California Social Work Licensing Requirements

The “Golden State” of California is a good place for aspiring social workers to begin their careers. With the largest population in the United States and the third-largest by area, California has a lot to offer its residents.1 If you are thinking of entering the field of social work or considering becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the state of California, there are many state-specific licensure requirements that will be important for you to understand.

California’s Department of Consumer Affairs: Board of Behavioral Sciences (the Board) regulates and sets the requirements for social workers in the state. Below, we will provide an outline of how to become a social worker in California based on these state-specific regulations.

How to Become a Social Worker in California

Educational Paths

There are two educational paths to consider for becoming a social worker in the state of California. While both paths can culminate in practicing social work in the state, it is best to have an idea of the type of job you are targeting because certain jobs, including any licensed jobs, require a higher level of education as a springboard. Another consideration is that social workers who have a terminal degree in the field are also typically better-compensated and will have a wider variety of jobs available to them upon entering the job force.

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW)

In the state of California, the lowest level of education required to become a social worker is a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). If you plan to take this path, choose a college or university with a Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) accredited bachelor of social work program. BSW programs prepare students for entry-level, professional, generalist social work practice and for graduate social work education. Students learn to practice as professional social workers with individuals, families, groups and communities. BSW programs include both classroom education and field education to prepare students to begin applying their classroom training to real-world work settings. Once you receive your BSW, you will be eligible to begin working as a social worker in California. Common jobs for bachelor’s-level social workers include case manager, child welfare social worker, and residential counselor.

Master of Social Work (MSW)

Whether you earned your bachelor’s degree in social work or in another field, you may choose to obtain your master’s degree in social work (MSW) from a CSWE-accredited college or university. If you have received a BSW prior to applying to graduate school, you may be eligible for “advanced standing,” allowing you to earn an MSW in one year rather than through a traditional two-year program. While all accredited social work graduate programs follow similar curricula combining classroom learning with field education, each school offers different areas of focus, electives, and field education placement opportunities. For social workers looking to work in the field (rather than perform research or teach at the University level), a master’s degree is considered a terminal degree. Once you earn your master’s of social work, you will have the highest level of education necessary to perform all social work jobs in California. Common jobs for master’s-level social workers include school social worker, social work supervisor, and medical social worker.

Steps for Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in California

In California, individuals with BSW and MSW degrees can be employed as social workers without holding a social work license. However, if you are interested in pursuing a clinical career in social work in California, you must obtain an MSW and become registered as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). The process for becoming an LCSW in California is listed below.

1. Become registered as an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW).

To become an ASW, applicants must possess a master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Applicants who received their master’s degree in another state will need to complete an 18-hour course on California Law and Professional Ethics before becoming registered as an ASW. Once these qualifications have been obtained, aspiring social workers are ready to complete an ASW application. As of August 2015, the cost to submit an application is $75, which is non-refundable. 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. Once you register 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 Associate Clinical Social Worker, you will need to gain at least 3,200 hours of supervised work experience over the course of 104 weeks. At least 2,000 of those hours are required to be in the areas of clinical psychological diagnosis, assessment, treatment, and counseling. 750 of those 2,000 hours must be spent performing face-to-face individual or group psychotherapy. A minimum of 52 weeks is also required in individual supervision, 13 of which must be overseen by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). Group supervision and client-centered advocacy can supplement some of the other required hours remaining. You will submit a supervisory plan with your supervisor’s information to the Board.

3. Complete the additional required coursework.

Some additional coursework is also be required for applicants. Before being considered for licensure as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), applicants must have completed coursework in the following areas, which may or may not have been completed before becoming an ASW:

  • 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
  • California Law and Professional Ethics

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

The next step is to 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 complete an application for licensure to the Board. The non-refundable fee (as of January 2016) is $200.00, $100.00 of which is for the application fee and $100.00 of which is for the written examination fee. All supervised experience must be accounted for and verified by your supervisor. Out-of-state applicants must submit to fingerprinting. A 2×2 photograph must also be included with your application.

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’s website. The exam cost, as of January 2016, is $260. The exam consists of 170 multiple-choice questions. Should you fail the exam, the waiting period to retake it is 90 days.

7. Apply for an initial license.

After you have passed the ASWB exam, applicants will submit a request for initial license form, along with an additional prorated fee of no more than $100.00 as of August 2015, to the Board for approval.

Social Work License Reciprocity in California

Starting in 2016, California became the 50th state to require the ASWB exam for licensure. While they do not have a formal reciprocity policy, now that the testing required is the same as other states, the process for transferring licensure from another state will now be easier. Out-of-state applicants holding a social work license will use this online form to verify their licensure. Applicants will also be required to take an 18-hour course in California law and ethics along with the other required coursework of all applicants. Those out-of-state applicants who have been licensed as a clinical social worker for at least four years will be qualified to become LCSWs in California. Those who have been licensed as a clinical social worker for fewer than four years will need to provide verification 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 have equivalent requirements, time actively licensed as a clinical social worker in your state shall be accepted at a rate of 100 hours per month up to a maximum of 1,200 hours. You will document this along with the Clinical Social Worker Verification of Licensure/Registration/Certification in another state form.

Licensing Renewal and Continuing Education Information

License renewal is required every two years in California. Licensees must complete 36 hours of continuing education before each renewal period. New licensees are only required to complete 18 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

The state of California employs more social workers than any other state, with 67,970 social workers employed as of May 2014.2 The highest number of social workers in California are in the category of child, family and school social workers.2 They are also among the highest-paid in the nation, especially those working as healthcare social workers and mental health/ substance abuse social workers.3,4

The long-term outlook for social workers in California also appears promising. On average, Projections Central predicts a 14% growth in the field in California between 2012 and 2022, with the fastest growth in the sub-field of healthcare (with 24% growth and 600 jobs expected over that time period).5 The BLS predicts a 19% growth for social workers nationwide for that same time period, so growth in California is expected to be slightly slower than average.4 Overall, though, social workers should expect faster-than-average growth as they enter the California job market over the next several years.

Type Number Employed Average Annual Salary
Child, Family, and School Social Workers 28,540 $51,410
Healthcare Social Workers 13,570 $67,860
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers 11,990 $57,900
Social Workers, All Other 13,870 $64,390

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2014.2

California Social Work Associations

  • The National Association of Social Workers (NASW): California Chapter – The California chapter of the NASW offers information about regional chapters within the state, upcoming California conferences, and continuing education opportunities.
  • The California Association of School Social Workers – Affiliated with the NASWCA School Social Work Council, this organization promotes the development of school social work in the state and works to facilitate professional growth and development opportunities for school social workers so that they might empower children and families in the state’s school systems.
  • The California Society for Clinical Social Work – 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

Question: Can I begin practicing independently once I become registered as an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW)?

Answer: No, becoming registered as an ASW is only the first step in the process for practicing clinical social work in the state of California. You must complete the entire process outlined above to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) before practicing independently in the state of California. Attempting to practice independently as an ASW is subject to disciplinary action by the Board.

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

Answer: Yes. As long as you were were issued an ASW registration number, you can count years of experience as far back as six years from the date the Board receives your LCSW application.

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

Answer: Only those who are licensed mental health professionals may supervise ASWs. They must have been licensed for a minimum of two years and have a current California license in order to be qualified as supervisors.

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

Answer: Social workers need a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to practice social work in the state. To become an LCSW in California, you need a master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.

1. US Census Bureau Quick Facts, California: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/ca
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2014 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, California: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_ca.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, Healthcare Social Workers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211022.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211023.htm
5. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: http://www.projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm