Guide to Becoming Licensed as a Social Worker

Obtaining your license is a key part of becoming a social worker. Licenses ensure that you have all the knowledge to safely practice in the field—and show clients and employers you are qualified and professional. But with requirements varying between states, obtaining a license may be a confusing process to navigate at times. 

In this guide, we’ll explain the general licensure requirements at each professional tier of social work—from the licensed baccalaureate social worker to the licensed independent clinical social worker level—to help you better understand the process.  

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

Howard University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

University of Denver

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 16 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 16 months

University of Southern California

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The Advanced Standing track can be completed in as little as 1 year. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 12 months with a BSW 
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

Syracuse University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available. 

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University

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Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years

info SPONSORED

Types of Social Work License Levels

If you’re interested in becoming a social worker, you have a couple of potential licensure paths to choose from. In this section, we explain the various social work licenses and the educational requirements necessary for each. Keep in mind, however, that social work licensure varies by state, so it’s best to consult your state regulatory board to learn what licenses are available in your jurisdiction. 

Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW). An LBSW is a common social work license, requiring only an undergraduate degree from an accredited school of social work. It lets you perform general services in the field, although you’ll likely have to be supervised when first starting out.

Certified Social Worker (CSW). A CSW is a broad social work certification that requires either a bachelor’s or master’s degree, depending on the state. In Utah, you need a master’s degree or higher to apply as a CSW, while in New Jersey, you only need a bachelor’s degree and one year of field experience.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). LCSWs are social workers with specialized training that authorizes them to provide clinical services to patients, including psychotherapy. 

Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)LMSW practice is generally broader than that of the LCSW. While the LMSW requires a master’s degree like the LCSW, LMSWs can only provide clinical services under the supervision of an LCSW.

Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW). Certain states, like West Virginia, refer to graduate-level social workers as LGSWs instead of LMSWs—but they both require a graduate degree in social work and supervision when performing clinical work. 

Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW). This license is similar to the LCSW license. It affords social workers the same authority as the master’s-level licenses, but unlike LGSWs, they can perform clinical services without supervision and even open their own practice.

Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP). In Nebraska, the LMHP license allows social workers to provide mental health services, short of diagnosing mental illnesses or disorders.

Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA). This social work certification is only offered in Oregon. It permits you to begin working in the clinical field after graduating with a master’s degree, as long as you have an approved plan of supervision. With the CSWA, you can gain experience to become a LCSW license holder.

Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW). This license allows social workers to take on responsibilities like case management, policy administration and counseling—although it does not authorize independent clinical work. To obtain the LAPSW license, you will need post-master’s supervised work experience.

Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW). According to Washington state’s Behavioral Health Workforce (PDF, 502KB), this license authorizes social workers to perform duties that include case management, biopsychosocial assessments, and community organization, among other things. But it does not authorize you to offer clinical services or practice psychotherapy without supervision. 

Requirements to Obtain a Social Work License

The requirements to obtain a social work license vary by state and license level, but they generally require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, passing an exam, field experience and, at times, a background check. The table below lists requirements for each license. 

Type of LicenseMinimum EducationExam
LBSW
Bachelor’s degree
ASWB bachelor’s exam
CSW
Bachelor’s or master’s degree
ASWB master’s exam (in select states)
LCSW
Master’s degree, including clinical coursework 
ASWB clinical exam
LMSW
Master’s degree
ASWB master’s exam
LGSW
Master’s degree
ASWB master’s exam
LICSW
Master’s degree, including clinical internship 
ASWB clinical exam
LMHP
Master’s or doctoral degree, including clinical internship 
ASWB clinical exam
CSWA
Master’s degree
ASWB clinical exam
LAPSW
Master’s degree
ASWB master’s exam
LASW
Master’s or doctoral degree
ASWB advanced generalist exam

Education

You typically need at least a master’s degree to become a licensed social worker, but in some states, it’s possible to get an entry-level license with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree. If you’d like to obtain a license more advanced than an LBSW or CSW, however, you will need to complete a Master of Social Work program (MSW). A master’s degree may open doors to advanced social work licensure, including LMSW, LCSW, LGSW, and LICSW licenses. 

Whether you’re completing a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral program, it’s advisable to select one that’s been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Accreditation ensures the quality of social work curricula as well as the quality of instruction.   

For students who work full-time or need a flexible course schedule for other reasons, the CSWE accredits online and distance education programs, in addition to traditional programs. That means you can pursue your education from home. 

Both BSW and MSW programs include supervised field experience as outlined by the CSWE. This is commonly referred to as the social work practicum or internship.  For candidates hoping to go into independent and/or clinical practice, supervised post-graduate hours are also required.

