California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) issues two types of social worker credentials: The credential is either ACSW or LCSW. Each have their own process to become a practicing Social Worker. With large populations among the 58 counties there are major needs for credentialed and licensed social workers in the state. On this page you will learn about the requirements to become a social worker in California
Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW) – At this level of licensure you can:
- Work under the supervision of a mental health professional to gain qualifying supervised experience
- Work in private practice
- Engage in social work activities only at your place of employ
- Perform mental health and related services only as an employee or volunteer
- Cannot work independently
- Cannot bill clients directly
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) – California defines LCSWs as practitioners with a specialized knowledge of individual human social behavior and how it can be used to form more satisfying, productive, and adequate social adjustments. LCSWs can:
- Apply social work methods and principles including applied psychotherapy of a non-medical nature, counseling
- Apply social work practices to individuals, families, or groups
- Work independently, including opening your own office
- Bill clients directly
- Provide information and referral services, and arrange for the provision of social work services
- Help communities organize and improve social-health services
- Conduct social work research
Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW)
As a social worker in California your career will naturally progress to becoming an LCSW. The starting point for getting there begins by registering with the California Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) as an Associate Clinical Social Worker (ACSW).
To register as an ACSW you’ll need to submit this form to the BBS along with a $75 application fee. You’ll also need to have the CSWE-accredited school where you earned your MSW send your official transcripts to the BBS.
Your ACSW registration must be renewed every year, and can be renewed a maximum of five times. This gives you a total of six years to meet the requirements to become an LCSW.
To renew your ACSW registration you need:
- To take the California Law and Ethics Exam
- To submit a renewal application to the BBS along with a $75 fee
If you opt to not become an LCSW after six years you’ll need to complete the application process for a new ACSW registration, and henceforth you will not be able to work in a private practice setting.
Licensed Clinical Social Work (LCSW) Credential
Earning your LCSW credential is a four-step process.
Step One – Gain Supervised Practice Experience
As an ACSW you must work under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional. Once you’ve gained 3,000 hours and at least 104 weeks of supervised work experience as an ACSW you’ll be prepared to start the application process to become an LCSW. The supervision requirements are specific:
- At least 2,000 hours covering clinical topics
- At least 750 hours in face-to-face or group psychotherapy
- A maximum of 1,000 hours on client-centered topics
- At least 1,700 hours under an LCSW
- A maximum of 1,200 hours under a Licensed Educational Psychologist
- A maximum of 1,300 hours under any other type of qualified mental health professional
- Of the 104 weeks of supervision, at least 52 must include individual one-hour-per-week with a supervisor, and at least 13 of those must include one-hour-per-week with an LCSW
You’ll need these three forms to track and maintain your supervision:
Step Two – Apply with the BBS
Once you’ve accrued the requisite supervision you’ll be ready to submit an LCSW application to the BBS that includes:
- Your completed supervision forms
- Proof of passage of the California Law and Ethics Exam
- $100 application fee
Once the BBS determines your application is complete it will notify the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) that you’re eligible to register for the ASWB Clinical exam.
Step Three – Register with the ASWB for their Clinical Exam
After the BBS has notified the ASWB, you can register with them to take their Clinical exam.
Step Four – Apply for LCSW Issuance
Once you’ve passed the ASWB Clinical exam you’ll send the Initial License Issuance form to the BBS along with a $100 licensing fee, at which point the BBS will send you your LCSW credential.
After your first year of licensure you’ll need to renew your LCSW every two years. You can renew online. The renewal fee is $120 and you must complete 36 hours of continuing education.
Length of Study to Become a California Social Worker?
From the time you start your undergraduate education, you can become an LCSW in as soon as eight years. That’s four years in a bachelor’s program, two years in an MSW program, and two years of supervised work experience as an ACSW. You can apply for the ACSW credential in a total of six years post-high-school; the amount of time it usually takes to earn a BSW and MSW.
While there’s no reciprocity for the ACSW credential, you’re eligible to apply for this through the normal process if you have an MSW. When it’s time to renew your ACSW you’ll need to additionally complete 12 hours of education on California law and professional ethics if your MSW was earned outside of California. In-state MSW programs automatically include this.
To apply for an LCSW credential via reciprocity you’ll submit this form to the BBS.
You can become an LCSW if you’ve been a licensed clinical social worker in another state for two years and:
- Your out-of-state license must be current and unrestricted, and it must be the highest level for independent clinical practice in your state.
- You must have graduated from a CSWE-approved school.
- You’ll need to pass a California Laws and Ethics exam.
If you don’t meet the above out-of-state license requirement, you can also qualify by having 3,000 hours of equivalent supervised experience completed within the past six years, and by passing the ASWB Clinical exam if you haven’t done so already.
