This will depend on your location. There are locations that have virtually no sign codes, but they are few and far between in the 21st Century USA, Canada, or Western Europe.
In our area, there are a bazillion rules for signs, so it is best to contact a sign professional to help guide you through the process. I believe this would be the case for most cities of any size in the US.
Let's say, for instance, in our area if you were to put up a 4' x 6' For Sale sign in front of your home, if you were in the city of Spokane, you would have a non-compliant sign because the max square footage allowed in a residential or small business zone is 15 square feet - which is, in the opinion of anyone who makes signs a goofy size, because a 4' x 4' sign is 16 square feet, and it just messes up a 4' x 8' substrate to have to cut it to 3.5' x 4'.
Again, in our area, if you have a sign that is 13' above grade on a street or road, you have a non-compliant sign. You may get by with it not being 14' above grade until someone hits it with an over-sized load on a semi truck or an over-aggressive inspector with a beam measuring device flashes it and discovers, horror of horrors, that an accident could happen if previous said event might happen, even though no semis ever travel this street.
You think, one day, that you'll pull a permit and install an illuminated sign. You set your pole, rent a lift, and weld the cabinet that you purchased from a UL approved vendor, and hook up the electrical, and as you're doing so, and inspector from L&I comes by and fines you $1000 because you don't have an "Electrical Administrators License." That's here in the People's Republic of Washington. Even if everything is perfect, they can still find a non-compliance issue with your sign.
That's why we recommend hiring a sign professional to make and install your sign. They're out there every day and know the ins and outs of dealing with all the compliance issues, so it makes it so you don't have to.
Why Not Every Business is Allowed to Advertise on Interstate Highways
This varies from state to state. In many states, anyone who wants to pay the fee and for the sign can advertise on these signs. Advertising on these signs is best suited to fuel stations and fast food restaurants, but at least in our jurisdiction, I've seen other types of restaurants also advertise in our area, and if memory serves, other types of business too.
Of course, a lot of retail outlets, auto dealerships, and other business can get a lot of visibility by buying or leasing a building along an interstate, then put up a large sign perpendicular to the freeway and so they really don't need to put their business on the USDOT Interstate signs.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barry K. Brown has been in the Sign, Banner, Decal and Display Business for over 20 years. It isn't what he thought he'd do with his life, but he says he knows too much now to do anything else! He has been marketing these products online since 1998, and the company he was general manager of in 1998 was the first sign company to be listed on Yahoo!