How to Become a Counselor

The licensing of counselors protects the public by helping to ensure that counselors have the appropriate training and education to offer clinical counseling services in an ethical manner. Counseling licensure can be confusing because not all types of counselors are required to have a license in all states. For example, many states exempt religious counselors and life coaches from license requirements. However, as a general rule, those who are offering counseling services in a clinical setting (that is, where direct patient or client care takes place, such as in a hospital or primary care office) must be licensed. In addition, a counselor must typically have a license appropriate to the specific type of counseling service they offer, such as clinical professional counseling, marriage and family therapy, school counseling, or addiction counseling. On this page, you will find further information on how to become a licensed counselor, rehabilitation counselor, school counselor, substance abuse counselor, or marriage and family therapist.

Table of Contents
Counseling Licensure Requirements by State
What Is Counseling?
Counseling License Requirements and Types
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Licensed Mental Health Counselor Counselor
Rehabilitation Counselor
School Counselor
Substance Abuse Counselor
Educational Requirements for Counseling Licensure
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 from state to state, and there are many types of counseling certifications. Click on your state in the list below to find in-depth information on the steps to become a counselor and state-specific licensing requirements for the five major counseling areas covered below.

What Is Counseling?

Counseling is a relationship formed between a professional counselor and one or more clients who are facing challenges with the goal of overcoming those challenges and achieving a higher level of mental health and overall wellness. People from all backgrounds will encounter obstacles at different times in their lives, and these obstacles can be diverse. For this reason, counselors tend to choose practice areas that focus on specific types of counseling.

Counseling License Requirements and Types

Because the types of clients they serve have different needs, counselors typically must choose an area of counseling in which to specialize and then apply for a license to practice counseling in that specific category. This ensures that the education and experience a licensed counselor earns is in-depth enough to serve a target population and prepares them for the types of counseling certification(s) specific to that focus area. While the subspecialties within counseling are numerous, they can generally be divided into five main areas, which also align with the five major types of counseling licenses that exist in most states: Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Rehabilitation Counselor, School Counselor, and Substance Abuse Counselor. The sections below provide more information on the commonalities and differences between these types of counseling certifications.

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, who are also known as marriage counselors, focus on helping clients improve their relationships with others, whether that be 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 in order to receive your license. A license is generally required in order 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 may vary from state to 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 issues and improve their mental well-being overall.

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 also pass at least one professional exam. Counseling certification or licensure is generally required in order to work as a mental health counselor in a clinical setting, though counseling licensure requirements by state can vary.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Rehabilitation counselors work with individuals who are facing disabilities or mobility challenges. Rehabilitation counseling in this context focuses on helping clients build the skills necessary to live a fulfilled life in light of their challenges. 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 counseling. In others, you may be able to work in this field with an associate’s 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. Depending on the school and district expectations, school counselors may be responsible for career counseling, academic counseling, or mental health counseling for students–or a combination of all of these duties as well as others, such as group work with students facing a common challenge like the death of a classmate.

One major difference between school counselors and classroom teachers is that school counselors must earn a master’s degree specifically in school counseling, as opposed to a bachelor’s degree alone. 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 at the master’s level.

Substance Abuse Counselor

Substance abuse counselors, also known as addiction counselors, help clients overcome 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 education you will need to become a substance abuse counselor will depend on your location and career goals.

Educational Requirements for Counseling Licensure

While each state sets its own licensure requirements for marriage and family therapists and professional counselors of all types, the general education requirements are largely the same from state to state. First, prospective counselors must earn a bachelor’s degree. Few schools offer undergraduate majors in counseling, but popular related majors include psychology, sociology, social work, human services, and health science.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to choose a master’s program. The type of program you choose will be determined by the type of license you seek. Those who want to become a licensed professional counselor will need to complete a master’s program in professional counseling, whereas those interested in earning a marriage counseling license will usually need to complete a master’s in marriage and family therapy. Similarly, those who wish to become a school counselor will complete a master’s program in school counseling.

Note that in some states, you may be able to become a substance abuse counselor or a rehabilitation counselor with a bachelor’s degree or lower. Check your state’s requirements as you plan your next steps.

Steps for Becoming a Counselor

Although the exact steps you should expect to take to earn a license to practice counseling will differ based on your background and your state’s requirements (see our links to counseling licensure requirements by state), the guide below will walk you through the general steps to become a mental health counselor, licensed professional clinical counselor, marriage therapist, rehabilitation counselor, school counselor, or addiction counselor.

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

One of the best ways to learn more about what it takes to become a professional counselor is to volunteer or undertake an internship in the field during your undergraduate studies. This can help you develop an understanding of what it takes to be a professional counselor or marriage and family therapist, as well as help you hone in on the specialties that interest you. Knowing which area of counseling to pursue early on is particularly important since it will guide the type of master’s program you apply to.

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

As noted above, each counseling license type typically requires a master’s degree in that specific counseling focus area. For example, a person who earned a master’s in marriage and family therapy is generally eligible for a marital and family therapist license, but typically will not be eligible for a professional counseling certification unless he or she also completes a master’s in professional counseling or has completed a core of professional counseling courses. Similarly, if you wish to earn a school counselor license, it is critical that you complete a master’s degree in school counseling. As mentioned, rehabilitation counselors and addiction counselors may be able to work without a master’s degree.

As you research schools with counseling graduate programs, take note of the different accreditations that schools hold and that may be required in certain states for licensure. These include regional accreditation as well as voluntary national accreditation. You can learn more about what to look for in a counseling program on our schools page.

