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 necessary to safely practice in the field—and show clients and employers that 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.  

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 both require 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. 

Requirements to Obtain a Social Work License
Type of License Minimum Education Exam
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.

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, in order 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 the 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 different categories of exams: 

  • Associate
  • Bachelors
  • Masters 
  • Advanced Generalist
  • Clinical 

Your state licensing board may be able to inform you of 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 associates ASWB exam was taken for the first time by 208 candidates, in 2020, with a passing rate of 77.6%. The content for the associates ASWB exam is shared with the bachelors exam. Some states offer an associates level license for those without social work degrees, but this is very limited.

Bachelors Social Work Exam

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

Masters Social Work Exam

The masters ASWB exam was taken over 16,000 times in 2020 with a pass rate of 75.4% — the highest number of exams and highest pass rate for that year. 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 has received the least amount of candidates in 2020 at 134 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.

All total number of exams and pass rates for associates, bachelors, masters, 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 in understanding 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 Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited school of social work or program.

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 job 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.

However, in nearly all other instances, you will need to complete continuing education hours. For instance, New York requires LCSWs and LMSWs to complete 36 continuing education hours every three years in order to renew their licenses. Meanwhile, 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 that allow them 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 NASW: professional social work credentials and advanced practice specialty credentials. The latter contains 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 necessary to safely practice in the field. Each state dictates their own requirements for licensure, but these typically fall into four different categories: bachelor, master, 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 from an accredited social work 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, you can. 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 re-apply for your social work license with that state’s particular 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?

There are very few exceptions to this rule. 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’s 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 (BSW or MSW).

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 completed 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 resitting the exam. Some states only accept scores up to a certain number of years old. To transfer scores, contact the jurisdiction you desire to be licensed in and review their transfer process.

Information on this page was retrieved in April 2021.