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California Social Work Licensing Requirements

By SocialWorkGuide.org Staff

With the largest population in the U.S., and as the third-largest state by area, California offers many opportunities to aspiring social workers looking to begin their careers. Individuals considering social work or becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in the Golden State can consult this guide for state-specific licensure requirements.

California's Board of Behavioral Sciences regulates and sets the requirements for social workers in the state. Below, we provide an outline of how to become a social worker in California based on these regulations.

In This Article

How to Become a Social Worker in California

Educational Paths

Aspiring professionals can consider two educational paths to become social workers in California. All candidates should set their career aspirations as early as possible to best plan out their educational path. Social workers with terminal degrees in the field receive higher pay and can pursue more diverse roles upon entering the job force.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

In California, the lowest level of education required to become a social worker is a bachelor of social work (BSW) degree. If you plan to take this path, choose a college or university with a bachelor of social work program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). BSW programs prepare students for entry-level, professional, and generalist social work practice, along with graduate social work education. Students learn to practice as professional social workers with individuals, families, groups, and communities.

BSW programs include classroom education and field education to prepare students to apply their classroom training to professional work settings. Once you receive your BSW, you become eligible to begin working as a social worker in California. Bachelor's-level social workers commonly find work as case managers, child welfare social workers, and residential counselors.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Students who earned their bachelor's degree in social work or other fields can pursue master of social work (MSW) degrees from CSWE-accredited colleges and universities. If you have received a BSW before applying to graduate school, you may be eligible for advanced standing, which allows you to earn an MSW in one year. While all accredited social work graduate programs combine classroom learning with field education, each school offers different areas of focus, electives, and field education placement opportunities.

Social workers looking to work in the field (rather than perform research or teach at the university level), can earn a master's as a terminal degree. Once you earn your MSW, you possess the highest level of education necessary to perform all social work jobs in California. Master's-level social workers find employment as school social workers, social work supervisors, and medical social workers.

Steps for Becoming a Licensed Social Worker in California

In California, individuals with BSW and MSW degrees can find employment as social workers without holding social work licenses. However, if you are interested in pursuing a clinical career in social work in California, you must obtain an MSW and become registered as an LCSW.

  • 1. Become registered as an associate clinical social worker.

    To become an associate clinical social worker (ASW), each applicant must possess a master's degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program. Candidates who received their master's degrees in other states each need to complete an 18-hour course on California law and professional ethics before becoming registered as an ASW. After obtaining these qualifications, aspiring social workers are ready to complete an ASW application, which costs $75 as of March 2020.

    Along with the application itself, you must provide a photograph, a check or money order for the fee amount, fingerprints, verification of education, and proof of the required California law and professional ethics coursework. After registering as an ASW, you have six years to complete the additional coursework, work experience, and supervision necessary to apply for an LCSW. You may choose to use the ASW weekly tracking log to keep track of your experience as an ASW.

  • 2. Obtain at least 3,200 hours of supervised work experience.

    As an ASW, you need to accrue at least 3,200 hours of supervised work experience over 104 weeks. At least 2,000 of those hours must occur in the areas of clinical psychological diagnosis, assessment, treatment, and counseling; 750 must take place performing face-to-face individual or group psychotherapy.

    All candidates must spend a minimum of 52 weeks in individual supervision, 13 of which must be overseen by an LCSW. Group supervision and client-centered advocacy can supplement some of the other required hours remaining. Each applicant must submit a supervisory plan, with your supervisor's information, to the board.

  • 3. Complete the additional required coursework.

    Applicants must also complete coursework in child abuse assessment and reporting; human sexuality; alcoholism and other chemical substance dependency; spousal or partner abuse assessment detection, and intervention; aging, long-term care, and elder/dependent adult abuse; and California law and professional ethics.

  • 4. Take and pass the California Laws and Ethics examination.

    You can find the exam handbook and study guide on the board's website. You can register to take the exam on the PSI Exams Online website.

