A Guide Towards Social Work Licensure

A Complete Guide for Steps To Become a Social Worker: Education, Exams, Duties, Jurisdictions, Accreditation and Much More

You’ll need to get a license depending on what type and level of social work you want to practice. Different states have different requirements, but all aspiring social workers can benefit from the following information that generally overlaps nationally.

The social work profession – helping people in need – is as old as human civilization. Since the industrial revolution, the advent of large communities of people, and the advent of the psychology in the 19th century, social work has become a specifically defined field in its own right.

How To Become a Social Worker

To work as a social worker you’ll need to be licensed by your state; there is no national system for earning a social work license. See a state-by-state licensure guide here.

Common state regulatory agencies that license social workers are a state’s Social Worker Board or a state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) maintains a directory of each state’s social work licensing authority. You can find your state’s specific licensing requirements by navigating to the homepage of its social work licensing authority.

Education is key to becoming a social worker. 36 states require at least a bachelor’s degree, usually in social work (BSW), to be eligible for a social work license. 10 additional states require at least a master’s degree in social work (MSW) to be licensed.

States also often specify a minimum number of hours of relevant experience you’ll need to have accrued before you can be eligible for licensure, typically earned as part of an education program.

Most states also require that you pass a social work exam before you can earn your license. These exams could be created by your state’s Social Work Board or by a national social work organization that’s recognized by your state’s board. One of the most common national social work organizations that sponsors state-board-recognized exams is the ASWB.

Social work career opportunities are projected to increase over the decade leading up to 2028 by 11% –“much faster than average for all occupations”– according to the US Department of Labor. There’s no time like the present to start working towards a career in social work!

    The Bachelor Degree in Social Work

    A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) is the entry-level requirement for social work careers in fields like substance abuse and child-family services. Additional education is typically required for clinical social work, but many BSW programs offer shortened bridge programs into graduate study. Every state has its own licensing process for different types of social work positions, and every state requires that the BSW program be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) if a license is required. The CSWE requires BSW programs it accredits to include at least 400 hours of field education. The four-year BSW is generally comprised of two years of liberal arts courses, and these can often be substituted for with an associate’s degree. The latter two years of a BSW program focus specifically on the field of social work. Getting into a BSW program means having at least a high school diploma or GED, along with meeting minimum GPA requirements.

    The Masters Degree in Social Work (MSW)

    A Master of Social Work (MSW) is often the entry-level credential for careers in clinical social work, and some states even require an MSW to work generally as a social worker. The social work licensure process is determined individually by each state. When an MSW is required for a specific license, every state mandates that the degree program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). The CSWE requires the MSW programs it accredits to include at least 900 hours of field education. It’s common for MSW programs to prefer prospective students who have a BSW or related degree –and they can offer accelerated completion options for BSW holders– but many also offer admission spots for candidates who have a bachelor’s degree in any field. MSW programs typically take around two years of full-time study to complete.

    The Doctorate Degree in Social Work (DSW)

    A doctorate of social work (DSW) of PhD in social work can naturally often be substituted for an MSW.

    A Doctorate of Social Work (DSW) is the highest level of education in its class. In some states it fulfills the educational requirements for the most advanced social work positions requiring a state-issued licensed. DSW programs tend to focus on clinical practice as opposed to PhD Social Work programs that emphasize research. DSW programs usually take at least three years of full-time post-master’s study to complete and involve a strong off-campus clinical study component. Unlike BSW and MSW programs, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) currently does not accredit DSW programs, a policy that is under review until at least June 2020. In addition to the typical academic requirement of holding an MSW or closely related degree for admission, it’s common for DSW programs to also have an experience requirement.

The Social Work License

States issue different social work licenses through their individual state licensing boards. You can find a link to your state’s licensing board and more state-specific information through this directory maintained by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB).

States determine their own licensure levels, titles, and associated scopes of practice. This can be confusing if you’re trying to understand this at the national level. To make it easier, think of social work licenses as being offered based on successive levels of education and experience; and they’re always issued by your state’s licensing board.

