logo

Social Work Licensing Guide

How to Become Licensed as a Social Worker

Social work licensure protects the public by ensuring that social workers have the proper education and training to provide ethical and competent services. As a regulated profession, licensure for social workers is common practice across the US. Because licenses are granted to social workers by each state’s regulatory board, criteria for licensure and levels of licensure vary by state. Depending on the state, it may be required to obtain a social work license in order to call yourself a social worker or provide any social work services. In other states, licensure is not required but is often preferred for most social work jobs. To review the specific licensure levels and requirements for your state, visit your state’s licensure page below.

Different Types of Licensure for Different Types of Social Workers

There are four common levels of licensure across states which indicate the licensed social worker’s level of education and training and whether or not they provide clinical services. This guide provides general information about each common level of licensure. However, licensure levels and requirements differ significantly by state. Some states grant licenses to seasoned human service professionals with associates degrees or high school education. Other states only grant licenses to master’s level social workers. Because of the significant differences in licensure levels and the varied requirements to obtain and maintain a social work license in each state, it is very important to research social work licensure in your state. The most common levels of licensure are discussed below.

Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW)

To obtain your Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (often abbreviated as LBSW, CSW, or LSW) you must obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work and pass the Association of Social Work Board’s Bachelor’s Exam. In most states, there is no on-the-job training or work experience required to become a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work. Social workers are able to obtain this license immediately upon graduation from a CSWE accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) program. Licensed Bachelors of Social Work often work in entry-level human services jobs and do not provide clinical services directly to clients. In order to obtain a higher level of licensure, Licensed Bachelors of Social Work must continue their education by attending graduate school.

Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW)

To become a Licensed Master of Social Work (often abbreviated as LMSW, LGSW, or LSW) you must obtain a master’s degree in social work and pass the Association of Social Work Board’s Master’s Exam. Some states require additional education in certain topics such as social work ethics. Generally, there is no supervised work experience required post-graduation to become a Licensed Master of Social Work. Candidates can obtain this license immediately upon graduation from a CSWE accredited MSW program with successful completion of all necessary testing and course work. Licensed Master Social Workers work in a wide variety of settings including schools, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, and human service agencies. Licensed Master Social Workers often progress into management roles and can provide a wide variety of services to individual clients, groups and communities. In some states, the Licensed Master of Social Work is the highest level of licensure available for social workers interested in providing non-clinical services. Most master’s level social workers interested in clinical work obtain an LMSW after graduation and then look for a job offering the appropriate supervised experience in preparation for seeking a clinical license in the future. In states offering higher levels of licensure for non-clinical social workers, LMSWs often pursue opportunities to gain non-clinical work experience in preparation for the next licensure level.

Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist (LMSW-AG)

To become a Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist (often abbreviated LMSW-AP, LMSW-AG, LISW, or LMSW-M) state licensing boards most often require two years of supervised non-clinical social work experience in addition to completing all of the requirements for the LMSW. Both LMSWs and LMSW-Advanced Generalists must obtain a master’s degree in social work from a CSWE accredited MSW program, pass the ASWB Advanced Generalist Exam and complete any additional exams and coursework required by their state’s board of social work examiners. In most states, the distinction between Licensed Master Social Workers and LMSW-Advanced Generalists is the additional is the completion of two years of supervised non-clinical experience. The LMSW-Advanced Generalist license designates licensees as experienced social workers who do not provide clinical services. Not all states offer the Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist licensure level but it is commonly regarded as the highest level of licensure available for non-clinical social workers.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

If you are interested in a career as a Clinical Social Worker, you must obtain a clinical social work license (often abbreviated as LCSW, LICSW, or LMSW-C). Licensed Clinical Social Workers hold master’s degrees in social work from CESW approved MSW programs, pass the Clinical ASWB Examination and complete any additional exams and coursework required by the state’s board of social work examiners. In order to obtain a clinical license, social workers must also complete at least two to three years (depending on local requirements) of supervised clinical social work. The clinical social work license is the highest level of licensure available for clinical social workers. Because LCSWs are able to practice independently, they are often found in private practice settings as well as schools, hospitals, and community mental health agencies. Clinical social workers provide services directly to individuals, couples, families and groups such as assessment, diagnosis and treatment utilizing clinical interventions such as psychotherapy.

