Social workers help vulnerable populations overcome personal challenges. They identify and assess needs and develop plans to help individuals meet their goals. Social workers provide a critical link in addressing structural oppression by providing social services to communities in need. The job outlook for social workers is positive; the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 16% job growth by 2026, more than twice the national average for all jobs.
There are many specialties within social work. For example, licensed clinical social workers provide mental health treatment, while school social workers work with students to improve academic performance and behavioral development. Social work is a rewarding field for compassionate, solution-oriented people. This guide explains how to become a licensed social worker, as licensure is required to practice in all states.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 16% job growth by 2026, more than twice the national average for all jobs.
Earning a license in social work is a multistep process that varies by state. You must earn a degree from an accredited program, complete a practicum or internship, and pass a licensure exam. Licensure is granted by an independent board. Earning a degree does not guarantee licensure, but attending an approved program prepares you well for it. Your internship experience provides important training and skills necessary for earning licensure. Programs generally provide resources to find an internship in your specialization.
You are eligible to apply for the exam once you earn your degree and complete the licensure requirements. The board determines whether you are eligible for the exam, which you take through the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). There is a fee for the examination, around $200, in addition to state licensing fees. Licensure must be renewed regularly, typically every 1-2 years.
Social worker requirements vary by state, so it is important to research licensure requirements in the state that you want to practice in prior to beginning your education. Licenses are managed by different agencies in each state, which set their own requirements and guidelines for supervision hours. All states accept the ASWB examination standards, allowing for the possibility of transferring your license if you move. However, not all states accept automatic transfer. You must renew your license by completing continuing education credits and paying a renewal fee.
There are several licenses social workers can obtain. Which you pursue depends on the degree you hold and the career you want, as each license prepares you for a different job. For example, a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed master social worker have different career options. Licensed social worker definitions vary by state. There are also differences between state licenses and credentials, which are optional and issued by private organizations. This guide does not cover all of the licensure options, but some of the most common ones are listed below.
Licensed Baccalaureate of Social Work (LBSW)
A licensed baccalaureate of social work certification is the first step toward becoming a practicing social worker. LBSWs work in supervised clinical and nonclinical settings but cannot provide clinical services. They may supervise technicians. To obtain an LBSW, you must earn a bachelor's social work degree from an accredited program, pass the ASWB exam, and fulfill your state's requirements, which may include tests of professional fitness. All states require supervised practice prior to earning an LBSW, typically between 2,000-4,000 hours.
Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW)
Earning your MSW license allows you to practice as a nonclinical social worker. LMSW is often a step toward clinical practice; it is also a step toward a career in macro social work. Licensed master social workers typically do not complete two years of clinical practice. They may provide case management in social service agencies, or work in policy or community development. The LMSW requires up to 4,000 hours of generalized social work practice following graduation from an accredited master's social work program. Candidates must apply for licensure in their state and meet all state requirements, including passing the ASWB exam.
Licensed Master Social Worker - Advanced Generalist (LMSW - AG)
The LMSW - AG license is the most highly regarded nonclinical license. It demonstrates advanced experience in nonclinical, macro social work. These licensed social workers have completed two years of nonclinical supervised practice in addition to the hours earned in the LMSW. It is considered a terminal license for nonclinical social workers. Advanced Generalists apply social work processes to improve community health through interventions, policy development, and research. Earning the LMSW - AG requires passing the ASWB exam for generalists. Many states have more stringent guidelines for the license, including additional practice hours and exams. Candidates must be graduates from an accredited master's program.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
LCSW is the terminal license for clinical social workers. Licensed clinical social workers provide clinical assessments, treatment, and interventions. LCSWs frequently maintain a private practice where they diagnose mental health disorders and provide psychotherapy. They also work in treatment centers, group homes, or government agencies. It is the only license in most states that allows social workers to provide clinical services. The LCSW license requires up to 4,000 hours of supervised clinical practice. LCSWs must possess a master's or doctoral degree from an accredited program, pass the ASWB clinical exam, and continue to meet all social worker requirements in their state.
