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Social Work Licensing Guide

Social work licensure protects the public by ensuring that social workers possess the proper education and training to provide ethical and competent services. Each state's regulatory board grants social workers their licenses, so criteria for licensure and levels of licensure vary by location.

Depending on the state, individuals may need to obtain social work licenses to use the social worker title or provide any social work services. Other states do not require licensure, but most employers prefer licensed candidates. To review the specific licensure levels and requirements for your state, visit your state's licensure page below.

Social Work Licensure Requirements by State

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Frequently Asked Questions

What can an unlicensed social worker do?

To work as a clinical social worker, you need to obtain a social work license no matter where you live. While some states allow non-clinical social workers to operate without licensure, most states require it, and most employers prefer to work with licensed social workers. Social work professionals without licensure can find employment as case workers or social and human services assistants.

What is the difference between an LSW and a LCSW?

Licensed social workers (LSWs) and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) take on different responsibilities. LCSWs offer therapy to individuals, groups, and families. They can also diagnose and treat various mental and behavioral disorders. LSWs offer guidance and connect clients with mental health and community resources, but they do not provide the same therapeutic services as LCSWs.

What is the difference between an MSW and an LCSW?

Professionals that have earned a master of social work (MSW) degree have completed their graduate level training but have not obtained licensure. In order to earn clinical licensure, social workers need two years of supervised experience. MSWs might be on their way to becoming LCSWs, but they have not yet completed these two years of experience.

Can LCSWs open their own practice?

Yes, LCSWs can open their own practice. Setting up an independent business usually demands financial investment and plenty of administrative work. Because of the added strain of opening a business, LCSWs might benefit from gaining a few years of experience before setting up their own practice.

How much do LCSWs make a year?

Generally speaking, social workers make a median annual salary of $50,470, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). PayScale figures show that LCSWs make a higher average salary of $58,518. Entry-level LCSWs bring home about $46,780 in average earnings, while experienced professionals make an average salary of over $63,000.

How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

Licensing at the BSW Level

To become a licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW), students should start by earning a bachelor of social work (BSW) from a CSWE-accredited college or university. Some states offer exceptions that allow social work licensure for human service professionals with an alternate bachelor's degree.

BSWs typically take four years to complete and comprise 120 credits. Social work majors take classes in case management, social justice, human behavior, and social welfare policy to gain an understanding of the field. Beyond the classroom, BSW programs allow undergraduates to gain experience as supervised interns at local hospitals, nonprofits, schools, and social service agencies.

Licensing at the MSW Level

To become a licensed master of social work (LMSW), a licensed master social worker-advanced generalist (LMSW-AG), or LCSW, you must obtain an MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program. A traditional full-time MSW program lasts two years, but students with a BSW may qualify for advanced standing. Advanced standing allows social workers to complete an MSW in as little as one year.

Some five-year programs allow each enrollee to earn a BSW and an MSW. All CSWE-accredited MSW programs follow a similar curriculum, including clinical and non-clinical components, to combine classroom education with field experience.

Some states require additional educational requirements for social work licenses. For example, some candidates for licensure must complete additional coursework in social work ethics, substance abuse, child abuse, or cultural competence.

Supervised Work Experience Requirements

Generally, to become an LCSW or LMSW, you do not need to complete any post-graduation work experience. However, candidates looking to pursue higher-level licenses must gain qualified work experience.

For eligibility as an LMSW-AG, most states require two years of supervised non-clinical work experience post graduation. To gain this experience, social workers seek out positions providing non-clinical social work services to clients, organizations, and communities.

Each state licensing board specifies the necessary amount of hours or years of work experience to apply for the advanced generalist examination. Many states require candidates to gain qualified work experience while under the supervision of senior social workers.

To become an LCSW, most states require 2-3 years of supervised clinical work experience. To gain on-the-job training, master's-level social workers seek out positions that provide direct clinical services to individuals, families, and groups, including assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.

The supervisor shares responsibility for the unlicensed social worker's clinical services. The supervisor and student meet regularly to discuss clinical decisions, social work ethics, and best practices. To become eligible for the ASWB clinical exam, social workers must provide documentation of their qualified work experience and supervision hours.

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Types of Social Work Licensure

This guide provides general information about how to get a social work license. However, licensure levels and requirements differ significantly by state.

Some states grant licenses to seasoned human service professionals with an associate degree or high school education. Other states only grant licenses to master's-level social workers.

Due to the significant differences among states, each candidate should research social work licensure in their intended state of practice. We cover the most common levels of licensure below.

Licensed Bachelor of Social Work

To obtain your LBSW certification, you must obtain a BSW degree and pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) bachelor's social work license exam. In most states, there is no on-the-job training or work experience required to become an LBSW.

Social workers can obtain this license immediately upon graduation from a CSWE-accredited BSW program. LBSWs often work in entry-level human services jobs and do not provide clinical services directly to clients. To obtain a higher level of licensure, LBSWs must continue their education by attending graduate school.

Licensed Master of Social Work

To become an LMSW, you must obtain an MSW degree and pass the ASWB master's exam. Some states require additional education in certain topics, such as social work ethics.

Students typically do not need to complete supervised postgraduate work experience to become LMSWs. Candidates can obtain this license immediately upon graduation from a CSWE-accredited MSW program with successful completion of all necessary testing and coursework.

LMSWs work in many different settings, including schools, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and human service agencies. These social workers often progress into management roles and can provide services to individual clients, groups, and communities. In some states, the LMSW is the highest level of licensure for social workers interested in providing non-clinical services.

Most master's-level social workers interested in clinical work obtain LMSWs after graduation before pursuing roles that offer the appropriate supervised experience in preparation for seeking a clinical license in the future.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker

If you are interested in a career as an LCSW, you must obtain a clinical social work license. Each LCSW must hold an MSW degree from a CSWE-approved program, pass the clinical ASWB examination, and complete any additional exams and coursework required by the state's board of social work.

To obtain a clinical license, social workers must also complete at least 2-3 years (depending on local requirements) of supervised clinical social work. LCSWs can practice independently and often find work in private practice settings, schools, hospitals, and community mental health agencies. LCSWs provide services directly to individuals, couples, and families through assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.

License Reciprocity for Social Workers

License reciprocity allows individuals to earn licenses in one state based on holding a similar license in another state. There is no system of reciprocity for social work licenses across states. However, most states allow license applicants to transfer their social work license exam scores from one state to another. Applicants can often prove they have met the supervised work experience requirement for a new state license by documenting previous supervised work experience from another state.

Because requirements for each social work license vary by state, there may be additional requirements for applicants moving from one state to another. Additional requirements for out of state applicants seeking reciprocity in a new state may include state-specific coursework, such as social work ethics or state law; additional clinical hours or supervision hours; letters of reference and original transcripts; and a letter of endorsement from the previous state's licensing board.

Renewing Social Work Licensure

Each state social work board sets specific renewal requirements for licensure, but most states require social workers to renew their licenses every two years by the end of their birth month. States generally require social workers to complete continuing education credits through a specific number of hours or courses, such as domestic violence or substance abuse. Social workers should refer to their state social work board to find continuing education requirements.

Renewal fees also vary from state to state, and most states charge the highest renewal fee for the highest level of social work licensing. As an estimate, expect to pay $36-$106 in renewal fees.

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