Is It Illegal Not to Have a Name?

prince performed
Prince performs onstage at The Hollywood Palladium on March 8, 2014 in Los Angeles. In 1993 he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol (pictured). Kevin Mazur/WireImage for NPG Records 2013

Humans love naming things. Gardenias, flamingos, clothespins, you name it. Literally, you name it.

For people, our names help to establish our unique place in the world, often summing up in one word our basic personal data of gender, nationality and family history. Whether based on days of week (as with some tribes in Africa), Hopi familial tradition or Jewish religious custom, all cultures have developed naming conventions. And after all that effort, many still tweak their own names into a nickname like Moose or Flash.


But are we legally obligated to have a name? Could we erase it and go with nothing, diving into the ultimate anonymity?

In the United States, going without a name is not inherently illegal. Police won't arrest you for not having a name. But you can't legally identify yourself without one, which would make things difficult for you. For instance, you need a legal name on a birth certificate or social security card to obtain a driver's license or passport, open a bank account and get a job.

By virtue of common law adopted through court decisions rather than legislative actions, you can change your name without a court order simply by using it in all aspects of your life. While state laws govern how you can legally change your name, in general, Beauregard can become any Tom, Dick or Harry as long as the new moniker isn't:

  • intentionally confusing, such as a number
  • a vulgar word that could induce fighting, including racial slurs
  • used with fraudulent intent, such as skipping out on unpaid debts
  • someone else's name for the intent of misuse

However, because of identity fraud and credit card theft, most government agencies will require forms to be filled out and filed if you're changing your name and want the new name on your passport, for example [source: FindLaw].

Other countries including Australia, Germany and Spain have similar laws regarding first names. That said, you still could not legally change your name to nothing because you would have no acceptable way to verify your identity.

But what about naming babies? Can parents choose to not name their child?


Must Babies Be Named Before Leaving Hospital?

baby with security tag
If a baby doesn't have a name, it will be tagged "Babygirl Smith" or something like that in hospital. Although hospitals do encourage parents to name their child before leaving, it's not required. Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

In the United States, no matter where a woman gives birth, she is legally obligated at some point to report it to the appropriate government entity, usually a department of health and human services or vital records. That entails filling out a first and last name for the child. How long the mother has to fill out that birth certificate varies by state.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to give your baby a name before leaving hospital. In the absence of a name, hospitals will assign a name like "Babygirl Smith" to your baby, though a 2015 study showed that using a more distinctive naming pattern like "Janesgirl Smith" (for the daughter of Jane Smith) could reduce "wrong-patient errors" in the facility.


Even in the absence of a name, the hospital will still register your baby's birth and send the info to your state's health department. (You can get a copy of the birth certificate from your state or county's department of vital records.) The procedure for adding a name later may vary depending on the state you live in.

For instance in California, you have to request a "supplemental name report" form from your health department, fill it out with your baby's name and then send it directly to the birth registry (vital records). You have a year to do this without a fee.

Although naming customs for babies differ across the world, all countries have some sort of vital records collection, whether centrally or locally controlled. In fact, Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child states that all children have a "right from birth to a name" [source: United Nations].

But if you pick something too off the wall, beware. In 2007, the New Zealand government revoked Pat and Sheena Watson's name selection for their son. The offender? 4Real. Like the United States, New Zealand does not allow the presence of numerals in legal names.

German parents must follow stricter standards enforced by the local registration office, called the Standesamt. They must select a moniker that reflects the baby's sex and will not incite ridicule for the child [source: Gesley]. Iceland has similar laws and a list of approved names. In Zambia, boys and girls are expected to change their names at puberty and may go through several names during their lives [source: Tembo].


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Benson, Ciaran; Inc NetLibrary. "The Cultural Psychology of Self." Routledge. 2001. (April 23, 2008)
  • Bryne, Deidre. "The World's Most Popular Names." (April 23, 2008)
  • Cabot, Tyler. "Baby Names." The Atlantic. June 2005. (April 23, 2008)
  • Flippo, Hyde. "The German Way." McGraw Hill. 1996. (April 29, 2008)
  • Flora, Carlin. "Hello, My Name is Unique." Psychology Today. March/April 2004. (April 23, 2008)
  • Ihara, Toni; Ihara, Toni Lynne; Warner, Ralph E; Hertz, Frederick. "Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples." Nolo. 2006.
  • Kim, Susanna. "When He Changed His Name to a Symbol." ABC News. April 22, 2016 (Aug. 8, 2022)
  • Stringer, Kortney. "Leaving Tradition Behind: Brand-named babies." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. June 12, 2006. (April 23, 2008)
  • Tembo, Mwizenge. "Zambian traditional names." Julubbi Enterprises Limited. 2006. (April 29, 2008)