Social Work Degrees in California
To gain licensure at any level in California you need a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW) from a school that’s accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Along the way to earning this you can start with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work (BSW). Doctoral degrees in Social Work are an additional option if you want to reach the highest level of education in this field. You can find social work degree options at all levels offered both online and on-campus.
Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work (BSW)
California is home to 17 BSW programs that are accredited by the CSWE. These provide an important general level of knowledge about social work, and include a field education segment that’s at least 400 hours. BSW programs typically take four years to complete, and total 120 semester credits or 180 quarter credits. Master’s-level Social Work programs may prefer or require applicants who hold a BSW, however there are many that simply require a bachelor’s degree in any subject for admission.
Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW)
To be eligible for licensure in California as an ACSW or LCSW you need an MSW from a CSWE-accredited school. There are 26 such programs in California, all of which include a field education segment that’s at least 900 hours. Typically you can complete an MSW program in about two years, and they contain at least 30 semester credits or 45 quarter credits. By definition CSWE-accredited MSW programs provide education for specialized practice within the field of social work, and this often includes clinical practice.
Doctoral Degree in Social Work
A doctoral degree in Social Work isn’t required for licensure in California, however it does confer a demonstration of advanced specialized social work knowledge. A PhD in Social Work can be useful for academicians or those conducting advanced research, while a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) is especially geared towards those working in the field. Both types of social work degrees can include advanced clinical study.
Social Work Salary Expectation
The US Department of Labor reports the following average annual salaries in California for these social work career classes as of 2020:
- Social and Community Service Manager – $75,420
- Healthcare Social Worker – $79,620
- Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Worker – $65,020
- Child, Family, and School Social Worker – $59,990
- Social Work Teachers, Post-secondary – $84,230
- Social Worker, All Other – $71,020
California Social Work Organizations, Chapters and Resources
You can find networking opportunities and professional information with any of the following organizations:
California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW-CA) – Since its founding in 1955 the NASW has become the largest social work organization by membership in the world at over 120,000 strong.
California Society for Clinical Social Work (CSCSW) – The main goal of the CSCSW is to ensure the continued quality and existence of clinical social work as a discipline within the mental health field, and it’s been doing this since 1969.
California Association of School Social Workers (CASSW) – CASSW was founded to make sure the social, mental health, emotional, and educational needs of all students are being met throughout the California school system.
National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) – Founded in San Francisco during the Civil Rights Movement in 1968, the goals of the NABSW include empowering people of African ancestry through research and human services delivery.
California Association of Black Social Workers (CABSW) – Affiliated with the NABSW, this state-level organization is comprised of seven local chapters that all share the goal of providing social work and aid to those less fortunate.
Asian Pacific Islander Social Work Council (APISWC) – Part of the California Chapter of the NASW, the APISWC’s endeavors include mentoring social work students, chronicling the contributions of Asian social workers, and sponsoring workshops related to mental health and social justice.
Career Opportunities in California
Some of the largest employers of social workers in California include the following:
California Health and Human Services (CHHS) – This agency is home to many of the most prominent state-level departments known for their contributions in social work, including the California Department of Aging, the California Department of Health Care Services, the Department of Rehabilitation, the Department of Social Services, the Office of the Patient Advocate, the California Department of Public Health, and the California Department of Community Services and Development, among others.
Los Angeles Unified School District – This is the second largest public school system in the entire nation, serving almost three-quarters of a million students with over 26,500 teachers and more than 33,600 additional employees.
Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) San Diego – This agency provides after-school, delinquency prevention, and school-based mental health services for youths, in addition to cognitive behavioral therapy and community services for families.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – One of the most important hospitals in the nation, this non-profit Los Angeles-based nearly-1,000-bed hospital employs over 10,000 professionals in addition to physicians, plus another 2,000 volunteers. It provides the highest level of surgical care to trauma patients.
Behavioral Health Services of San Diego County – This public agency provides mental health and social work services to everyone from children to the elderly, including those related to substance abuse, nutrition, women’s services, and behavioral issues.
Support Systems Homes – Based in San Jose, this state-licensed internationally-accredited agency provides Bay Area drug and alcohol addiction support services.
Health Services Los Angeles County – Delivering community-based quality care, this healthcare agency provides women’s services, inpatient care, rehabilitation, and specialty care. It also includes pediatric services.
San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency – In addition to providing services for seniors and older adults, this agency serves as a hub for resources on mental health and substance abuse issues.
San Francisco Human Services Agency – Serving as the City and County of San Francisco’s home for things like supportive care and job training, this agency has departments devoted to human services, the disabled and aging, and early child care and education.
Fresno Unified School District – With more than 74,000 students, this district is made up of nearly 100 schools that collectively employ over 10,000. 22% of students are English language learners, making bilingual social workers in particular demand.