How to Become a Counselor

Counseling licensure ensures counselors have adequate training to provide ethical and effective clinical services. Licensure varies by state and counseling type, including the five most common: clinical professional counseling, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and addiction counseling.

Table of Contents

Counseling Licensure Requirements by State
What Is Counseling?
Counseling Licenses and Requirements by Area
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Rehabilitation Counselor
School Counselor
Substance Abuse Counselor
Steps for Becoming a Counselor
Maintaining Your License and Continuing Education
Counseling License Reciprocity
Additional Resources
Frequently Asked Questions

Counseling Licensure Requirements by State

Requirements for licensed counselors and therapists vary by state. Click on your state in the list below for in-depth information on the steps to becoming a counselor and state-specific licensing requirements for the five major counseling areas.

What Is Counseling?

Counselors aid clients in overcoming challenges to achieve mental health and overall wellness. Counselors typically specialize in specific areas to better address diverse client needs.

Counseling Licenses and Requirements by Area

Because the types of clients they serve have different needs, counselors typically choose an area of counseling to specialize in and then apply for a license to practice counseling in that specific category. This ensures that the education and experience a licensed counselor earns properly qualifies them to serve their target population. Following are the five major counseling areas:

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

The commonly used terms for a marriage counseling license are Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist (LCMFT), and Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor (LMFC). Marriage and family therapists focus on helping clients improve their relationships with others, whether on an individual, family, or larger group level.

To become a marriage and family therapist, you will need to earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field with targeted coursework. In most states, you will also need to complete supervised work experience and pass a professional exam to receive your license. A license is generally required to work as a marriage counselor, though there may be exceptions for religious counseling.

Licensed Mental Health Counselor

The official terminology for a licensed counselor varies by state; common titles for professional counselors include Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), and Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). Whichever title is used, the job of a mental health counselor is to help clients overcome mental health struggles and improve their overall mental well-being.

To become a mental health counselor, you will need to earn a master’s degree in counseling and complete supervised work experience (a year or more in most states). In all states, you must pass at least one professional exam. Counseling licensure is generally required to work as a mental health counselor in a clinical setting, though requirements vary by state.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Rehabilitation counselors work with individuals living with disabilities or mobility challenges. Rehabilitation counseling in this context focuses on helping clients build the skills necessary to live a fulfilled life within their abilities. This can include physical therapy, adaptive technology, and behavioral counseling. When rehabilitation is focused on adapting to an injury related to work, it is known as vocational rehabilitation.

The steps to become a rehabilitation counselor vary by state. In some states, you will need a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. In others, you may be able to work in this field with an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some states also have separate guidelines for vocational rehabilitation therapy.

School Counselor

In all states, public school counselors must be licensed or certified. Some states issue school counseling licenses and others issue school counseling certificates. Depending on the school and district expectations, school counselors may be responsible for career counseling, academic counseling, or mental health counseling for students.
School counselors must earn a master’s degree in school counseling. To become a school counselor, candidates will also need to pass their state’s exams for this type of license and typically must complete at least one formal internship in a school setting during or after the master’s program.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors, help clients cope with addictions to substances such as drugs and alcohol. Addiction counseling can take place one-on-one or in group settings; it is common for substance abuse counselors to lead both types of counseling sessions in their day-to-day work.

Counseling certifications and licensing requirements for addiction counselors vary widely based on the setting of care and the state. As a result, the substance abuse counseling degree you will need to become a substance abuse counselor will depend on your location and career goals. You can learn more details specific to your state.

Steps for Becoming a Counselor

Although the exact steps to earn a license to practice counseling will differ based on your background and your state’s counseling licensure requirements, the guide below covers the general steps to become a licensed counselor.

1. Learn about the counseling field before making a decision.

Volunteering or interning in the field during your undergraduate studies can help you understand what it takes to be a professional counselor.

2. Earn a master’s in your chosen counseling practice area.

Each counseling license type typically requires a master’s degree in that specific counseling focus area, with some exceptions. You should check requirements in your state for the type of counseling you are pursuing.

Finding a counseling program with proper accreditation is important for several reasons. As you research schools with counseling graduate programs, take note of the different accreditations schools hold and which ones are required for licensure in your state. These include national accreditation as well as voluntary programmatic accreditation. You can learn more about what to look for in a counseling program on our schools page.

3. Get the most out of your education.

Take whatever opportunities you can to learn what interests you.

Professional counseling is a broad field, and, due to the depth of knowledge required to treat specific concerns and diagnoses, many counselors specialize in areas such as grief counseling or art therapy. To help you decide which area of counseling is the right fit for your abilities and interests, take a variety of courses and participate in extracurricular clubs, job shadowing, and research opportunities.

