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California Counseling License Requirements

As the most populous state in the US, California is also one of the top states to find employment as a counselor. Over 100,000 professionals work within the major counseling occupational groups in California.1-5 If you are planning to pursue a career as a counselor in California, you’ll need to know how the state licenses and regulates the different practice areas within counseling. Below you will find details on the process to becoming licensed as a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), as well as information on other counseling licensure paths in California with links to further information.

Table of Contents
How to Become a Counselor in California
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) Licensing Process
Additional Counseling Careers and Licenses in California
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
School Counselor
Substance Use Disorder Counselor
Other Professional Counseling Careers
California Counseling Career and Salary Information
Counseling Associations in California
Frequently Asked Questions

How to Become a Counselor in California

California requires that most types of professional counselors in the state earn a master’s degree that meets requirements for the practice area pursued. For some licenses, prospective counselors must also meet experience and testing requirements.

1. Decide which area of counseling to pursue.

The first step is to decide which area of counseling to pursue. The pathway you take to a career as a counselor will vary depending on the type of counseling you wish to practice. Knowing which type of counseling you want to pursue is important because both the type of degree and the focus of the degree required to earn licensure differ from practice area to practice area.

2. Earn the degree(s) required for your counseling practice area.

For most types of counselor’s licenses in California, you will need at least a master’s degree to become licensed. Professional counselors must have a master’s degree in counseling or psychotherapy; marriage and family therapists must have a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy; and school counselors must have a master’s degree in school counseling or a closely related area. Substance abuse counselors are not required to have a college degree, though having at least a bachelor’s degree can provide an edge.

3. Get licensed to practice counseling in California.

Once you have earned the appropriate degree for the type of counseling you wish to provide, the final step is becoming licensed by the appropriate California licensing board. Professional counselors and marriage and family therapists are licensed by the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, while school counselors are licensed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and substance abuse counselors are licensed by the California Department of Health Care Services. Continue reading to learn more about the steps to licensure in each of these categories.

Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) Licensing Process

In California, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCCs) are overseen by the Board of Behavioral Sciences. Licensed professional counselors in California must have a master’s degree in counseling or psychotherapy with a minimum of 60 credit hours, including specific coursework requirements. If located in California, the program should be on the Board’s list of evaluated programs found to meet requirements. An LPCC is able to practice general counseling, including psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic interventions within the scope of practice of counselors (some interventions and diagnoses may only be performed by licensed psychologists). If you would like to know more about what professional counselors do, you can read our mental health counselor career guide.

1. Register as an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor (APCC).

The first step is to register as a California Associate Professional Clinical Counselor (APCC). You must be registered as an APCC before you can begin accruing the supervised experience required to become an LPCC. The Board provides separate applications for in-state and out-of-state applicants. The registration fee is $100 (as of May 2019). All APCC applicants must pass a fingerprint-based background check through the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. California residents should complete the Request for Live Scan Service form and bring it to a Live Scan facility. Out-of-state applicants must request a hard-copy fingerprint card from the Board and have it completed through an acceptable fingerprinting service or law enforcement agency. Processing and service fees may vary.

2. Pass the California Law and Ethics Exam.

APCCs must take the California Law and Ethics Exam, which is administered by PSI, at least once during each renewal cycle of their APCC registration until they pass the exam. If they do not pass it during the renewal cycle, they can still renew their registration, but they must take an approved 12-hour course in California law and ethics before retaking the exam during the next registration period. Links to the exam application as well as a candidate handbook and other helpful materials are available on the BBS website.

3. Accrue supervised experience.

Prospective licensed clinical counselors in California must earn 3,000 hours of supervised experience over a period of no less than two years (104 weeks) and no more than six years. In order for the experience to qualify, it must be supervised by an individual who holds an active professional license as a clinical counselor, marriage and family therapist, clinical social worker, psychologist, or physician/surgeon. See the Board’s Frequently Asked Questions for further information on qualifying hours and requirements.

4. Apply for LPCC licensure and permission to test.

Once all of the previous steps have been completed, California residents should submit the In-State Application for LPCC Licensure. An Out-of-State Application is provided for those who do not have California residency. The LPCC application fee is $180 (as of May 2019). Applicants who meet all requirements will be given approval to take the licensing exam.

5. Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE).

Once you receive the approval letter from the Board, you may apply to take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). This exam is designed by the National Board for Certified Counselors and proctored by Pearson VUE. The computer-based exam uses 10 case simulations designed to assess clinical knowledge. Candidates who do not pass may apply to retake the exam after a 90-day waiting period.

6. Receive your LPCC license.

The last step to become an LPCC in California is to submit the Request Initial License form to the Board along with the $200 initial license fee. Once you receive your official LPCC license, you may begin practicing independently.

Professional Counselor Licensure by Reciprocity in California

California does not offer licensed clinical counselor reciprocity for those who are licensed in other states. However, clinical counselors who are licensed in another state may apply for licensure in California if they meet equivalent licensing requirements. Applicants must also take an 18-clock hour or three-semester hour course (depending on degree transcripts) on California law and ethics and pass the California Law and Ethics exam.

