How to Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) is a process comprised of three important steps. First, you should graduate from a CSWE-accredited MSW program. Second, you may need to complete clinical social work licensing and examination requirements in your state. And lastly, you should apply for a LCSW licensure in your state of practice.

Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires you to:

  1. Complete a CSWE-Accredited MSW Program
  2. Complete LCSW Licensing and Examination Requirements
  3. Apply for LCSW State Licensure

If you are not sure what a licensed clinical social worker is, what they do, or how much they make, check out our LCSW FAQ at the bottom of this guide.

1. Complete a CSWE-Accredited MSW Program

There are three educational pathways to become a LCSW:

  • Non-Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) Pathway: Complete a traditional MSW program that typically takes two to four years depending on whether a student attends full-time or part-time.
    If you are looking for an online MSW, review our complete list of Masters of Social Work programs.
  • Bachelor of Social Work Pathway: If a BSW degree program was completed in the last five to eight years (depending on the program), BSW students are able to complete an advanced standing MSW program that typically takes one to two and a half years.

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2. 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 specific requirements for clinical social work licensure. It's important to check/confirm the requirements in the state in which you intend to practice. In general, a Master of Social Work (MSW) from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is required to become a LCSW in all 50 states.

Future LCSWs should note that earning this designation typically requires a CSWE accredited MSW program, a passing score on a state determined licensure exam, and hours of professional experience. Current LCSWs who move to a different state may have to complete additional requirements in order to transfer their license.

Students who are interested in becoming LCSWs should make sure the graduate social work program and concentration that they choose meet the licensing requirements for their state of residence.

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3. Apply for LCSW State Licensure

Licensure depends on your state of residence and the board specific licensing requirements. The entire process to become an LCSW requires a considerable commitment post-graduation; completing an MSW program is just the beginning.

LCSW Licensing Requirements by State

The following states are used for example purposes only to demonstrate how licensing requirements vary by state.

Disclosure: California and New York state requirements for social work licensure were retrieved as of 3/30/2020. Make sure to double-check the requirements with the state along with the program you are currently enrolled in or wish to enroll in.

How to Become an LCSW in California - Board of Behavioral Services

  1. Complete an MSW and additional coursework such as child abuse assessment, human sexuality, and spousal/partner abuse.
  2. Register as an Association Clinical Social Worker (ACSW).
  3. Take and pass the California Law & Ethics exam.
  4. Complete a live scan and pass a criminal background check
  5. Complete 3,000 supervised hours of social work over 104 weeks.
  6. Apply for and pass Association of Social Work Boards clinical exam.
  7. Become a LCSW in California.

Earn your Master of Social Work and prepare for the LCSW/LMSW licensing exam. Complete in as little as 12 months with a BSW. Learn more information directly from MSW@USC.


How to Become an LCSW in New York - Office of the Professions

  1. Complete recognized MSW program.
  2. Complete coursework/training in the identification and reporting of child abuse.
  3. Apply for and pass the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) examination.
  4. Become a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).
  5. Complete at least three years of supervised experience.
  6. Apply for and become a LCSW in New York.

Earn your Master of Social Work online from the top-ranked Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Learn more information directly from


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

Note: 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).

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The Next Step

We’re hoping that the path to become a LCSW is now clear to you. If you’re ready to explore your options for a MSW program, what better than choosing an program with a clinical social work concentration?

Licensed Clinical Social Worker FAQ

What is a LCSW?

Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW) are master’s level professionals that 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.

What does a Licensed Clinical Social Worker do?

Being a LCSW means working in a unique field that combines mental and emotional disorder development knowledge and treatment planning with an understanding of socioeconomic, cultural, and familial impacts on an individual’s wellbeing. Often, LCSWs will work with other medical and mental health professionals to provide holistic care and support to clients and their families.

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

Clinical social workers may engage in assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental, behavioral, and emotional concerns. Through individual and group therapy, clinical social workers work with clients in private practice, community mental health, primary care and more.

On the other hand, social workers may identify needs of individuals and communities, help clients adjust to changes/challenges in their lives, and advocate for change or awareness on the local, state, and national level.

While clinical social workers can develop plans and create assessments for clients with mental, behavioral, and/or emotional concerns, other social workers help address coping with challenges or change in life situations.

What is the average salary for LCSWs?

The average salary for licensed clinical social workers could depend on where they work, both local/state and type of field. Some LCSWs may pursue independent work as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2018, the median salary for social workers is as follows:

  • Healthcare Social Workers: $56,200
  • Child, Family, and School Social Workers: $46,270
  • Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers: $44,840
  • All Other Social Workers: $63,140

Dependent on state funding, private practice, and type of social work, LCSWs may earn between these ranges. You can learn more about top paying industries for social workers with our Social Work Salary Guide.

Other resource for becoming a LCSW: Guide to Online Social Work Degrees

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