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How to Become a Social Worker in California

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Published on: 10/27/2023
Last Updated: 04/17/2024
9 minute read

If you are interested in having a positive impact on people’s lives, then you should consider a career as a licensed social worker. Social workers provide counseling, support, case management, and other human services to people in need. 

A social service career offers an incredibly diverse range of work environments—from school social work, child welfare, hospitals, non-profit organizations, and even private practice as a therapist.

To become a social worker in California, it is important to note that there are different levels of education and licensing requirements depending on the type of social service. This comprehensive guide will help you learn what it takes to become a social worker in California. 

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What Are Social Worker Requirements in California?

The requirements to become a social worker in California depend on the type of social work career you wish to pursue. Broadly speaking, social work falls into two categories: 

  • Non-clinical social work – This type of social work is often called macro social work because it focuses on making broader changes within the systems, policies, and agencies that shape communities and environments.1 In California, non-clinical social workers aren’t required to be licensed because they aren’t providing clinical services directly to clients. 
  • Clinical social work – This branch of social work focuses on working directly with individuals, families, and groups directly to provide mental health and healthcare services.2 Clinical social workers in California must hold a master’s degree in social work and be licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences. 

8 Steps to Becoming a Social Worker in California

If you’ve decided to pursue a career in social work, the steps you’ll need to take to become a social worker in California vary based on whether you want to become a clinical social worker or a non-clinical social worker. 

Being a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) possesses more career opportunities as opposed to an unlicensed one. For example, an LCSW has the option to open their own private therapy practice. 

To become an LCSW, you’ll need to complete the following steps:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree – This does not have to be a degree in social work, but obtaining a bachelor’s in social work can give you advanced standing in some master’s degree programs (meaning you can complete your master’s in less time). At the bachelor’s degree level, you’ll qualify for many non-clinical social work positions.
  2. Obtain a master’s degree – After completing your bachelor’s, you can work toward earning a master’s in social work from a university that satisfies Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) standards.  To meet licensed social worker requirements, California MSW programs will include 60 units of coursework on topics like psychology, human behavior, and social systems. Your degree program will also include hands-on practicum and internship hours. Finishing the degree will typically take 2 to 4 years, depending on how many units you take per semester and whether you hold a bachelor’s degree in social work. 
  3. Complete additional coursework required in California – After completing your degree, you’ll need to take a few more short (3- to 15-hour) courses required by the state. These additional courses are:4
    1. Suicide risk assessment and intervention
    2. Child abuse assessment and reporting in California
    3. Human sexuality
    4. Alcoholism and other chemical substance abuse and dependency 
    5. Provisions of mental health services via telehealth
    6. Aging, long-term care, and elder/dependant adult abuse
    7. Spousal/partner abuse assessment, detection, and intervention
  4. Take California-specific courses (if applicable) – If you attend a master’s degree program in a state other than California (or an online program not designed to meet California’s requirements), you’ll need to take courses on California cultures and the social and psychological implications of socioeconomic position and California law and ethics.5
  5. Register as an associate social worker (ASW) – In California, pre-licensure medical social workers are known as associates. Before you can begin your supervised training hours, you must register with the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) as an ASW. This requires filling out an application and submitting your transcripts, proof of additional coursework, fingerprints, and a $150 registration fee.
  6. Complete your post-degree supervised hours – The BBS requires California LCSW candidates to complete 3,000 hours of supervised work hours after completing their degree. These hours must occur over a minimum of two years.6
  7. Pass the California Law and Ethics Exam and ASWB Clinical Exam – After completing your supervised hours, you’re ready to take the two exams required to become a licensed social worker clinician. If you fail either exam, you must wait 90 days before trying again.
  • Apply for your license and pay the licensing fees – Congratulations—you’re now a fully qualified LCSW! Within one year of passing the ASWB Clinical Exam, you’ll need to submit your license application along with your $200 license fee.7

Becoming a Non-clinical Social Worker in California

Non-clinical social workers don’t need a license in California, but employers will typically require a bachelor’s in social work or a related field.  Some employers may also want additional certifications from an organization like the National Association of Social Workers, such as Certified Social Worker in Health Care or Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager.9

License Renewal and Continuing Education Opportunities

Once you’ve obtained your license, you’ll need to meet some requirements to ensure it stays valid. California requires licensees to:10

  • Renew their license every two years 
  • Pay the renewal fee of $220 
  • Complete 36 hours of continuing education (CE) courses during the two-year licensing period

If you’re in your first two years as an LCSW, the CE requirements are slightly lower.  Only 18 hours of CE are needed during your first two years of licensure.

