What You Need to Know About Social Work Licensing

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Stamp saying “certified”

There is a great deal to consider when going through the social work licensure process. However, a few facts stand out as key big-picture issues that help provide context in understanding the process. To start, it’s important to understand that requirements are determined by and enforced at the state level. There is no official nationwide certification or licensure that is widely recognized as a requirement for employment in the sector. That doesn’t mean there aren’t national certifications available, but it highlights that those certifications aren’t the same thing as a license. If you’re looking to be officially licensed as a social worker, you’ll go through the state where you hope to work.

The second thing you should know is that it isn’t always easy to go from state to state while maintaining licensure. The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) explains that social work licensing reciprocity doesn’t really exist between states. Reciprocity describes a situation in which states would recognize that their standards for licensure are similar enough that they would easily accept somebody licensed in another state for licensure, perhaps with just one or two quick checks. Instead of offering reciprocity, each state has distinct, often fairly nuanced requirements for licensure.

This means you’ll need to be careful about considering licensure as you evaluate your educational and career goals. Before pursuing any course of education in social work, students should ensure they understand the licensure requirements of the state where they hope to work and ensure the course goals, program accreditation and other factors will provide adequate preparation for licensure.

Common licensure requirements

Each state has different expectations for professional licensure. They may also offer varied types of licensing. For example, states may create specific licenses for specialized social work roles, such as counseling or clinical practice. However, there are a few fairly common requirements that most states will include in some form:

  • Examination: Most licensing boards expect students to pass some form of social work licensing exam. The ASWB provides oversight and management of a variety of exam types, serving as a hub that states use to guide professionals toward the correct exam for their role. Exams usually require fees, and it’s important to understand the examination process for your state’s licensing board before getting too deep in the process.
  • Education: Educational requirements are often used as a benchmark for licensure, and the exam structure is often based on the type of degree an individual pursued. The ASWB provides a fairly nuanced breakdown of social work education degrees, with bachelor’s as the lowest designation. From there, students can progress to a master’s degree in social work. After obtaining an MSW, those with two-years of supervised experience beyond their degree program become an advanced generalist. Those with an MSW can also achieve clinical status if they have two years of direct clinical social work experience after completing their degree program. Each of these educational benchmarks will typically impact the type of licensure an individual would apply for and the type of exam one would take.
  • Field experience: As implied by the way the ASWB determines education level, field experience is critical in the industry. Most licensure boards will require individuals to have some form of practical work experience in the sector before obtaining licensure. In most cases, this kind of practical work is incorporated into the degree program. This is another area where knowing your state requirements is critical. If your state board demands a certain number of hours of supervised practice prior to licensure, but the degree program you’re pursuing doesn’t provide that many hours, you may need to find alternative ways to complete your hours. Some programs provide a degree of flexibility in hour requirements and availability to better support student licensing goals.

In practice, obtaining licensure usually requires a blend of these three key areas, but they aren’t the only factors that must be considered. There are a few more issues that must also be kept in mind, with accreditation among the most important.

Understanding the accreditation situation

The Council on Social Work Education is in charge of standards and evaluation for social work program accreditation in the U.S. For the most part, a social work degree program will fit into one of three status types for accreditation. It could be accredited, meaning it has gone through the full accreditation process and been recognized as covering the key materials needed to prepare students for a career. It could be unaccredited, which could either mean the program simply hasn’t been assessed by the CSWE or that it has been assessed but been found lacking. The other major designation is pre-candidacy for accreditation. This status is given to institutions that are going through the accreditation process. If a program is in pre-candidacy, it is important to ask about the timeline for achieving full accreditation and to understand that accreditation isn’t assured.

For licensure purposes, it’s important to understand your state’s exact requirements in terms of education. State requirements can vary when it comes to expectations for CSWE program accreditation, so it’s important to understand expectations for where you want to work before pursuing a   In general, students who enter programs that achieve candidacy in or before the student’s first academic year are recognized for attending a CSWE-accredited program once initial accreditation is achieved.

The MSW and licensure

Official licensure is a complicated matter. You may need to meet state requirements for licensure for some positions, but standards vary. And while no national standards exist as widely recognized licenses, the National Association of Social Workers does offer a certificate system that allows professionals to seek certifications to help set themselves apart from their peers. The complexity of the situation makes knowing what you’ll need to pursue your career goals critical. Want to learn more? Contact us today about the Regis College online MSW program. We’d love to talk to you about how our MSW program can prepare you for licensure.


Recommended Readings:

How you can find your ideal job post-MSW

Is An MSW Worth It?



Exam Registration by the Association of Social Work Boards

About Licensing and Regulation by the Association of Social Work Boards

Credentials and Certifications by the National Association of Social Workers