Skip to Main Content

Patents: Applying for a Patent

Applying for a Patent

Inventors may apply for one of two types of patent applications: (1) A nonprovisional application, which begins the examination process and may lead to a patent and (2) A provisional application, which establishes a filing date but does not begin the examination process. Both types of patent applications can be filed either electronically by using the Electronic Filing System (EFS) (for provisional applications) or in writing to the Commissioner for Patents. You can also request that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) send informational materials providing a broad overview of the process of obtaining a United States patent, including general requirements and a listing of the depository libraries. For a listing of the information available, visit the USPTO Web site at

Provisional Patents

What is a provisional patent?

A provisional patent is a temporary claim to an intellectual property and can be used as a placeholder for the more formal non-provisional patent. Provisional patents last for 12 months — time which is typically used by an inventor to continue research and testing. A provisional patent allows use of the term “Patent Pending” to be applied in connection with the invention. Provisional patents are limited in function, as they may not be filed for design inventions.

The filing date of a provisional application is the date on which a written description of the invention, and drawings if necessary, are received in the USPTO. To be complete, a provisional application must also include the filing fee, and a cover sheet specifying that the application is a provisional application for patent.

Nonprovisional Patents

What is a non-provisional patent?

A non-provisional patent grants the inventor exclusive rights to an intellectual property for a period of 15 years for a design patent and 20 years for a plant patent. It is a formal document that allows the inventor to legally protect their idea and provides exclusive rights to the patented design. A non-provisional application for a patent is made to the Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office and includes:

(1) A written document which comprises a specification (description and claims);

(2) Drawings (when necessary);

(3) An oath or declaration; and

(4) Filing, search, and examination fees.


Information found on this page courtesy of: The United States Patent and Trademark Office

Filing Provisional Patents as a Precursor to Non-Provisional Patents

Sometimes an inventor will submit a provisional patent and then use that as a basis for a non-provisional patent before the timeframe expires. Provisional patents may include multiple design concepts for an invention, which only apply to the invention exactly as it is described. So, if you file a provisional patent as a placeholder for your invention and submit changes to the design when filing the non-provisional patent, you are legally filing for a different invention. In that case, your provisional patent may lapse and your non-provisional patent will need to start from the beginning of the filing process. 

In the U.S. if a provisional application is not filed in English, and a nonprovisional application is filed claiming benefit to the provisional application, a translation of the provisional application will be required. The 12-month pendency for a provisional application is not counted toward the 20-year term of a patent granted on a subsequently filed non-provisional application for the same invention.

What Happens When a Patent Expires?

In most cases, a patent cannot be renewed or extended beyond the standard timeframe. An inventor may invent improvements for their original patent design and then patent the innovation but this does not prevent the original invention's patent from expiring. Once a patent has expired, anyone is free to use the design.

                                                                  Patent 573907 | Patent number 573,907 | Michael Neubert | Flickr