To earn a license you’ll likely need a degree in social work. Importantly, nearly all state boards require the education program you complete to be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This is the national organization that represents social work education, and currently accredits more than 750 bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. The CSWE maintains an online directory of all accredited programs in the nation.

There are different types of social work licenses, and it’s up to states to define the scope of practice and requirements for each one. The process for becoming licensed usually goes something like this:

  • Earn a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from a CSWE-accredited program.
  • You may need to obtain additional specialized education from a state board-recognized national social work organization or school.
  • Pass a specific exam or earn a credential for the license you want. These are often sponsored by a national social work organization.
  • For many licenses states often set a minimum-hours-of-practice requirement.

National exams based on levels of education – NASW vs ASWB

There are two main national social work organizations that sponsor exams and certifications commonly required by state boards for different types of social work licensure:

There are different types of social work licenses, and it’s up to states to define the scope of practice and requirements for each one. The process for becoming licensed usually goes something like this:

The ASWB explains that basically across the nation, states tend to have four levels of social work licenses, and it offers certification exams corresponding to each level:

The NASW takes a slightly different approach and offers tailored credentials earned based on membership with the NASW, hours of social work experience, level of education, and even passage of ASWB exams. You’ll need to have the following levels of education in order to be eligible to earn these credentials:

Each state can make its own licensing titles and associated scopes of practice. The following are generalizations based on a macro analysis of social work titles and scopes of practice throughout the nation.

LCSW – Licensed Clinical Social Worker

  • Duties – This is the most common title designating a specialization in clinical social work. This includes the diagnosis, assessment, prevention, and treatment of emotional and behavioral disorders. It often includes the right to engage in private and independent practice.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Clinical Exam.

LBSW – Licensed Bachelor Social Worker

  • Duties – Entry-level generalist practice which can be applied to activities like case management, administrative tasks, community organization, research, and client education. When permitted, any practice of a more advanced level of social work must be done under pre-approved supervision. Independent practice is typically not permitted.
  • Education – BSW from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Bachelors Exam.

LSW – Licensed Social Worker

  • Duties – This is the most common generalist entry-level licensure title. It permits the practice of basic social work including case management, client intake and interviews, client education, research, and client monitoring. Clinical social work is typically allowed under a supervision agreement with a clinical social worker. Independent and private practice are not generally permitted.
  • Education – BSW from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Bachelors Exam.

ACSW – Associate Clinical Social Worker

  • Duties – This is an advanced level limited license in California that allows you to engage in clinical social work under the supervision of a mental health professional to accrue hours to qualify for full licensure as a clinical social worker. You can only engage in social work activities at your work site location, including the provision of mental health services.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – None.

SWT – Social Work Trainee

  • Duties – This is a designation for Ohio students who are enrolled in an MSW program who are preparing for their internship or field education experience. It allows students to engage in the practice of social work under supervision at their education site, with duties that include psychosocial interventions, evaluation, and intervention planning.
  • Education – Current enrollment in a CSWE-accredited MSW program.
  • Exam – ASWB Bachelors Exam

SWA – Social Work Associate

  • Duties – This is the most limited class of licensure that allows for entry-level generalist practice under regular supervision. Only a few states issue licenses at this level, including Massachusetts and South Dakota. Duties include providing clients with information about community services, administrative tasks, intake interviews, and gathering data for research.
  • Education – Associate’s degree in a field related to Social Work or Human Services.
  • Exam – ASWB Associate Exam.

CSW – Certified Social Worker

  • Duties – Eight states use this licensure title. Half (North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Wyoming) classify this license title at the generalist level, and half (Kentucky, Louisiana, South Dakota, and Utah) classify it at an advanced level. Generalist duties include case management, community organizing, psychological assessments, research, and education. Advanced duties include group and community advocacy, consultation, policy development, advanced casework, and clinical social work if it’s conducted under supervision.
  • Education – Generalist: CSWE-accredited BSW degree; Advanced: CSWE-accredited MSW degree.
  • Exam – Generalist: ASWB Bachelors Exam; Advanced: ASWB Masters Exam.