It’s also important to pay your license renewal fees on time to avoid legal problems and penalties. Renewing your license on time costs $220, but a late renewal costs $320. If your license has expired, it’s illegal to practice therapy, collect payments, or supervise associates.

California Social Worker FAQs

Understanding the specifics of being a social worker in California can help you determine whether the career path is right for you. Below, we answer some frequently asked questions about California social workers so that you can make an informed decision about your future.

Is it necessary to earn a social work degree to apply in California?

Yes, it is typically necessary to have a social work degree to become a licensed social worker in California. A social work program provides behavioral science and social science knowledge for human service careers. While some entry-level positions may be available with degrees in related fields such as psychology or sociology, obtaining a social work degree from an accredited program is generally required for the California social work license.

How Long Does it Take to Become an LCSW in California?

The length of time to become an LCSW varies depending on several factors. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, it could take as little as four years. That includes two years to obtain your master’s degree in social work, and the minimum two years to complete your supervised hours. 

However, many returning students complete their master’s degree coursework and supervised hours on a part-time basis. In that case, it could take six years or more to become licensed.

Is Continuing Education (CE) Required for LCSWs in California?

Yes. LCSWs must take at least 36 CE units during each 2-year licensing period. This requirement ensures that LCSWs stay up-to-date with developments and best practices in social work and psychotherapy.

Does My License from Another State Allow Me to Be Licensed in California?

No. California doesn’t have reciprocity agreements with other states for social work licensure. However, you may be able to apply for a license if you meet certain criteria. You’ll need to show that you have:11

  • Been licensed in another state for at least 2 years
  • An active and current license in good standing from another state
  • An MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited school
  • Completed the same number of supervised hours required by California

You’ll then need to take the required additional coursework (listed above), a California law and ethics course, and pass the ASWB clinical exam and the California Law and Ethics Exam. Lastly,  you’ll submit a license application to the BBS with the required fees and documents.

What’s the Difference Between Practicum, Internship, and Supervised Hours?

Practicum hours are completed during your degree coursework and are typically a job-shadowing experience where you won’t perform work, but simply observe. 

Internship hours are part of your coursework and allow you to gain hands-on experience working directly with clients. 

Lastly, supervised hours are working hours that you’ll complete after finishing your degree but before becoming licensed. 

How Many Hours of Fieldwork Are Required to Become an LCSW in California?

Licensure candidates must complete 3,000 hours of supervised experience within two years. These hours must include:12

  • A minimum of 2,000 clinical hours, with at least 750 hours of face-to-face counseling with individuals, families, couples, or groups
  • A maximum of 1,000 non-clinical hours spent on consultation, evaluation, research, conferences, etc.

Can I pursue a degree through an online social work program?

Yes, there are many accredited online social work programs available that offer flexibility for students with busy schedules or who may not live near a campus. Alliant has an online master's degree in social work that covers the same material as on-campus academic programs and prepares graduates for licensure and social work practice.

Start Your Social Work Career at Alliant

A career in social work may be the right fit if you’re looking for a profession that lets you help individuals overcome mental health struggles and other social welfare challenges. Social workers focus on connecting those in need with resources that can help enhance their lives. They also work to improve cultural and societal systems at the root of problems, like homelessness, poverty, and substance abuse.

If you’re ready to embark on your career as a social worker, Alliant International University can help.

Our online master’s degree in social work meets California’s requirements for licensure and adheres to the standards set by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). With Alliant, you can access world-class education no matter where you live and start on the path to becoming a social worker in California.

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  1. “Clinical vs. Non-Clinical Social Work.” Institute for Clinical Social Work. October 19, 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023. 
  2. “What is clinical social work?” American Board of Clinical Social Work. 2022. Accessed May 12, 2023. 
  3. “Licensed Clinical Social Worker.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023. 
  4. “Licensed Clinical Social Worker.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023.  
  5. “Guide to Lcsw Out-Of-State Applicant Requirements.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  6. “Licensed Clinical Social Worker.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023. 
  7. “Licensed Clinical Social Worker.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  8. “California Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) License.” National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter. Accessed May 12, 2023. 
  9. “Credentials.” National Association of Social Workers. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  10. “Manage license/registration.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023.
  11. Guide to Lcsw Out-Of-State Applicant Requirements.” Board of Behavioral Sciences. Accessed May 12, 2023.

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