Educational Requirements for Social Work Licensure

The first step in obtaining any social work license is seeking the required education. To become a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work, you must receive a bachelor’s degree in social work from a CESW-accredited college or university. Depending on your state licensing board, there may be some exceptions allowing social work licensure for human service professionals with alternate bachelor degrees. The Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is a four year degree that meets the college or university’s requirements for all undergraduate students including traditional liberal arts and social science classes. Undergraduates, who major in social work, may take classes in case management, social justice, human behavior and social welfare policy and services to gain an understanding of social work. Beyond the classroom, BSW programs provide undergraduates the opportunity to gain experience in the field as supervised interns at local hospitals, nonprofits, schools and social service agencies.

To become a Licensed Master Social Worker, a Licensed Master Social Worker-Advanced Generalist, or a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, you must obtain a master’s degree in social work from a CESW-accredited MSW program. A traditional full-time MSW program lasts two years, however students who have received a BSW may be eligible for advanced standing. Advanced standing allows social workers to complete an MSW in as little as one year. Some students choose to complete a five year program which includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work. All CESW-accredited MSW programs follow a similar curriculum including both clinical and non-clinical components, combining classroom education with field experience.

Depending on your state’s licensing board’s requirements, there may be additional educational requirements for social work licenses. For example, some states require candidates for licensure to complete additional coursework in topics such as social work ethics, substance abuse, child abuse or cultural competence.

On-the-job Training and Work Experience Requirements for Social Work Licensure

Generally, to become a Licensed Bachelor of Social Work or a Licensed Master of Social Work, you do not need to complete any post-graduation work experience. However, if you are interested in pursuing a higher level license, gaining qualified work experience is necessary.

In order to be eligible for licensure as a LMSW-Advanced Generalist, most states require two years of supervised non-clinical work experience post-graduation. To gain this experience, social workers seek out a position in which they will get plenty of experience providing non-clinical social work services to clients, organizations and communities. Each state licensing board specifies how many hours and/or years of work experience are required to apply for the Advanced Generalist Examination. Many states require that qualified work experience be gained while under the supervision of a senior social worker.

To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, most states require two to three years of supervised clinical work experience. In order to gain this on-the-job training, master’s level social workers seek out positions in which they provide direct clinical services to individuals, families and groups including assessment, diagnosis and treatment. All clinical services provided by social workers who are not yet Licensed Clinical Social Workers are provided under the supervision of a senior clinician. The supervisor shares responsibility for the unlicensed social worker’s clinical services. The supervisor and supervisee meet regularly to discuss clinical decisions, social work ethics and best practices. To become eligible to take the ASWB Clinical Exam, social workers must provide documentation of their qualified work experience as well as their supervision hours demonstrating that they met their state licensing board’s requirements for clinical work experience and supervision.

License Reciprocity

License reciprocity is a system common to other helping professions in which you can earn a license 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 ASWB examination scores from one state to another. Also, applicants can often prove that 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 course work 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.

Licensing Resources

Social Work Licensure Requirements by State

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Do I have to be licensed to practice as a social worker?

Answer: Some states require social workers to be licensed in order to practice social work or even call themselves a social worker. Other states allow professionals with a BSW or MSW to provide social work services without a license. Some states require licensure for social workers with exceptions for certain job types such as state employees. No matter where you live, in order to provide independent direct clinical services such as psychotherapy you will need to obtain a clinical social work license.

Question: What are my responsibilities as a licensee?

Answer: Just as licensee requirements vary by state, responsibilities can differ. Regulated social workers must follow the statutes and regulations of their state issued license. Responsibilities generally focus on competent and ethical social work practice.

Question: How can I contact my state licensing board?

Answer: To contact your state board of social work examiners, find your state on the Association of Social Work Boards’ state board list.

Question: How do I register for the ASWB exam?

Answer: Before registering for the ASWB exam, you must seek approval from your state licensing board. Though rules will vary by state, you will likely need to prove that you have obtained the appropriate degree and completed any additional coursework and supervised work experience prior to registering for the exam. Some state licensing boards approve candidates for bachelor’s or master’s level examinations prior to graduation.