How to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW)

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a process comprising several important steps, including completing a master’s degree program in social work and acquiring a state-specific license. Below is an overview of some common steps you can take if you are interested in pursuing a career in clinical social work:

The program cards and tables featured on this page were last updated in February 2022. For the most current program information, please refer to the official website of the respective school.  

Sponsored programs that may help you become a LCSW

1. Complete a bachelor’s degree

Many social workers earn a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related discipline before entering the field, however, it is not necessary. Learn more about your options:

  • Non-BSW pathway: If you aren’t entirely sure about becoming an LCSW, you may study other subjects such as sociology, psychology, or human development. You can still move on to pursue a Master of Social Work without a BSW.

2. Pursue a master’s degree in social work (MSW) or MSW-equivalent program

Earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) is necessary for licensure as a clinical social worker. Like the BSW, there are two pathways to earning this degree. Both depend on whether you majored in social work as an undergraduate.

  • Master of Social Work (MSW) pathway (for non-BSW grads): After earning your undergraduate degree, the next step is an MSW. The Council on Social Work Education is the body responsible for accrediting social work degree programs, ensuring that they meet the standards and criteria required for providing the best education and practices. MSW programs allow students to specialize and, in some cases, take on supervisory roles upon graduation. MSW programs typically last two to four years and require a minimum of 900 hours of supervised field instruction. Review our complete list of online Master of Social Work programs.
  • Advanced standing MSW pathway (for BSW grads): Graduates with a BSW degree may be eligible for an advanced standing Master of Social Work program, which typically allows them to earn their MSW in one year. These programs may have stricter admission criteria. Be sure to check your desired program’s admissions requirements. Some advanced standing MSW programs are offered online.

Sponsored programs that may help you become a LCSW

Simmons University

Simmons School of Social Work (SSW)


Master of Social Work (MSW)

Aspiring direct practitioners can earn their MSW online from Simmons University in as few as 9 months. GRE scores are not required, and the program offers full-time, part-time, accelerated, and advanced standing tracks.

  • Prepares students to pursue licensure, including LCSW 
  • Full-time, part-time, and accelerated tracks 
  • Minimum completion time: 9 months


3. Complete LCSW licensing and examination requirements

Clinical social work licensure is regulated at the state level. Each state has its own licensing board that determines the requirements for clinical social work licensure. It’s important for students interested in becoming LCSWs to make sure the graduate social work program and concentration that they choose meet the licensing requirements for their state of residence or the one in which they plan to practice. In general, a Master of Social Work program accredited by the CSWE is required to become an LCSW in all 50 states.

Future LCSWs should note that earning this designation typically requires a passing score on a state-determined licensure exam and hours of professional experience, in addition to completion of a CSWE-accredited MSW program.

Current LCSWs who move to a different state may have to complete additional requirements in order to transfer their licenses. It is important to check state requirements before making a move.

4. Apply for LCSW state licensure

As previously stated, licensure depends on your state of residence and the board-specific licensing requirements. The process to become an LCSW requires a substantial commitment beyond graduation—completing an MSW program is just one part of it. Beyond graduate studies, many aspiring professionals must accrue supervised hours of experience and complete a clinical examination.

While becoming a LCSW is not required to practice clinical social work within some organizations, earning an LCSW credential may open up professional doors, boost your marketability, and provide a higher sense of autonomy in your work with the community. If you want to pursue a private social work practice, earning your LCSW is a requirement.

The designation for social workers who have their clinical social work license varies by state. While some states grant the title of Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) to social workers with their license, other states use different titles, including but not limited to Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) or Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW).

Make sure to double-check licensing requirements with your state board for the most up-to-date information, along with the program you are currently enrolled in or wish to pursue.

5. Renew your license

As an LCSW, it’s important to complete continuing education requirements and to renew your license based on your state licensing board’s renewal requirements. If you fail to do so, you will not be able to continue to practice. License renewal terms vary by state. In California for example, the LCSW license must be renewed every two years, and it cannot be renewed earlier than 90 days before it expires.

For some states, such as Maryland, the continuing education requirement is 40 credit units of continuing education in programs and categories approved by the board for each two-year period of social work licensure. And in Colorado, you may have to complete a Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) reinstatement form (PDF, 95,2 KB) to renew a lapsed license. Because each state varies by requirement, you should check with your state’s licensing board.

6. Advance your career through continued learning

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social workers should pursue 48 hours of continued learning before each licensure renewal period. However, continued learning for licensure renewal is different by state and level of licensure. It’s imperative that social workers continue to learn throughout their career to stay up to date on new research and best practices. You can learn more about continuing education in the NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice [PDF, 111 KB], published in 2003.

Licensed clinical social worker FAQ

What is a LCSW? 

A LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker. These professionals work in a wide variety of settings to provide emotional support, mental health evaluations, therapy, and case management services to people experiencing psychological, emotional, medical, social and/or familial challenges. LCSWs are required to have a CSWE-accredited MSW, a minimum of two years or 3,000 hours of post-MSW experience in a supervised clinical setting, and a clinical license in the state of practice, according to the NASW Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice [PDF, 111 KB].

What does a licensed clinical social worker do?

An LCSW helps individuals, families, and communities affected by mental disorders, behavioral challenges, and other life changes or issues. They work in private practices, hospitals, primary care facilities, and community mental health centers, often collaborating with other medical and mental health professionals.

What is the difference between a licensed clinical social worker and other social workers?

Clinical social workers provide assessment, diagnoses, treatment and preventive care for mental, behavioral, and emotional concerns. They may use individual or group therapy to do soLCSWs must obtain an MSW and take an ASWB exam.

On the other hand, not all non-clinical social workers have an MSW. Social workers without this designation may be tasked with addressing public issues, such as housing. They focus on how these issues impact their clients and help them adjust to changes or cope with challenges in their lives.

What is the average salary for LCSWs?

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track the salaries of LCSWs, it does collect pay data for health care social workers. The median annual salary for social workers in health care was $60,280 in 2022. The median annual salary for all social workers was $55,350.

Last updated December 2023