RSCWI – Registered Clinical Social Worker Intern

  • Duties – A title used in Florida, this license allows the provision of social work services under the supervision of an LCSW while gaining experience to become an LCSW, including case intervention, treatment planning and evaluation, plus psychosocial and biopsychosocial interventions.
  • Education – CSWE-accredited master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work.
  • Exam – None.

CMSW – Certified Master Social Worker

  • Duties – This is an advanced-level license whose duties can include coordination of service delivery, policy development, research design and analysis, advanced case management, and clinical social work if it’s conducted under supervision. This license title is used in Florida, North Carolina, and Nebraska.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Advanced Generalist Exam or ASWB Masters Exam

RBSW – Registered Baccalaureate Social Worker

  • Duties – Generalist basic practice in non-clinical social work including counseling, community organizing, assessment, intervention, evaluation, case management, and program development and administration. This title is used in Oregon.
  • Education – CSWE-accredited BSW degree.
  • Exam – ASWB Bachelors Exam.

CSWA – Clinical Social Work Associate

  • Duties – Advanced-level practice of social work, including clinical social work under supervision. This license is used in Oregon for master’s-level social workers who are accruing hours to fulfill the supervised experience requirement for licensure at the clinical level.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Masters Exam.

LSWAA – Licensed Social Work Associate Advanced

  • Duties – Advanced-level services under supervision like program development, program administration, macro-level social work, community organization, and counseling, all of which are geared towards accruing hours of supervised experience to become fully licensed as a specialist in non-clinical social work. Engaging in clinical social work is also permitted under supervision. Washington State uses this licensure title.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – None.

LSWAIC – Licensed Social Work Associate Independent Clinical

  • Duties – Advanced-level services under supervision like case management and custody, diagnosis of mental and emotional disorders, diagnosis of addictive and substance abuse disorders, and psychotherapy, with the aim of accruing hours of supervised experience to become fully licensed as a specialist in independent clinical social work. Washington State uses this licensure title.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – None.

LICSW – Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker

  • Duties – Engage in the practice of advanced social work including at the clinical level, with the option to do so independently, including the option to be reimbursed for services independently as a private provider. Alabama, Washington DC, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington State, and West Virginia use this licensure title.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from an CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Clinical Exam.

LGSW – Licensed Graduate Social Worker

  • Duties – Advanced-level practice of social work, including clinical social work if it’s performed under pre-approved supervision. This can include evaluation and coordination of service delivery, research design and analysis, agency management, advanced casework, and community organization. Minnesota, West Virginia, and Washington DC use this license title.
  • Education – CSWE-accredited master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work.
  • Exam – ASWB Masters Exam.

LSCSW – Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker

  • Duties – Advanced-level practice of social work, including clinical social work, such as advanced case management, advocacy for individuals and groups, community organizing, diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders, and psychotherapy. Practice can be performed independently and as a private practitioner. Kansas uses this license title.
  • Education – CSWE-accredited master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work.
  • Exam – ASWB Clinical Exam.

LAPSW – Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker

  • Duties – Practice social work at an advanced-level, including clinical social work if it’s conducted under supervision. Duties can include research and community organizing, direct practice and counseling, plus policy development and implementation. Can choose to work independently outside of agencies and receive direct payment or third-party reimbursement. Tennessee uses this license title.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Advanced Generalist Exam.

LISW – Licensed Independent Social Worker

  • Duties – Six jurisdictions use this license title. It permits an advanced-level of social work practice, which can be performed independently without supervision, including as a private independent practitioner. Iowa LISWs can engage in clinical social work. Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington DC LISWs can engage in advanced generalist practice but not clinical practice. Ohio and South Carolina give LISWs the option to take either the Advanced Generalist Exam or Clinical Exam, and this determines which scope of practice these LISWs can engage in.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Advanced Generalist Exam or ASWB Clinical Exam.

