Licensing Information​

Virtually every state requires either certification or licensure of professional social workers. The regulations differ from state to state, as do the levels of practice that are regulated. Moreover, states often revise their licensing policies, eligibility standards and laws.

To obtain current information on licensing call the state board in your area for specific local requirements. If you are planning to move to a new state, call the new state to inquire about reciprocity.

The most frequently asked questions about social work licensing

Over our three decades servicing social workers, we’ve talked to thousands of social workers who are looking for information about how to apply for the ASWB, where they can locate license requirements, and preparation strategies. Based on these calls, we have compiled a list of the 12 most frequently asked questions about licensing.

The first step in obtaining a license in most states is to obtain an application from the Social Work license board in your state. After filing application with the state board and receiving an acceptance notice, the candidate calls 1-888-5SW-Exam to schedule the exam. A full list of state boards can be found on SWES Website.

The exams are given continuously at testing centers designated by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Usually, tests can be scheduled approximately two weeks following notification of eligibility by calling the ASWB.

The availability of special measures varies according to the need and the state. Most states offer accommodations for special needs. Some provide tests in languages other than English. States are required to make adjustments for legitimate test taking problems. Hearing-impaired students, or those with other physical challenges, should request accommodation at the time of application. Some state applications will ask if you need an accommodation. If the application does not specifically ask, call the license board for information on how to make a request. All accommodations must first receive approval from the state board.

Licensing is exclusively a state function and each state license authority sets its own requirements. In some cases, licenses can be obtained without retaking the test, if both states have identical standards. To obtain definitive information about reciprocity, call the state board in the receiving state.

Candidates appear at a testing center. The exam is presented on a special computer terminal. After a brief orientation, candidates have four hours to complete the examination.

Candidates are informed of their scores immediately after taking the test. They receive a printout with the test score and a graphic indicating strengths and weaknesses. The candidate is provided with a score sheet and instructions for retaking the test. The test can be retaken after 90 days. Some states limit the number of times the test can be taken.

Depending on state laws, there are as many as four levels of licensing. The Advanced Generalist and Clinical Level License Examinations are usually taken after two or three years of post-masters practice. Just after receiving the MSW, social workers in many states may take the Masters Examination which was formerly called the Intermediate exam. Those with the BSW may take the Bachelor Level Examination (formerly called the Basic exam) except in Illinois where BSW level social workers take the Masters Level Exam). A few states also license and test social workers with an Associates degree using the Bachelor Level test. Though the examinations are offered nationally, social workers should contact their state board for local eligibility standards and application procedures. Many social agencies are concerned about insurance reimbursement and will ask employees to acquire the highest level of licensing available.

The national licensing exam includes multiple choice questions and case vignettes with follow-up multiple choice questions. Candidates for the license are given four hours to answer 170 questions, but only 150 questions are scored as part of the exam and count toward passing. Twenty questions are study questions to be rated for possible inclusion as ‘real’ questions in later exams. Candidate responses determine whether the question will be included in a later edition of the test. The candidate does not know if questions are part of the test, or in the process of validation. You should answer all the questions. Blank answers are automatically counted as wrong. 
To complicate matters further, the test scoring system is not based on answering a fixed number of questions correctly. Rather, the scores are weighted so that each administration of the test is equal to every other. The system is designed to be fair to every candidate no matter when the test is taken or what questions are included.

The questions appearing on the license exam are based upon a periodic ASWB national practice survey. The test is designed to reflect contemporary practice methods. The ASWB test is designed to screen for minimal competence in social work practice and knowledge.

In the last years, the content of license exams has shifted to include greater emphasis on the practice issues identified in the recent ASWB practice surveys. These changes include, but are not limited to, a heightened emphasis on ethics, direct practice, and the interfaces between social work and the law and drug and alcohol treatment. In addition, the exams place greater emphasis on issues of diversity and multi-cultural practice.
The test will require knowledge of broader ethical and legal issues and of laws that commonly apply to social work practice. In addition the topic nomenclature will be simplified. The ASWB notes that candidates for the license will notice little diference in the new exam. The most recent edition includes DSM5 updates.

Virtually all states now require license candidates to take examinations on special terminals at local testing sites. State Boards can normally arrange a test two weeks after application. Test results are provided immediately after completion of the test. Though many people are apprehensive about a computer- delivered test, there are few reports of difficulties with the format. An advantage of the system is that exams can be scheduled at the convenience of the candidate. The content and style of the test reflect written examinations. The examiners have shifted printed materials into a computer-delivered format. Exam content continues to emphasize practice- related information designed to measure performance and assess practice skills.

Most social workers will have less difficulty with practice and theory issues in the licensing examinations than with the multiple-choice format. Candidates need to increase their skills in reading and responding to complex multiple-choice questions, while reviewing social work practice and theory. Simply reviewing the literature of the field is insufficient. The key to passing is to understand the context, style and structure of examination questions. Candidates for the license should understand the assumptions of test-makers and the design of multiple choice tests. The best strategy is to review social work content and to practice with sample multiple choice questions. 
The process of practicing with multiple-choice questions conditions responses and reduces test-anxiety, a major contributor to poor performance. Moreover, though the test lasts for four hours and few students need more time, practice questions reduce response time, help with concentration and increase accuracy.