  • 5. Apply for LCSW licensure to the board.

    Once you have accumulated the necessary experience as an ASW and taken the required coursework, you can apply for licensure to the board. All supervised experience must be accounted for and verified by your supervisor. Out-of-state applicants must submit to fingerprinting. Candidates must also include a 2x2 photograph.

  • 6. Take and pass the ASWB clinical examination.

    After the board has approved your application, they will approve you to apply for and take the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) clinical-level exam. Once approved, you can register on the ASWB website. As of March 2020, the exam costs $260 and consists of 170 multiple-choice questions. Candidates who fail the exam can retake it in 90 days.

  • 7. Apply for an initial license.

    After passing the ASWB exam, each applicant submits a request for initial license form, along with an additional prorated fee of no more than $100 to the board for approval.

Social Work License Reciprocity in California

California became the 50th state to require the ASWB exam for licensure in 2016. While the state does not maintain a reciprocity agreement with others, an out-of-state social worker can easily transfer their license with this online form. These applicants must also take an 18-hour course in California law and ethics, along with the other required coursework of all applicants.

Out-of-state applicants who have maintained licensure as clinical social workers for at least four years qualify to become LCSWs in California. Those who have held licenses as clinical social workers for less than four years need to verify that they have completed at least 3,200 hours of supervised work experience and 104 weeks of supervision.

If the licensing body in your state does not maintain equivalent requirements, the board accepts time actively licensed as a clinical social worker in your state at a rate of 100 hours per month, for a maximum of 1,200 hours. You document this along with the verification of licensure/registration/certification in another state form.

Licensing Renewal and Continuing Education Information

Social workers in California must renew their license every two years. Licensees must complete 36 hours of continuing education before each renewal period. New licensees complete only 18 continuing education hours during their first two years of licensure. You can renew your license online or with a paper application.

California Social Worker Jobs and Salary Information

California employs more social workers than any other state, with more than 78,000 social workers employed as of May 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Child, family, and school social workers make up the highest numbers of employment for the field in the state. Social workers in California receive some of the highest pay in the nation, especially those working as healthcare social workers and mental health and substance abuse social workers.

The long-term outlook for social workers in California also appears promising. On average, BLS projects a faster-than-average growth rate in social work in California from 2016-26, with the fastest growth in the sub-field of healthcare (20.9%).

Type Number Employed Average Annual Salary
Child, Family, and School Social Workers 32,630 $59,990
Healthcare Social Workers 19,020 $79,620
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers 14,970 $65,020
Social Workers, All Other 12,210 $71,020

Source: BLS

California Social Work Associations

The National Association of Social Workers - California Chapter

The California chapter of NASW offers information about regional chapters within the state, upcoming California conferences, and continuing education opportunities.

The California Association of School Social Workers

This association promotes the development of school social work in the state and works to facilitate professional growth and development opportunities for school social workers to empower children and families in the state's school systems.

The California Society for Clinical Social Work

This organization promotes the highest level of education for California's clinical social workers by offering professional development opportunities, advocating for the field, and connecting members.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I begin practicing independently once I become registered as an associate clinical social worker?

No. Becoming registered as an ASW is only the first step in the process of practicing clinical social work in California. You must complete the entire process outlined above to become an LCSW and practice independently in California. Individuals who attempt to practice independently as ASWs will receive disciplinary action from the board.

For the 3,200 hours of work experience required, can I count the experience I gained years ago?

Yes. As long as you received an ASW registration number, you can count experience as far back as six years from the date the board receives your LCSW application.

What kinds of qualifications are required of the person supervising my experience?

Only licensed mental health professionals may supervise ASWs. They must maintain licensure for a minimum of two years and possess a current California license to qualify as supervisors.

What kind of degree do I need to practice social work in California?

Each social worker needs a BSW or an MSW to practice professionally in the state. To become an LCSW in California, you need a master's degree in social work from a CSWE-accredited program.