LAMSW – Licensed Advanced Macro Social Worker

  • Duties – Advanced-level of practice that includes research, education, administration, program management, macro social work, case management, and community organizing. Duties can also include treatment of mental and emotional disorders and psychotherapy under the supervision of an LCSW. Missouri uses this license title.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree in Social Work from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – ASWB Advanced Generalist Exam.

SWP – Provisional Social Worker

  • Duties – Perform social work services in Colorado residential childcare facilities. This can include case management, program education and evaluation, counseling, and the assessment of individuals and families.
  • Education – Master’s or doctoral degree from a CSWE-accredited school.
  • Exam – None.
  • Bachelor’s-level social work licenses that generally require a BSW
  • Master’s-level social work licenses that generally require an MSW
  • Advanced Generalist-level social work licenses that generally require an MSW plus two years (2,000 hours) of post-master’s supervised experience
  • Clinical-level social work licenses that generally require an MSW plus at least two years (2,000 hours) of post-master’s direct clinical social work experience

Bachelor of Social Work (BSW):

  • Certified Social Work Case Manager (C-SWCM)
  • Social Worker in Gerontology (SW-G)
  • Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Social Worker (CHP-SW)
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Social Worker (MVF-SW)
  • Certified Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-CYFSW)

Master of Social Work (MSW):

  • Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
  • Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM)
  • Qualified Clinical Social Worker (QCSW)
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
  • Certified Clinical Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Social Worker (C-CATODSW)
  • Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW)
  • Diplomate in Clinical Social Work (DCSW)
  • Certified School Social Work Specialist (C-SSWS)
  • Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology (CSW-G)
  • Advanced Social Worker in Gerontology (ASW-G)
  • Certified Social Worker in Health Care (C-SWHC)
  • Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker (ACHP-SW)
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Advanced Social Worker (MVF-ASW)
  • Military Service Members, Veterans, and Their Families – Clinical Social Worker (MVF-CSW)
  • Certified Advanced Children, Youth, and Family Social Worker (C-ACYFSW)

State board bachelor’s-level (BSW) social work licenses

Most states have BSW-level social work licenses. These license titles are commonly:

Four states –Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and South Dakota– have associate’s-level social work licenses. Additionally Massachusetts is the only state in the nation to license social workers whose only education is a high school diploma.

State board master’s-level (MSW) social work licenses

All states license social workers at the MSW-level. An MSW is the minimum requirement for licensure in 10 states. Common license titles are:

States whose entry-level social work license is at the MSW-level are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

State board master’s-level (MSW) clinical social work licenses

All states except one* have a separate license for clinical social workers, and all states require at least an MSW to earn a clinical social work license. Common license titles are:

  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
  • Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
  • Licensed Specialist Clinical Social Worker (LSCSW)

A doctorate of social work (DSW) of PhD in social work can naturally often be substituted for an MSW. In Illinois a DSW is required to attain the highest level of licensure.

*A clinical social worker is the only type of social worker licensed in New Hampshire.

Get licensed and start practicing

Once your state board has issued your social work license you’ll be ready to start your career in earnest. You’ll likely have already developed ties through academic internships and clinical experience while a student.

The NASW and the CSWE both maintain virtual career centers that are good sources for job leads.

While you’re busy advancing in your career don’t forget that your state probably requires you to maintain a certain amount of continuing education every year. Demonstrating this is often a requirement for renewing your social work license.

State-by-State Licensure Guide

Education, licensure, renewal and reciprocity requirements, as established by the appropriate regulatory board, vary among jurisdictions. See licensure requirements in the state you wish to practice social work.

Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
Arkansas
California
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware
Florida
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho
Iowa
Illinois
Indiana
Kansas
Louisiana
Maine
Maryland
Massachusetts
Michigan
Minnesota
Mississippi
Missouri
Montana
Nebraska
New York
New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
Nevada
North Carolina
North Dakota
Ohio
Oklahoma
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Vermont