Additional Social Work Licenses
Undergraduate or No Degree Requirements
|Certified Advanced Practice Social Worker||This advanced license is available in some states for social workers pursuing a career in clinical practice. For eligibility, you must complete 2-3 years of supervised clinical practice.|
|Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker||Some states offer the LAPSW as an indication of advanced clinical experience. Candidates must complete 3,000 hours of clinical experience, receive 100 hours of direct supervision, and pass the advanced ASWB exam.|
|Licensed Independent Social Worker - Advanced Practice||This is the terminal license for independent social workers. Advanced practitioners can open a private practice. They must complete additional supervised clinical experience, take courses in professional ethics, and pass the advanced ASWB exam.|
|Licensed Social Work Associate||This license is for graduates of accredited associate or bachelor's programs. The license provides credentials for entry-level positions in social work. Most states require a passing score on the ASWB associate or bachelor's exam.|
|Licensed Social Work Associate & Independent Clinical||The LSWAIC is the next intermediate step in your clinical social work career. Offered by some states as you pursue advanced licensure, it requires supervised experience, an HIV/AIDS awareness course, and a letter of intent.|
|Social Work Associate||This entry-level license for graduates of accredited associate programs helps you begin your career in social work. SWA requires up to 3,000 hours of supervised experience and a criminal background check.|
Graduate Degree Required
|Certified Independent Practice Social Worker||This is the terminal clinical license in some states. CIPSWs can open a private practice. They must possess a master's or doctoral degree and complete additional supervised practice.|
|Independent Social Worker||Independent social workers are licensed to provide therapeutic, strengths-based services in a social work setting. The ISW requires a master's degree, up to 4,000 hours of supervised practice, and postgraduate continuing education credits.|
|Licensed Social Worker - Administration (LSW-ADM)||The LSW-ADM license is intended for advanced clinical practitioners pursuing work in administration or management. To earn the license, you must have a master's or doctoral degree, two years of supervised clinical practice, and complete continuing education requirements.|
|Licensed Social Work Associate & Advanced||This intermediate license requires a master's or doctoral degree and a statement of intent to continue your career in social work. Some states require two years of supervised clinical practice.|
Professional license reciprocity allows you to transfer your license to another state. There is no nationally recognized system of social work license reciprocity, but most states provide reciprocity if all of the social work requirements are met. Generally, licensed social workers do not need to repeat requirements to transfer their license. Most states accept your original ASWB exam scores. You likely need to provide evidence of supervised professional experience, so it is important to maintain thorough records.
The licenses that states provide vary, so you may not be able to directly transfer your title. If there are differences between the requirements of the license and your experience, the licensing board requires you to complete those requirements before granting licensure. You may need to take specific courses in ethics or state law and provide a letter of recommendation from your previous licensing board. You also need to fulfill state insurance requirements.
- Association of Social Work Boards ASWB is the only social work regulation association in the United States and Canada. Composed entirely of state boards and colleges, ASWB provides licensure exams, professional regulation, and resources for licensure.
- National Association of Social Workers NASW is the largest global association of social workers. The organization supports professional development with continuing education, social work certification, and practice updates. It is active in lobbying and driving policy change.
- Clinical Social Work Association An individual membership organization, CSWA serves the clinical social work community with advocacy, clinical information, and free legal consultations. It provides a job board and information on technology for social workers.
- Council on Social Work Education CSWE is composed of educational institutions and individual members. It maintains accreditation standards and publishes a scholarly journal. It also offers a career center and educational resources for students.
- School Social Work Association of America Dedicated to the development of school social work, SSWAA conducts advocacy and professional development. School social workers receive access to practice tools and technical assistance. Students receive discounted membership and access to educational resources.
- American Clinical Social Work Association This association focuses on clinical social workers and students and provides extensive online networking opportunities and resources. Student members receive access to a mentorship program, scholarships, and ebooks. The association also hosts discussion boards and membership directories.
- Society for Social Work and Research Founded in 1994, SSWR is a global organization supporting social work research. SSWR provides several journals, a graduate student resource center, and a job board. Researchers network through the membership directory and annual conference.
- American Sociological Association ASA is a membership organization with several sections and a robust student forum. It also hosts an action network and minority fellowship program. ASA is active in advocacy and research and publishes 10 journals.
- Association for Applied and Clinical Sociology AACS drives social change through the application of sociological principles. It provides resources for students, teachers, and job-seekers. AACS hosts conferences and professional development courses and certifies advanced macro social workers.
- National Association of Black Social Workers NABSW advocates for social change and justice for African-American people in the United States. Founded in 1968, NABSW hosts annual conferences and active chapters. Membership includes a career center and scholarships.