Remember that professional networking starts while you are still in school!

It is very common for states to require counseling license applicants to provide professional references related to their education and experience. This makes it important for you to cultivate positive relationships with your professors and with your internship or work experience supervisors while you are in school.

Start your job search early.

If you want a job immediately following graduation, it’s best to start applying for positions once you have an expected graduation date. Your school’s career center can be an invaluable resource for the job search.

4. Meet on-the-job training and work experience requirements for licensure.

In most states, you must complete at least one clinical internship during your master’s program to qualify for licensure. States that only require applicants to complete work experience during their master’s program follow a one-tier or single-tier licensure process.

Most states, however, follow a two-tier licensing process. In this model, you will complete your master’s program and a semester (or more) of internship or work experience. Following graduation, you will need to apply for an introductory license in your practice area (in some cases) while you earn a certain amount of work experience under supervision. After gaining this experience and meeting other requirements, you will be eligible to apply for your full license.

5. Pass the appropriate exam(s).

In all states, licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and school counselors must pass a qualifying professional exam to become licensed, with few exceptions. In some states, licensed substance abuse counselors and rehabilitation counselors may need to pass an exam, though this varies widely by state and level of practice. No matter which type of counseling license you pursue, be sure to check with the appropriate state licensing board for up-to-date and detailed information on which exams to take.

To become a mental health counselor, candidates commonly take the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE), both offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC).

To become a marriage and family therapist (MFT), the qualifying exam for a license in many states is the MFT National Examination, which is backed by the Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB). Other states, such as California, have developed their own qualifying exams for MFTs.

For school counselors, the qualifying exam for licensure will typically be the Praxis tests for professional school counselors, although some states, such as Texas and Ohio, have developed different exams to earn a school counselor license. Similarly, if you wish to become a substance abuse or rehabilitation counselor, you will likely need to pass different exams according to your state’s specific laws.

Several states also have an ethics exam that prospective counselors and therapists must pass or have ethics coursework requirements. In other states, the licensure exam may have an ethics component. This type of test usually centers on appropriate behavior for professionals in a position of trust, such as counselors, who work with potentially vulnerable clients. It may also include questions specific to the state’s laws and regulations.

6. Get hired as a counselor!

Once you graduate from your master’s degree program and earn your counseling license, there’s still one more step: land your dream counseling job! Approaching graduates are commonly advised to begin applying for positions at least six months before their expected graduation date to maximize their chances of starting a job soon after commencement.

Maintaining Your Counseling License and Continuing Education

Congratulations–you’ve graduated from school, earned your counseling license, and landed a counseling position! Your education isn’t over yet, though. Most states require licensed counselors to complete continuing education (CE) or continuing professional education (CPE) during each license renewal period (typically every two to three years). Continuing education can be earned in a variety of formats: online, through research projects, in formal college-based courses (as a teacher or as a student), or in small groups from recognized providers. Check with your state board for specific information on the CE requirements that apply to your license.

Counseling License Reciprocity

License reciprocity, sometimes called license portability, refers to the process and conditions whereby a licensed counselor in one state seeks the same type of licensure in another state. Please refer to our reciprocity guide for details by counseling area and state.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I qualify for a counseling license with an online master’s in counseling?

As long as the program meets state requirements, an online master’s in counseling can be a great choice. However, you should be aware that while classes may be offered online, in order to satisfy state licensure requirements, your program will typically include in-person internships and/or supervised work experience. You may be able to complete this requirement in your local area if your school is located out of state. Check with your state licensing board for further information.

Can you offer counseling without a license?

In most states and circumstances, the terms “counseling” and “counselor” are protected, meaning that they are limited by law to those who are licensed to practice counseling or who meet an exception. Common exceptions are pastoral or religious counseling and 12 Step-based counseling. However, because you may be subject to serious legal consequences if you practice counseling without a license, you should check with your state’s licensing board and other counseling organizations to ensure you meet the minimum requirements.

What are the different counseling licenses?

The counseling licenses available to you will vary according to the state where you are seeking to work. However, most states offer counseling licenses in professional counseling (such as Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)), marriage and family therapy (such as Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)), school counseling (such as Licensed School Counselor (LSC)), rehabilitation counselors, and substance abuse (such as Licensed Substance Abuse Counselor (LSAC)). There are also licenses for genetic counselors and art therapists in some states.

Can you transfer your counseling license to another state?

Although few states allow direct transfer of a counseling license from one state to another, most states have some type of formal pathway that recognizes the qualifications of a counselor who has already been licensed. This process allows previously licensed counselors to avoid having to repeat work experience or retake the professional licensure exam to gain a license in a new state.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/marriage-and-family-therapists.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, School and Career Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Community-and-Social-Service/School-and-career-counselors.htm