status within D&B though. You maintain your profile and status within federal government systems like the System for Award Management (SAM.gov) and the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS).

If you are selling to the commercial or consumer sectors, then D&B products and services could be of value. But within the federal sector, your Small Business Profile and your official past performance ratings define your “procurement ready” status.

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