Counseling Licensure and Certification Requirements

Counselors help people solve problems in their everyday lives and overcome issues that may affect their mental health and well-being. Often, people who work as counselors complete educational, experiential and exam requirements to become licensed. Licensure is a requirement for many counseling positions, and it may also help distinguish a counselor in their field. 

If you’re interested in joining this mental health profession, this guide is for you. It covers what a licensed professional counselor (LPC) is, types of counseling licensure, how to become an LPC, LPC salary, licensed counselor careers, and LPC requirements by state.

What Is a Licensed Professional Counselor?

Licensed professional counseling is a profession where an individual promotes optimal emotional and mental health to individuals, couples and groups. Licensed counselor duties and responsibilities may include:

  • Helping people deal with issues associated with substance abuse and addiction.
  • Providing help for marital, family and parenting problems.
  • Assisting clients with self-esteem and stress management techniques.
  • Giving support for issues caused by aging.

What does a licensed counselor do exactly? It may depend on what kind of licensed professional counselor job they have. Licensed counselors who work in private practice, for example, may work alongside a group of counselors or by themselves, seeing clients in their own office on their own schedule.

A career in counseling may also involve working for organizations such as substance abuse centers, where you may lead group therapy sessions or develop individual treatment plans. Addiction counselors may even work in residential or outpatient treatment centers. Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers were the largest employers of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports.

Depending on the type of counseling you pursue, each state has its own requirements for licensure and/or certification. What is the difference between licensure and certification in counseling? According to the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC):

  • Certification is a voluntary credential a counselor obtains to show they’ve met national standards set forth by the counseling profession.
  • Licensure is issued by the state of practice as permission to practice counseling and to identify oneself as a licensed counselor.

Not all licensed counselors will have a counseling certification, but some may choose to get certified to distinguish themselves in their particular counseling field. Certification may also be required to become licensed in the state a counselor wants to work in.

Licensed Counselor Education Requirements

According to the BLS, all states require licensed counselors to have at least a master’s degree and 2,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical experience, though this number may vary. Compared to those with less education, individuals with a master’s degree in psychology, clinical social work, mental health counseling and similar fields may be able to offer more services to clients and need less supervision.

The type of master’s degree that’s acceptable for counseling licensure varies depending on the state. Some states may accept a degree similar to an accredited master’s degree in counseling such as:

  • Master of Arts in Counseling.
  • Master of Science in Professional Counseling.
  • Masters of Advanced Studies in Marriage and Family Therapy.
  • Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy.
  • Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology.
  • Master of Counseling.

Be sure to check with your state of practice’s counseling board for more information.

To get into a Master of Mental Health Counseling or similar program, each school will have various requirements. A related undergraduate degree, like a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), may be required. Check the admission requirements for the master’s in counseling programs that interest you.

Types of Counseling Certifications, Licensure Titles and Levels

According to the American Counseling Association (ACA), licensure laws set minimum standards in counseling education, examination and experience. Each state has a board that determines the state’s counseling licensure standards. 

While licensed professional counselor (LPC) is the recommended title for those in independent practice, there are other titles that identify professional counselors. The ACA notes these other common LPC career titles:

  • Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC).
  • Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor of Mental Health (LPCC).
  • Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC).
  • Licensed Mental Health Practitioner (LMHP).
  • Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC).

Since these titles sound similar, you may be wondering what is the difference between an LPC and LPCC, as well as an LMHC and LCMHC. 

The difference comes down to what title is used in each state. For example, California uses the LPCC title, while New York uses the LMHC title. LPCCs in California and LMHCs in New York may perform similar job duties; the difference is their titles. 

You may also wish to earn a board certification through the NBCC and become a National Certified Counselor (NCC). The NBCC also offers two specialty certification options in the following: clinical mental health and school counseling. Each speciality requires its own separate examination and additional requirements. However, it is important to note that applicants must hold NCC certification prior to applying for a specialty certificate.

What Are Counseling Licensure Requirements?

Professional counseling licensure requirements depend on the state in which you’re getting licensed. Most states have similar requirements for education, work experience and exam completion.

For example, some common requirements to become an LPCC in California may include:

  • Complete a 60-semester-unit master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited program in counseling or psychotherapy, including 280 hours of supervised field work.
  • Complete at least 3,000 post-degree hours of supervised experience, including 1,750 hours of direct counseling in a clinical mental health counseling setting and 150 hours in a hospital or community health setting.
  • Get a passing score on the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE) and the California Law and Ethics Exam.

In order to become an LMHC in New York applicants may be required to complete the following::

  • Receive a 60-semester-hours master’s or doctoral degree from a clinical mental health counseling program accredited by the Commission on the Accreditation of Counseling Related Education Programs (CACREP), or complete a program outside the United States that meets the professional education requirement and includes at least 600 clock hours of supervised internship or practicum experience.
  • Complete at least 3,000 post-degree supervised clock hours of mental health counseling in an acceptable setting, including 1,500 clock hours of direct contact with clients.
  • Pass the NCMHCE.

For licensed independent practice counselors who are moving to a new state, you may have to meet various requirements in order to work in that state. Some offer different pathways, including direct apply, which occurs when you meet the state requirements to work as an independent practice counselor. Others may require applicants to use their current license to meet the licensure portability or reciprocity pathway. 