3. Get the most you can out of your education.

1. 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 take advantage of extracurricular clubs, job shadowing, and research opportunities.

2. 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 as well as your internship or work experience supervisors while you are in school.

3. Start your job search early. If you want to have a job when you graduate, it’s best to start applying for positions once you have an expected graduation date. You may then be able to secure a job offer with a future start date contingent on your graduating and completing the licensure process. Your school’s career center can be an invaluable resource for the job search. Additionally, recall that professional networking starts in school; counseling organizations that are hiring will often ask professors for recommendations, sometimes even before a job is made public.

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

In most states, you will need to complete at least one clinical internship during your master’s program to qualify for licensure as a licensed professional counselor, marriage and family therapist, addiction counselor, rehabilitation counselor, or school counselor. States that only require work experience earned during the master’s program follow what is known as a one-tier, or single-tier, licensure process.

Most states, however, follow a two-tier licensure 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 typically pass a qualifying professional exam in order 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 certification 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, 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 counselor or rehabilitation counselor you will likely need to pass different exams according to your state’s specific laws.

A number of states also have an ethics exam that prospective counselors and therapists must pass, and/or have ethics coursework requirements. In other states, there may be an ethics component to the licensure exam. This type of test usually centers on appropriate behavior for counselors and others in a position of trust with potentially vulnerable clients and may also include questions specific to a given 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 prior to their expected graduation date in order 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 school counselors, licensed professional clinical counselors, substance abuse and addiction counselors, rehabilitation counselors, and licensed marriage and family therapists to complete a certain amount of 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 ability of a professional licensed counselor, school counselor, marriage and family therapist, rehabilitation counselor, or licensed substance abuse counselor to transfer their license from one state to another. While there is no true reciprocal license in counseling, some states have reciprocity agreements in place, like Ohio and Kentucky, allowing for the transfer of licensure. Many states allow those who have earned an equivalent education in another state plus work experience to apply for streamlined licensure without repeating certain steps, such as testing, via licensure by endorsement. In addition, a growing number of states are joining the Counseling Compact, which applies specifically to the portability of LPC licenses.

This does not mean, however, that you can automatically begin practicing counseling in the new state. Typically, you must apply for formal licensure through a reciprocity agreement or by endorsement. In other words, if you have a license to practice counseling in Indiana, you cannot offer counseling services in North Dakota until you hold the appropriate North Dakota-issued license. Visit our Counseling License Reciprocity Guide for an overview of reciprocity pathways and state-by-state guidelines. You can find even more detailed information on counseling license reciprocity and licensure by endorsement on the appropriate state board website(s).

Additional Resources

  • National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC): The NBCC’s guide to licensure for professional counselors, including information about the National Counselor Examination (NCE) and the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
  • Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB): Provides information on the MFT National Examination, a common requirement for marriage and family counselor licensure.
  • ETS Praxis Test for Professional School Counselors: Provides information and preparation materials for the Praxis for professional school counseling, a requirement for school counselors in many states.
  • National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCC AP): Provides voluntary credentialing for substance abuse counselors at a variety of levels, which are recognized by numerous states for addiction counseling licensure.
  • Frequently Asked Questions

    What is a licensed professional counselor?

    A licensed professional counselor is a person who holds a license to practice mental health counseling in a clinical setting. Mental health counseling can touch on many areas but is generally distinguished from other types of counseling by its emphasis on mental and emotional well-being. The scope of practice for mental health counseling is also different in some cases from other types of counseling certifications: licensed professional counselors can, in some states and at some license levels, diagnose and treat mental disorders. Due to this position of responsibility, the requirements to become a mental health counselor are strict and involve earning at least a master’s degree.

    What are the steps to become a marriage and family therapist?

    Though the requirements for a marriage counseling license vary from state to state, the steps to become a licensed marriage and family therapist do share some common ground. Typically, you must:

    • Earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or a related field.
    • Complete a formal internship during your master’s program, followed by one to two years of post-graduate work under a provisional license (Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT) is a common title for this).
    • Once you meet experience requirements, apply for the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) credential (or your state’s equivalent).
    • Take and pass a professional exam (the AMFTB exam is common).
    • Begin working independently or as part of an organization as a licensed marriage and family therapist.

    How long does it take to become a counselor in public schools?

    After earning your undergraduate degree, which typically takes four years, you will need to complete a master’s degree in school counseling. This will take an additional one to three years, depending on your program and study schedule. After graduation, you will need to complete your state’s licensing process, which may take several months. Altogether, the process for earning your school counselor license can take anywhere from five to eight years.

    What do I need to do to become a substance abuse counselor?

    To become a substance abuse counselor, you may only need a high school diploma or equivalent plus some experience. However, this varies widely by state as well as by the circumstances and environment in which substance abuse will be discussed. For example, to become a licensed substance abuse counselor in Nevada, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree. Check with your state’s licensing body for substance abuse counselors for details on what you will need to do.

    Where do substance abuse counselors work?

    Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of settings, from social service centers to volunteer-run organizations such as churches and 12 Step programs. They can be found working in state and federal government facilities as well as in private hospitals and other healthcare centers. The requirements for substance abuse counselors can vary with the setting; for example, a 12 Step program leader might not need to have a license, whereas a substance abuse counselor working in a federal facility may need to have a master’s degree and a state-issued license.

    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 in order to plan your career and 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 by streamlining the licensure process. For example, you usually will not have to repeat work experience or retake the professional exam for your license in order 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