Regulatory Issues​

The license names and qualifications vary from state to state, however they all follow a similar format. The most common license examinations are the Bachelors Examination, Masters Examination, Advanced Generalist Examination, (MSW) and Clinical Examination, (2-3 years post-masters experience). A few states also offer a license examination at the Associate level for social workers with two years of undergraduate education. 

  • ASSOCIATE LICENSE LEVEL: The Associate License qualifications require two years of college or an Associates Degree. Some states also specify one or two years of experience. Candidate qualifications vary from state to state. The license may be called an LSWA, LBSW, SWT or similar names.
  • BACHELORS EXAMINATION: The BaCHELORS license names and qualifications vary from state to state. It may be called an LSW, SW, LSWA, BSW or similar names. The license requires a bachelors degree in social work or a bachelor’s degree and specific periods of experience.
  • MASTERS EXAMINATION: The MASTERS License is only available to social workers who have an MSW. Many states award this license immediately after graduation. Some states permit the candidate to take the examination a few months before graduation. The license may be called an LCSW, CISW, LGSW, CSW, LMSW, or LSW depending on the state.
  • CLINICAL OR ADVANCED GENERALIST: This title is only available to social workers who receive the MSW or DSW degree and have a specified number of years or hours of post-masters supervised experience. It may be called a CSW, PIP, LCSW, LSCSW, BCSW, LICSW or LISW depending on the state..

In most states with licensing , the social work title is protected – those whose credentials have not been accepted by the state authority and those who have not passed the license test cannot call themselves social workers. In practice , however, many states do not require publicly employed social workers to possess a license. Some states have additional exemptions for certain institutions such as hospitals. The momentum toward licenses has increased as many insurance companies condition third party reimbursement or participation in a managed care network on licenses. 

Most states use the computerized version of the ASWB examination. An appointment must be made to take the exam in accordance with the procedures of the state board. Appointments are usually made within a few weeks following a request. Candidates travel to a central site, take the exam on a special terminal and receive the results immediately. The test can be retaken, but there is usually a 90 day wait. 

Recently some states have begun to discuss requiring state-employed social workers to obtain licenses. The most notable examples are New York and Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, concern about the quality of child protective services has caused the state legislature to recommend that all protective workers obtain a social work license at the appropriate level. Since Massachusetts has four levels of licensing (from Associate Degree to MSW) it should be possible for all state workers to seek qualification. In other states, administrators are recommending that public employees eligible for a license should obtain it to protect themselves in the event of down sizing. These trends are likely to accelerate as state legislatures seek to provide evidence that they are concerned about quality issues even as budgets are reduced. 

Almost every state that mandates a license to practice social work specifies a renewal period. While some states require annual renewals, most have a two to three year term. Many states also expect social workers to continue to refresh and improve their skills after receiving a license. By specifying the numbers of CEUs necessary for license renewal at each level of licensing, the state regulates additional training requirements. In states with continuing education requirements (CEUs), license renewal is not automatic. License renewals can be denied if the applicant has not acquired the necessary CEU hours. In several states non renewal is the same as cancellation. That’s right – the social worker has to go through the entire licensing process again and retake the examination. Other kinder and presumably gentler states simply suspend the license temporarily until the social worker has received the necessary CEUs. Suspension means just that. Without an active license the social worker may be temporarily unable to practice until the CEU requirement is satisfied. 

According to ASWB reports, the following states do not have a CEU requirement for license renewal: Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin. Don’t rely on this list as definitive. State laws are changing constantly and many states will soon add a CEU requirement. Everyone should know the local law to avoid the potential hazards of license non renewal. Call your State Board and ask them for information. 

It depends on the state in which you live and are licensed. Most states seem to prefer a two year period for renewal. New York, Kentucky and Hawaii have a three year license period. California, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, and Washington have annual renewal periods. Do not fail to renew your license before it expires. Failure to do so can lead to suspension of practice privileges and if a worker is unlicensed for a lengthy period, a new application and qualifying test may be required by the state board. In those states with CEU requirements. it will be necessary to certify or provide evidence of having completed a sufficient number of Continuing Education Hours before a license renewal is granted. 

The answer to this question is complicated. Each state with multiple levels of licensure has published its own unique requirements for moving from one level of licensure to another. For example, New York has no supervision requirement, while the District of Columbia requires 100 hours of supervision to be eligible for the Clinical Social Worker Examination Level. Many states also specify years of practice or numbers of hours of practice that are necessary to advance from one level of licensure to another. Some states also have annual supervision requirements and many also specify the characteristics of the supervisor. Virtually all states specify that the supervisor must be a social worker licensed at either the same or a more advanced level than the supervisee. Some states, such as Alaska, Montana and Georgia will allow a psychiatrist or psychologist to supervise. Since the eligibility requirements vary so much from state to state, it is best to contact the state board and ask for a copy of the licensing law or a summary of eligibility requirements. Often, NASW chapters will provide these guidelines free to members.
Contact the state NASW chapter for information.