How to Become a Social Worker in California

Did you know that California employs more healthcare, mental health, and child, family, and school social workers than most states. Roughly 85,520 social workers live and work in California — a state that also offers above-average salaries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

The California Board of Behavioral Sciences requires at least a master’s degree to get licensed as a social worker, plus additional steps.

Learn more about the steps to become a social worker in California, what it costs, and your earning potential.

Steps to Becoming a Social Worker in California

States boards oversee social work licensing, including social work titles and requirements. In California, you can register as an associate clinical social worker or become a licensed clinical social worker.

Interested in learning how to become a social worker in California? At any level, you need at least a master’s degree in social work to get licensed in the state.

Associate Clinical Social Worker (ASW)

Becoming a registered associate clinical social worker (ASW) is a good starting point for your social work career in California. At a minimum, you need a master’s in social work (MSW) degree accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. You also need to complete the following steps to get credentialed:

  • Apply for licensure and pay fees
  • Pass a criminal background check and submit official transcripts
  • Submit proof of California law and professional ethics coursework
  • Complete courses in suicide risk assessment and intervention, provision of mental health services via telehealth, child abuse assessment and reporting in California, human sexuality, alcoholism and other chemical substance abuse and dependency, aging and long-term care, and spousal and partner abuse assessment.
  • Wait about 60 days to process your ASW application.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

In California, licensed clinical social workers start off as associate clinical social workers. Prospective LCSWs, like ASWs, hold master’s in social work degrees from accredited schools.

Once you receive an ASW registration number, you can begin accruing supervised clinical experience. Additionally, to get licensed as a LCSW, you need to:

  • Complete additional coursework (as outlined above)
  • Hold registration as an ASW
  • Complete the fingerprinting and criminal background check
  • Pass the California Law and Ethics Exam
  • Obtain a minimum of 3,000 hours of supervised experience over 104 weeks as an ASW
  • Register and pass the ASWB clinical exam

If you have an out-of-state license, you can submit verification of your experience, ASWB scores, and pass the California Law and Ethics Exam to qualify for a license in California. You must register as an ASW if you need to fulfill additional supervised hours in California.

Should you need to close your LCSW application, you must reapply and complete additional supervised experience within six years from your initial application submission date.

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How Long Does it Take to Become a Social Worker in California?

Aspiring social workers can become an ASW after completing about six years of education. Studying full time takes you four years to complete a BSW degree and 2-3 years for a MSW degree. Schools may offer advanced standing if you have completed core social work courses, which shortens your graduation timeline.

ASW applicants do not need supervised social work experience. A LCSW license requires at least 3,000 supervised hours in social work, which takes up to 104 weeks.

How Much Will a Social Work Degree Cost in California?

Earning a BSW degree costs an average of $9,400 per year for public schools and $37,600 per year for private schools, according to 2020-2021 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The NCES also reports that graduate tuition costs an average of $12,394 per year at a public college and $28,445 at a private institution.

In California, you could pay $766-$2,045 per credit for an MSW degree. Your college budget should also include fees for books and supplies, transportation, and living expenses. You can apply for financial aid in the forms of grants, loans, or scholarships.

How Much Do Social Workers Make in California?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social workers in California earned the following salaries as of May 2021:

Social Work Jobs & Salaries in California
OccupationAverage Hourly Wage (CA)Average Annual Wage (CA)
Child, Family, and School Social Workers$32$66,340
Healthcare Social Workers$42$88,380
Mental Health and Substance Misuse Social Workers$39$81,720
Social Workers, All Other$33$69,530

Source: BLS

California social workers make above average salaries. Healthcare social workers in California earn an average annual salary of $88,380 — the highest in the nation for that social work category. Nationally, they earn a median annual wage of $60,840.

Mental health and substance abuse social workers in California make $81,720, about $32,590 more than the national wage.

A social worker’s specialty influences their pay, along with their degree level, credentials, and the city where they work. All of the top-paying metropolitan areas for healthcare social workers are in California. San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara offer the best pay for healthcare social workers with an annual mean wage of $109,530, according to the BLS.

While California social workers typically earn more than other social workers nationally , the state has a high cost of living. California ranks as the fourth most expensive state in the country, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Social Worker in California

What can you do as a social worker in California?

Your responsibilities as a social worker depend on your education level and license. ASWs can provide outreach work to homeless populations or people with substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. LCSWs provides clinical social work services such as assessments, interventions, and treatment plans.

Are social workers in demand in California?

Social workers, especially MSW degree holders, are in high demand in California. The United States Department of Labor estimates that Caifornia will see 14% growth in social work jobs from 2020-2030, with employers adding about 7,260 positions. Social workers in California can pursue careers in hospitals, home healthcare services, prisons and jails, and nonprofits.

How much does it cost to apply for a California social work license?

Applying for the initial licensing for LCSW requires a $200 processing fee.

You also need to submit a $150 processing fee to the Behavioral Sciences Fund with your ASW application. Additionally, nonresidents must pay $49 for fingerprinting hard cards from out of state. Fingerprinting fees include a Department of Justice process fee of $32 and FBI fingerprinting fee of $17.

How much do licensed social workers make in California?

Your salary as a social worker depends on your specialty and where you live in California. Licensed social workers in Los Angeles earn an average annual salary of $72,757 as of February 2023, according to Payscale. In San Jose, California, licensed social workers can make an average wage of $78,610.