Social Work Licensing Guide

Written by Rebecca Munday
Last Updated: June 2023

You want a career helping people and communities navigate problems, so you decided to become a social worker. Yet, the different licenses, regulations, and acronyms can be confusing.

If you want to learn more about licensing for social workers, use this guide to discover common license types, requirements, and the careers you can pursue with each one.

Different Types of Social Work Licenses

The type of social work license you choose depends on your career goals, your state’s license options, and the requirements for each license. Licensed baccalaureate social worker (LBSW), licensed master social worker (LMSW), and licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) are the most common types of social work licenses. However, not all states offer all of these license levels, or the license titles may differ.

Some states have licensing requirements for social work associates who do not have a bachelor of social work (BSW), or they have a bachelor’s in a field other than social work. Several states use similar license types and requirements, such as a master of social work (MSW) and 3000 hours of supervised clinical experience for clinical social worker licenses.

In South Dakota, for example, the entry-level license type is a social work associate. The highest level of license in the state is certified social worker private independent practice (CSW-PIP). If you become a CSW-PIP, you’ll be able to practice clinical social work independently after you complete an MSW and their supervised experience requirements.

Each state regulates its own standards for social work practice and eligibility for licensure. Contact your state’s social work licensing board to understand the license level types and requirements.

How Do I Get a Social Work License?

Every state regulates its own social work license guidelines, so you must check with your state board to ensure you meet licensure requirements. However, in most states, you’ll need to complete four steps to become a licensed social worker. These steps may differ if you want to become a social work associate in your state.

  1. Earn a Social Work Degree: You’ll spend 4-7 years completing your social work degree(s), depending on which license you apply for. If you become an LBSW, you’ll need a bachelor of social work. If you want a clinical license or an LMSW, you’ll need at least an MSW.
  2. Pass an ASWB Examination: The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) offers five exams that qualify you to apply for different levels of social work licensure. You’ll need to pass the exam that corresponds to your desired social license type before you can apply for licensure.
  3. Gain Required Experience, if Applicable: Every state requires fieldwork for your BSW and MSW. They also require you to complete supervised clinical experience to practice clinical social work independently. Some states require you to complete supervised experience for non-clinical, masters-level licensure.
  4. Apply for State Social Work Licensure: Once you earn your degree, pass the ASWB exam, and complete any required experience, you can apply for your license. Fill out an application for licensure, pay the application fee, and submit the required documents to become a social worker in your state.

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Education Requirements for a Social Work License

The first step to becoming a licensed social worker is completing your state’s education requirements for the license you want. For most positions in social work, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree and an MSW. The Council and Social Work Education (CSWE) accredits bachelor’s and master’s-level social work programs. Find out more about the different social work degrees and how each one could benefit your career.

Bachelor’s in Social Work

A CSWE-accredited bachelor’s in social work program requires at least 400 hours of field placement and covers social welfare policy, research methods, and human behavior in the social environment. With a BSW, you can become an LBSW in many states. You may also gain valuable experience in social work with an entry-level position, such as a survivor advocate, case manager, policy analyst, or community support worker.

Master’s in Social Work

An MSW requires at least 900 hours of field experience in generalist social work, such as assessment, managing case files, and client intervention. If you earned a BSW, you can complete your MSW in as little as half the credits. You’ll deepen your knowledge of research methods, social welfare policy, and human behavior in the environment. After graduation, you can become an LMSW, practice generalist social work, or complete your supervised clinical experience to become an LCSW or your state’s equivalent.

Doctorate in Social Work

A doctorate in social work (DSW) takes 2-3 years and expands on your knowledge of leadership, research, policy analysis, and teaching in social work. With a DSW, you’ll stand out when you apply for jobs or promotions. Limited data from Payscale in June 2023 suggests that DSW graduates earn about $20,000 more annually than those with an MSW.

Examination Requirements for Social Work Licensure

The ASWB offers five social work licensing exams: associate, bachelors, masters, advanced generalist, and clinical. Each of these levels corresponds to a license level, and you’ll take the one that meets the requirements for the license you apply for.

To take your ASWB exam, you’ll need to apply for your license with your state’s licensing board, register with the ASWB, get your authorization to test email, schedule your testing appointment, and review the candidate rules and confidentiality statements. Find out which ASWB exam qualifies you for the license you want below.

  • Associate Exam: You’ll take the associate exam if you want to become a licensed social work associate, or if you are in a state where you can get a license without a social work degree. You’ll pay $230 to take the exam.
  • Bachelors Exam: The bachelors exam costs $230. You’ll need to pass it if you want to become an LBSW if your state offers licenses to BSW graduates.
  • Masters Exam: The masters exam qualifies you to become a licensed master’s social worker and costs $230.
  • Advanced Generalist Exam: If your state requires a separate license to practice generalist social work independently, the advanced generalist exam costs $260.
  • Clinical Exam: Passing the clinical exam is necessary if you want to become an LCSW or your state’s equivalent. You’ll pay $260 to take the exam.

Experience Requirements for a Social Work License

Every CSWE-accredited social work program requires you to complete fieldwork to earn your BSW and MSW. During your education, you’ll complete at least 400 hours of fieldwork for a BSW or 900 hours for an MSW. Fieldwork requirements vary by state and program. During your field placement, you’ll learn how to practice generalist social work, such as:

  • Managing case files
  • Assessing client needs
  • Advocating for resources and policy changes in the community
  • Connecting clients with resources

These field placements don’t typically count toward the supervised experience your state may require for you to practice clinical social work or generalist social work independently. For example, in North Carolina, certified social work managers need 3,000 hours or two years of post-graduate paid generalist social work experience.

However, every state has its own requirements for supervised experience for each license type, including how long, what type, and under whom. If you apply to become an LCSW or your state’s equivalent, you’ll need to complete supervised clinical experience supervised by a current LCSW who meets your state’s requirements for supervision.

Frequently Asked Questions About Social Work Licensure

Do you need a license to practice social work?

For most positions in social work, you need a social work license. Depending on your state’s requirements, you can practice macro social work, including advocacy, policy analysis, research, and policy change, without a license. However, if you want to work with individuals, families, and groups to address their specific psychosocial needs, you’ll need to become an LMSW or your state’s equivalent.

What is the highest license in social work?

LCSWs hold the highest license for social work. LCSWs need at least an MSW and about two years of supervised clinical experience. Some states may use an alternative title, such as licensed independent social workers for social workers who can practice generalist and clinical social work independently.

How long does it take to get a social work license?

The length of time depends on what type of social work license you want. If you want a license to practice clinical social work, you’ll spend 8-9 years completing the education and supervised clinical experience requirements. However, licenses for generalist social work take between 4-6 years to qualify for, depending on whether you need a bachelor’s or master’s in social work degree.

How long should you study for the ASWB exam?

How long you study for the ASWB exam depends on your study habits and the exam you’ll take. The clinical exam is the hardest because of the complex clinical interventions you’ll be tested on. Still, some students need a couple of weeks to study, and others take up to six months, so you’ll need to assess your learning habits and make a plan that meets your needs and offers the best chance of success.