Sponsored Online Social Work Programs

Howard University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The online Master of Social Work program from Howard University School of Social Work prepares students for advanced direct or macro practice in culturally diverse communities. Two concentrations available: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice. No GRE. Complete in as few as 12 months.

  • Concentrations: Direct Practice and Community, Administration, and Policy Practice
  • Complete at least 777-1,000 hours of agency-based field education
  • Earn your degree in as few as 12 months

University of Denver

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The University of Denver’s Online MSW Program is delivered by its top-ranked school of social work and offers two programs. Students can earn their degree in as few as 12 months for the Online Advanced-Standing MSW or 27 months for the Online MSW.

  • Complete the Online Advanced-Standing MSW in as few as 12 months if you have a BSW; if you do not have a BSW, the Online MSW Program may be completed in as few as 27 months.
  • No GRE Required
  • Mental Health and Trauma or Health, Equity and Wellness concentrations

Fordham University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Fordham’s skills-based, online MSW program integrates advanced relevant social work competencies, preparing students to serve individuals and communities while moving the profession forward. This program includes advanced standing and traditional MSW options.

  •  Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.
  • There are four areas of focus: Individuals and Families, Organizations and Community, Evaluation, and Policy Practice and Advocacy.
  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.

Simmons University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 16 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 16 months

University of Southern California

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

The MSW@USC is the online Master of Social Work from top-ranked USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The Advanced Standing track can be completed in as little as 1 year. USC offers virtual and in-person field education, and students focus on adults, youth or social change.

  •  Minimum completion time: 12 months with a BSW 
  • Online classes taught by USC faculty 
  • Virtual field training to build skills and confidence

Syracuse University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Syracuse University’s online Master of Social Work program does not require GRE scores to apply and is focused on preparing social workers who embrace technology as an important part of the future of the profession. Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks are available. 

  • Traditional and Advanced Standing tracks
  • No GRE required
  • Concentrate your degree in integrated practice or clinical practice

Baylor University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Complete the Master of Social Work online program at Baylor University in as few as 12 months. Serve populations in Texas and around the world while ethically integrating faith and social work practice. No GRE required.

  • Address injustice from a strengths-based perspective
  • Ethically integrates faith and social work practice
  • Serve as a trusted resource for clients, no matter their personal background
  • Complete the MSW online program in as few as 12 months

Case Western Reserve University

info

Master of Social Work (MSW)

In as few as a year and a half, you can prepare for social work leadership by earning your Master of Social Work online from Case Western Reserve University’s school of social work.

  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • Complete in as few as one and a half years

info SPONSORED

Practice Experience

Some states require social workers to accumulate a certain amount of experience in the field before applying for a license or require that they work under supervision after receiving their license. Some also have licenses available for those who do not have post-graduate experience. In states that offer the LBSW license, for instance, social workers must be supervised by a graduate-level social worker. In Alabama, supervised experience lasts two years (PDF, 292 KB).

Similarly, to achieve a clinical license, you have to complete a minimum number of supervised clinical hours after graduating with your MSW degree. For example, Arkansas requires completion of 4,000 clinical hours, but some states like California require just over 3,000 hours.       

ASWB Social Work Exam

Used in the United States and some provinces in Canada, the Associate of Social Work Boards (ASWB) exams are used as a measurement of social work licensure, accepted by many social work regulatory organizations. There are five categories of exams: 

  • Associate
  • Bachelor’s
  • Master’s 
  • Advanced Generalist
  • Clinical 

Your state licensing board may be able to inform you which level of examination you should pursue based on your licensing application.For the most up to date information on exam fees, scoring, time to complete and more, please visit the ASWB candidate handbook.

Associate Social Work Exam

The associate ASWB exam was taken for the first time by 208 candidates, in 2020, with a passing rate of 77.6%. The content for the associate ASWB exam is shared with the bachelor’s exam. Some states offer an associate-level license for those without social work degrees, but this is very limited.

Bachelor’s Social Work Exam

The 2020 bachelor’s ASWB exam had a pass rate of 68.5%. Candidates who have completed their bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) may expect to find the following bachelor’s exam content (PDF, 109 KB).

Master’s Social Work Exam

The master’s ASWB exam was taken over 16,000 times in 2020, with a pass rate of 75.4%. This exam is for those who have completed their Master of Social Work (MSW) program or an online MSW program.

Advanced Generalist Social Work Exam

The advanced generalist ASWB exam was taken by 134 candidates in 2020, with a pass rate of 64.2%. However, ASWB indicates that pass rates for groups of 200 or more are most representative of the candidate population.

