Social Work Licensing Guide

Written by Ann Feeney
Last Updated: May 2023

Licensing requirements ensure that social workers have the right education and training to provide ethical and competent services. Each state’s regulatory board grants social worker licenses, so specific requirements and levels vary.

Depending on the state, you may need a social work license to use “social worker” in your job title and provide related services. Review specific licensure levels and requirements for your state on this page.

Social Work Licensure Requirements by State

Social worker requirements require a combination of education, experience, and examination. However, licensure levels and requirements differ significantly by state.

Find specific licensing requirements for each state, governed by the state’s board of social work.

Featured Online Programs in Social Work

Loading...Learn More
Visit Site
Loading...Learn More
Visit Site
Loading...Learn More
Visit Site

How to Become a Licensed Social Worker

Some states grant licenses to 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.

Licensing at the BSW Level

While most social workers have a master’s degree, you can become a licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW) with a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree in some states. You may need to pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) bachelors examination for this license.

Even though LBSWs are limited in what they can do, earning a license still has some advantages. Some students want to start working and earning as soon as possible, while others want to explore different roles and possible specialties before choosing a master’s degree.

A BSW typically takes four years and combines classroom work with fieldwork. The program provides a background in social work theory and practice, including performing basic assessments and interventions.

Licensing at the MSW Level

There are two types of MSW licenses: the licensed master social worker (LMSW) (sometimes called the licensed graduate social worker) and the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

Both of these licenses require you to have an MSW degree and pass a licensing examination, but the specific examination and the experience requirements are different.

The primary difference between an LMSW vs. LCSW is the type of work you can perform or your scope of practice. An LCSW can provide clinical diagnoses of certain mental health conditions and counseling, while an LMSW can provide generalist social work services.

The LCSW license typically requires approximately 3,000-4,000 hours of supervised experience, while the LMSW typically requires less — about 2,000 hours.

To become an LMSW, you must pass the ASWB masters examination, while the LCSW designation requires the clinical examination.

If you have a BSW, you may be eligible for advanced standing in an MSW program, in which you can finish in approximately one year. For students with another undergraduate degree, earning an MSW typically takes two years.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Licensed Social Worker?

You can expect to become a licensed social worker in 2-5 years after earning a bachelor’s degree. This includes earning your MSW and completing 2,000-4,0000 hours of required supervision experience.

After getting a bachelor’s degree, you can earn an MSW in 1-2 years. Then, depending on the state, you must typically complete 3,000 hours or more of supervised experience to become an LCSW.

Becoming an LMSW typically requires less experience, generally around 2,000 hours. However, this number varies significantly by state. Some states, such as Michigan, require as many as 4,000 hours to become an LMSW, while Mississippi does not require experience for LMSWs and only 2,000 hours for LCSWs.

Types of Social Work Licensure

Licensed Bachelor of Social Work (LBSW)

To become an LBSW, you need a BSW, a certain number of hours of supervised experience, and a passing score on the ASWB bachelors examination. LBSWs can perform certain functions, such as needs assessment and referrals to services, but it does not let you diagnose mental health conditions or provide counseling. The specific scope of practice varies by state.

LBSWs can work in any number of social work settings, typically under close supervision during their first few years on the job. They are not authorized to practice independently. They may work in schools, healthcare settings, geriatric facilities, the correctional system, nonprofit agencies, and government agencies.

Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW)

An LMSW must have an MSW degree and pass the ASWB masters examination. Most states require approximately 3,000-4,000 hours of clinical experience under the supervision of an LCSW.

An LMSW has a wider scope of practice than an LBSW and may perform all levels of social work except for diagnosing and providing counseling for mental health conditions. They can conduct assessments and develop intervention plans. They can also act as case managers, advocate for clients and their communities, and provide resources and referrals.

Like other social workers, LMSWs can perform this work in many settings, including hospitals, schools, the correctional system, sheltered housing, and nonprofit or government agencies.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

An LCSW is the highest level of social work license. While the requirements vary by state, you must have an MSW or doctorate of social work (DSW), pass the ASWB clinical examination, and have approximately 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience. State boards typically have additional requirements for continuing education.

As an LCSW, you are authorized to diagnose specific mental health conditions and provide counseling, but you are not authorized to prescribe medication. LCSWs typically work in settings where clients require counseling, such as the correctional system, palliative or hospice care, or substance misuse treatment. They may also run an independent practice.

License Reciprocity for Social Workers

Unlike some other licensed professions, social work does not have license reciprocity, in which a social license in one participating state is valid in another.

However, most states offer license by endorsement, meaning that they accept your current social worker license as evidence that you meet requirements. Check with the board for the state in which you wish to earn a license by endorsement for specifics.

Social worker organizations and other stakeholders are actively promoting an Interstate Social Work Licensure Compact that would allow license reciprocity among participating states. This map shows progress to date.

Renewing Social Work Licensure

Most states require social workers to complete continuing professional education to renew their licenses. You can earn credit hours by attending approved classes, conferences, or webinars. The number of required hours varies by state. Most states require renewal every other year.

Many employers cover the cost of attending continuing education that requires payment, but free or low-cost options may be available. Some employers also cover the cost of license renewal.

Social Work Licensing Resources

Association of Social Work Boards Examinations Page

The ASWB site provides information about social work license exams for potential social workers here.

Association of Social Work Boards Licensing and Regulations Page

The ASWB state board list links to detailed information about each state’s social work licensing requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions About Social Work Licensure by State

How do I transfer my social work license to another state?

Most states have license by endorsement, meaning you do not have to apply from scratch. Instead, you show proof of your existing license and, depending on the state, document that you meet any additional criteria.

What is the highest level of social work license?

The highest social work license varies by state. In some states, this is the licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW) license or the licensed advanced practice social worker (LAPSW). Requirements vary by state, and not all states offer these licenses. The diplomate in clinical social work (DCSW) is one of the highest national designations, but not a license.

What is the best social work license?

The best social work license depends on your professional goals and interests. Most social workers become LMSWs or LCSWs. An LCSW diagnoses mental health conditions and provides counseling, while LMSWs can provide all social work services except diagnosis and counseling.

What is the hardest state to become a licensed social worker?

California is considered one of the more difficult states to become a social worker because a master’s degree is the entry-level degree for a license. Michigan is another difficult state since it requires a minimum of 4,000 hours of supervised experience to become an LMSW or an LCSW.