What to Know About Social Work Licensing

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Licensure is an essential component of social work practice.

Social workers enter the profession to help people from all backgrounds overcome adversity by providing access to critical services, resources, and counseling. An essential component to practice as a social worker is earning a license, which provides formal recognition that the licensee meets the qualifications for safe and professional practice.

The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) said social work licensing benefits clients, the public, and social workers themselves. As a regulatory tool, licensure can be used to protect clients and the public from unsafe or poorly trained providers. Many employers will only hire licensed social workers, and most health insurance providers will only reimburse licensed providers. For social workers, licensure provides a level of respect and credibility over those in the profession who are not licensed.

“The public would not seek services from an unlicensed doctor, nurse, dentist, or attorney, nor would you. What more and more social workers are finding is that licensing is simply a good idea,” social worker Mary Jo Monahan said in Social Work Today.

Licensure is imperative for anyone aiming for a career in social work, but the road to getting licensed remains a mystery for some. Ohio social work licensing, as well as social work licensing across the United States, begins with earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Many students opt for an online master’s in social work degree to launch their professional careers.

Steps to Social Work Licensing in Ohio and Other States

For anyone seeking an advanced career in social work, several undertakings come before licensure, including:

  1. Earning a bachelor’s degree: A bachelor’s degree is the minimum education requirement to begin a career in social work. The leading graduate schools only accept students who earn bachelor’s degrees from accredited universities. Ohio University provides a path forward for both students who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) and students who received other types of bachelor’s degrees but are changing careers.
  2. Earning a master’s degree in social work: An MSW is vital to working in many social work settings, including child welfare, mental health, aging, health care, and chemical dependency. For state licensure, applicants are typically required to have graduated from a master’s program. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said an MSW prepares graduates by developing their clinical assessment and management skills. Most MSW programs also require supervised practicum work or internships. At Ohio University, MSW students put their classroom learning into practice by participating in immersive field practicums. Through the fieldwork, MSW students earn real-world working experience under the direction of social work professionals.
  3. Earning a Social Worker License: Most states require MSW graduates to have a minimum of two years post-master’s supervised clinical experience to become a licensed clinical social worker. Some states require up to five years of supervised experience.

The first step to earning licensure is to apply for a license in one’s state of practice. The state licensure board must verify the applicant’s credentials, such as the degree conferred and the post-master’s supervised experience. After the information is confirmed, the applicant can register with the ASWB to sit for board testing. The tests are administered via computer at testing centers, and the unofficial results are available immediately. Social workers who successfully complete the licensure testing and supervised clinical experience requirements receive their license in the mail. Many states require social workers to renew their licenses and take continuing education classes periodically, depending on local laws.

Licensure Testing for Social Workers

The ASWB developed the licensure exam to measure the minimum competency acceptable for practice. The test is presented in a way that is fair and consistent to all test takers, the ASWB said. Test questions were written by a diverse group of practicing social workers and are intended to measure practice skills, ability, and knowledge.

The ASWB exams are offered in four categories — bachelor’s, master’s, advanced generalist, and clinical. Each test consists of 170 multiple-choice questions, but only 150 are scored. The remaining 20 questions are used for possible inclusion in future exams. Test-takers have four hours to complete the exam.

Since there is no nationwide system of license reciprocity, social workers are required to earn a license for each state where they plan to work. Some states do allow licensees to transfer their ASWB exam scores. Other requirements, including letters of reference, state-specific coursework, and additional clinical supervision hours, are dependent on state laws. To earn Ohio social work licensing, masters-level students work as social work trainees (SWTs), which provides necessary field education.

At Ohio University, students who earn an online master’s in social work graduate with skills in advanced clinical practice that are transferable across all practice levels. Graduates are well prepared to work in rural environments to help individuals, families, and communities.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work (MSW) Program

Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program provides a competency-based education that focuses on ethical and professional practice to advance human rights and social justice. The thought-provoking coursework stimulates critical thinking and reasoning, and the field practicums provide direct social work experience.

Ohio University’s MSW program is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and meets the national standards in curriculum. The university is also accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, one of the leading accreditation agencies in the United States. Apply today!

Additional Reading

Why Earn an MSW Online
Steps for Becoming a Social Worker
List of Careers in Social Work: 4 Prevailing Specialties


ASWB, About licensing and regulation
Social Worker Success, To License or Not: 11 Insightful Social Workers Weigh In
Social Work Today, Get Licensed, Live Licensed — Next Steps for New Social Work Graduates
Bureau of Labor Statistics, How to become a social worker
ASWB, About the Exams