According to the ACA, licensure portability is the ability for licensed counselors to transfer their license to another state and begin working with minimal additional requirements. Some states may require a jurisprudence exam so new counselors learn their state rules and procedures. There are some states that may not offer licensure portability at all. 

Licensed Professional Counselor Licensing Process

You’ll need to check the licensed counselor requirements of the state where you want to work to see what’s required to begin a career as a licensed counselor. Individual state requirements will vary and are subject to change, including licensure standards, exam eligibility and appropriate pathways, and may differ based on individual student backgrounds. 

Students should do their own due diligence to determine the appropriate pathway and license type for them. Each state of practice’s counseling board determines the regulations for issuing licenses. 

While the following is a list of common steps to take to get an LPC license, everyone’s journey is different. Becoming a licensed counselor isn’t guaranteed by following the steps in this guide, but this should give you an idea of what to typically expect if you want to become a licensed counselor.

1. Complete Education Requirements

For counseling licensure, all states require at least a master’s degree. An applicant may also be eligible with a doctoral degree. Degree programs may need to include at least 60 semester hours in counseling or psychotherapy content. States may also require the degree is from an accredited or board-approved institution. This may include regional accreditation, as well as programmatic accreditation from a specialty accreditor, such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which is the widely preferred accreditor. 

Part of educational program requirements will likely include face-to-face practicum or an internship in counseling supervised by a licensed mental health professional. Students should check with their state board to see what is required.

2. Earn an Initial License and Finish Post-Degree Supervised Experience Hours

After graduating with a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited program, most states require post-degree clinical work experience of 2,000 to 4,000 hours under clinical supervision. 

Graduates will need to obtain an initial license, which allows them to be supervised by a licensed independent practitioner in post-degree practice and can be thought of as a temporary professional license. The name of this license may vary by state and includes Associate Licensed Counselor or Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern. 

Some states may have a specific requirement for what types of settings in which your field work and/or clinical hours must be completed, such as a community mental health setting, hospital or clinical mental health counseling setting.

4. Apply for an Independent Practice License in Your State of Practice

Each state has different requirements for different types of counseling licensure. Be sure to check with your state’s professional counselor licensure board for specific details. Licensure applications are likely to require an application fee, online application and verification of some or all supporting documents outlining your education, experience and passing examination scores.

5. Get Certified

Applicants may opt to obtain NCC certification, which is typically voluntary. It may be required by certain states to obtain prior to licensure. However, certification requirements may differ from licensure requirements, so applicants will need to check with the NBCC for more information.

Depending on what type of counseling you want to specialize in, you may choose to get board certified in a counseling specialty after you obtain a NCC. A certification enables you to add additional credentials to your title. Some employers may require or prefer these credentials. 

A credential may also help you attract certain clients, by showing you’ve gone out of your way to meet certain standards. Be sure to check with your state board of counseling and the NBCC for more details on how to become a certified counselor.

How Long Does It Take to Obtain a Counseling License?

Becoming a licensed professional counselor involves meeting education, experience and exam requirements. The amount of time it takes to become an LPC depends on a variety of factors, including whether you attend a full- or part-time university counseling program, and whether your state accepts work experience in lieu of post-graduate work. Generally, becoming an LPC requires:

  • About four years of undergraduate study.
  • About two to four years of master’s or doctoral study.
  • About two to four years for post-master’s or post-doctoral degree supervised experience.
  • About six months to one year to prepare for and pass the NCE and/or NCMHCE exam(s).

How long it takes you to become an LPC will also depend on your state’s licensure requirements and how fast you complete school. 

Licensed Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The career outlook for LPC jobs looks bright. Below we look at median LPC salary figures and projected job growth for counseling careers. All data comes from the BLS.

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder and Mental Health Counselors

  • 2020 median pay: $47,660 per year
  • Job growth from 2019-2029: 25% (much faster than average)
  • Projected increase in jobs from 2019-2029: 79,000

Source: BLS, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

School and Career Counselors

  • 2020 median pay: $58,120 per year
  • Job growth from 2019-2029: 8% (much faster than average)
  • Projected increase in jobs from 2019-2029: 26,800

Source: BLS, Occupational Outlook Handbook, School and Career Counselors

Marriage and Family Therapists

  • 2020 median pay: $51,340 per year
  • Job growth from 2019-2029: 22% (much faster than average)
  • Projected increase in jobs from 2019-2029: 14,800

Source: BLS, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Marriage and Family Therapists

Rehabilitation Counselors

  • 2020 median pay: $37,530 per year
  • Job growth from 2019-2029: 10% (much faster than average)
  • Projected increase in jobs from 2019-2029: 12,300

Source: BLS, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Rehabilitation Counselors

LPC Requirements by State

Counseling licensure and certification requirements vary depending on the type of counseling you’re practicing and the state in which you practice. Check the licensing board of counseling requirements for licensed professional counselor applicants in the state where you want to work so you know how to prepare.

In the section below, we list sources for state licensing of professional counselors, including various boards of licensed clinical mental health counselors. 

Professional Counselor Licensure by State

Below are links to each state’s counseling licensure board.

Getting your counseling license confirms you’ve completed the education, experience and exam requirements a state board has determined are important for a licensed title. With a counseling license, you may pursue counseling work in private practice or apply for positions that require licensure. Research the requirements for the state you want to work in so you can prepare for the counseling licensure process.  

Last updated August 2021