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 ethically offer clinical counseling services. Counseling licensure can be confusing because not all types of counselors are required to be licensed in all states. For example, many states exempt religious counselors and life coaches from license requirements. However, as a general rule, counselors must be licensed if offering services in a clinical setting (where direct patient or client care takes place, such as in a hospital or primary care office).

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 by state, and there are many types of counseling certifications. 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?

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 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 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 and prepares them for the types of counseling certification(s) required for their role.

While the subspecialties within counseling are numerous, they can generally be divided into five main counseling specialties, which align with the five major types of counseling licenses available 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 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, also known as marriage counselors, 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. Certification may also be required for some counseling roles.

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 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. In combination or alongside other duties, school counselors may also facilitate 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. 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 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 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 determine the type of license you qualify for. Therefore, those who want to become licensed professional counselors 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 school counselors 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 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 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 becoming a professional counselor is to volunteer or intern in the field during your undergraduate studies. This can help you understand 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.

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 license unless they also complete a master’s in professional counseling or have taken 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. Rehabilitation counselors and addiction counselors, however, may be able to work without a master’s degree.

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 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 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 participate in 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 and with your internship or work experience supervisors while you are in school.

3. 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. You can then secure a job offer with a future start date contingent on your graduation and completion of 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 often ask professors for recommendations of graduates to fill an open role​​, so speak with your professors about job opportunities.

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 as a professional counselor, marriage and family therapist, addiction counselor, rehabilitation counselor, or school counselor. 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 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 (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 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 offer licensure by endorsement which allows those who have earned an equivalent license in another state to apply for streamlined licensure without repeating licensure steps. In addition, a growing number of states are joining the Counseling Compact, which allows for the portability of licensed professional counseling (LPC) licenses.

Reciprocity does not mean, however, that you can automatically begin practicing counseling in a new state. Typically, you must apply for formal licensure through a reciprocity agreement or by endorsement. For example, 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 your state board’s website.

Additional Resources

  • Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB) Your National Exam Roadmap: Provides information on the MFT National Examination, a common requirement for marriage and family counselor licensure.
  • Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) Exam Overview: Includes information about the CRC Exam, which is recognized in many states for the licensure of rehabilitation counselors.
  • ETS Praxis Tests for School Counselors: Provides information and preparation materials for the Praxis for school counseling, a requirement for school counselors in many states.
  • National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) Examination Processes and Procedures: 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).
  • 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 differs in some cases from other types of counseling: licensed professional counselors can diagnose and treat mental disorders in some states and at some license levels. Due to this increased 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 share some common ground. Typically, you must:

    • Earn a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.
    • 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?

    Altogether, the process for earning your school counselor license can take anywhere from five to eight years. After earning your undergraduate degree, which typically takes four years, you must 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.

    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 and by the responsibilities of the substance abuse counselor. 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 requirements to become a substance abuse counselor.

    Where do substance abuse counselors work?

    Substance abuse counselors work in various settings, from social service centers to volunteer-run organizations such as churches and 12 Step programs. They work in state and federal government facilities, 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 be licensed, whereas a substance abuse counselor working in a federal facility may need 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 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