Clinical Social Work Exam

The clinical ASWB exam was taken over 16,000 times in 2020, with a pass rate of 74.8%. The ASWB clinical exam content (PDF, 114 KB) may include human growth and development, diversity, biopsychosocial history, assessments, treatment planning and more topics.

The number of exams and pass rates for associate, bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist and clinical exams was retrieved from ASWB pass rates for 2020.

Become a Licensed Social Worker in Your State

Social work licensure and certificate requirements or standards are set forth to help the public understand standards for the safe and professional practice of social workers.

Regulatory boards for social work licensure and/or certification generally require that applicants receive their social work degree from a school of social work or program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).

Social Work Licensure by State

Should I Obtain a Social Work License?

A social work license may open an array of opportunities within the field of social work and is required for many positions. Often, with a clinical license, you may gain additional role responsibilities such as assessment, diagnosis and providing treatment.

Social Work License Renewal 

Most social work licenses have a renewal process. Like all licensure requirements, this differs from state to state, but generally involves continuing education hours and a renewal fee.

New York requires LCSWs and LMSWs to complete 36 continuing education hours every three years to renew their licenses. In Oregon, you must renew your CSWA license each year.  

Social Work Certification

For social workers looking for credentials in addition to a license, the National Association of Social Work (NASW) offers focused credentials to showcase their specialized training. All licensed social workers can apply for a credential of their choosing, as long as they meet the requirements detailed on the NASW website

There are two types of certifications offered by the NASWprofessional social work credentials and advanced practice specialty credentials. The latter includes a range of areas in which social workers can become certified, including case management, addiction, gerontology, military, and youth and family services. 

FAQ

Still unsure about getting your social work license? Below are answers to some common questions about becoming a licensed social worker.

What is a social work license?

A social work license is a professional license that proves you have the knowledge and skills to safely practice in the field. Each state dictates its own requirements for licensure, but these typically fall into four categories: bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist, and clinical. These come with different educational and experiential requirements that dictate your responsibilities as a social worker.

Can I obtain a social work license without a degree?

To become a licensed social worker in most states, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in social work from an accredited program—although it may be possible to obtain an entry-level license with a bachelor’s degree in a similar/related subject. In certain states, you can only become licensed after completing a master’s or doctoral program in social work.

What can an unlicensed social worker do?

Some states may make an exemption and allow you to perform certain responsibilities within the field of social work without a license—but only if you’re a health care professional with relevant experience or a social work student. For the most part, if you are interested in pursuing a career in social work, it is recommended that you become licensed. And if you’re not, you can explore related career options.

Is social work licensure the same from one state to another?

No, each state has its own regulatory board for licensing social workers. While some regulations may overlap from state to state, it is important to know exactly what your desired state licensing board will require of you.

Can I be a licensed social worker in more than one state?

Yes. Different jurisdictions have different regulatory requirements for licensure, but as long as you meet the basic requirements of both or even multiple states, you can hold more than one license. It’s also important to note that violations of one jurisdiction’s laws concerning licensure may result in repercussions with other jurisdictions’ licensure.

If I have to move to another state, will my social work license transfer?

While it is possible your qualifications will be sufficient from state to state, you will not be a licensed social worker until you reapply for your social work license with that state’s regulatory board and are awarded a new license. Your test scores do transfer between states, however.

Can I obtain a license with a non-social work degree?

Generally, a regulatory board will not consider applicants who do not have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work. Some states will offer an associate license for applicants without either degree, but it is not a common practice. If you seriously intend on beginning a career in social work, you should plan on having an appropriate degree (Bachelor of Social Work or master’s in social work).

What can I expect to encounter on the social work licensing exam?

The exam includes 170 multiple-choice questions. Twenty of these questions do not count toward your final score. You will have four hours to complete the test, which is conducted  electronically. For specific details on the test and special allowances for testers with disabilities, visit the Association of Social Work Boards’ (ASWB) website.

Do social work licensure tests vary depending on what state I am in?

The scoring scales used by jurisdictions may differ, but if you have passed the test in one jurisdiction, that will equate to passing the test anywhere. In other words, while some jurisdictions have different ways of describing passing requirements, the actual number of correct answers needed to pass is the same across jurisdictions. You can learn more about scoring the test from the ASWB exam scoring resource.

How do I transfer test scores between states?

If the state uses the exam level you took or are taking, you can have your scores sent to that state so you can avoid retaking the exam. Some states only accept scores up to a certain number of years old. To transfer scores, contact the jurisdiction where you want to be licensed and review their transfer process.

Information on this page was retrieved in October 2021.