Counselor Licensing Renewal and Continuing Education Information

LPCCs must complete 36 clock hours of continuing education (CE) and renew their license every two years. However, during the first renewal period after receiving a license, licensees need only complete 18 CE hours. These hours must include seven hours of HIV/AIDs courses, six hours of law and ethics, and, in the case of licensees recognized to provide couples and family counseling, six hours in marriage and family therapy. The Board encourages licensees to renew online.

Additional Counseling Careers and Licenses in California

The steps to earning a counseling license in California will vary according to which type of counseling you wish to practice. In addition to LPCCs, the major areas of counseling licensed in California are marriage and family therapists, school counselors, and substance abuse counselors.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) in California are licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences. LMFTs work with individuals, couples, and groups to examine interpersonal relationships and develop skills and tactics to build and maintain satisfying relationships with others. Applicants for licensure as a marriage and family therapist in California must have at least a master’s degree (60 semester hours) in marriage and family therapy or a closely related field that has an emphasis on marriage and family therapy. The LMFT licensure process requires candidates to:

  • Register as an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT).
  • Pass the California Law and Ethics Exam and earn supervised experience.
  • Apply for LMFT licensure and permission to take the LMFT Clinical Exam (LMCE).
  • Request and receive your LMFT license.

To learn more about licensed marriage and family therapist careers, visit our LMFT career guide.

School Counselor

School counselors, who provide counseling, social development, and other guidance services to students in K-12 settings, must be licensed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC). The first step towards becoming a school counselor in California is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than professional education. Earning an undergraduate degree in counseling or psychology can be a good foundation for this career, especially since the next step is earning a graduate degree in school counseling. Next, prospective school counselors must earn a master’s in school counseling that includes a supervised field experience with school-aged children and consists of at least 48 semester hours. The basic licensing process for school counselors in California is:

  • Satisfy the basic skills requirement.
  • Apply for a public school service credential.
  • Complete a background check and pay the license processing fee.
  • Receive your license.

Read more about this pathway on our school counseling career guide.

Substance Use Disorder Counselor

Substance abuse counselors in California are not required to be licensed, but must be certified by an organization recognized by the Substance Use Disorder Compliance Division (SUDCD) of the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS). To provide substance abuse counseling in California, you must have at least a high school diploma or GED. However, you may find greater opportunities for employment with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. If you later decide to pursue professional counseling, this will also prepare you to earn the required master’s degree. In general, the substance used disorder counselor certification process in California is as follows:

  • Register with a DHCS-recognized organization.
  • Begin working as a substance use disorder counselor.
  • Earn certification from the recognized organization within five years of registering.
  • Be sure to maintain certification for as long as you are working as a substance abuse counselor in California.

Other Substance Abuse Counseling Credentials Offered in California

  • Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor (CATC)
  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor I (CADC-I)
  • Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor II (CADC-II)
  • Certified Clinical Supervisor (CCS)
  • Certified Co-occurring Disorder Professional (CCDP)
  • Certified Criminal Justice Professional (CCJP)
  • Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (CPRS)
  • Certified Recovery Program Manager (CRPM)
  • California Certified Prevention Specialist (CPS)
  • Intervention Specialist (IS)
  • Licensed Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselor (LAADC)
  • Licensed Advanced Alcohol Drug Counselor Supervisor (LAADC-S)
  • Medication Assisted Treatment Specialist (MATS)
  • Registered Alcohol Drug Technician (RADT)
  • Sober Living Specialist (SLS)
  • Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC)
  • Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC II)
  • Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC III)
  • Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor Clinical Supervisor (SUDCC III-CS)
  • Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC IV)
  • Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor Clinical Supervisor (SUDCC IV-CS)
  • Women’s Treatment Specialist (WTS)

Read more about substance abuse counselors and what they do on our substance abuse counseling career guide.

Other Professional Counseling Careers

Counseling is a broad field with many subfields and disciplines. In addition to the larger fields of professional counseling, family and marriage therapy, and school counseling, you may be interested in the following careers:

  • Rehabilitation Counselor
  • Gambling Counselor
  • Genetic Counselor
  • Youth Counselor
  • Guidance Counselor
  • Pastoral Counselor
  • Recreational Therapist

California Counseling Career and Salary Information

More professional counselors of all types (105,310) work in California than in any other state.1-5 Most counselors in California work in the area of educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors (32,400), followed by substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors (31,270).3,1 California educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors are among the highest-paid in the US, with an annual mean wage of $74,530.3

The employment outlook for counselors in California is promising. Through 2026, the average rate of growth for all types of counselors in California is predicted at 17.3%.6 The fastest growth is predicted for marriage and family therapists (23.5%), followed by substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors (19%).6 This indicates that those interested in counseling careers in California can expect new positions to be opening across the next several years.

OccupationNumber EmployedAverage Annual Salary
Counselors, All Other4,450$56,500
Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors32,400$74,530
Marriage and Family Therapists21,920$51,950
Rehabilitation Counselors15,270$37,250
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors31,270$50,950

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1-5

Counseling Associations in California

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there counseling careers without a degree in California?

Most professional counseling licenses in California require candidates to hold at least a master’s degree. However, for substance abuse counseling, you are only required to have a high school diploma plus certification from one of the organizations recognized by the California Department of Healthcare Services.

How much do professional counselors make in California?

California counselor salaries vary according to many factors, including the practice area, education, experience, and work setting. Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors in the state, a category which includes licensed professional counselors, earned a mean wage of $50,950 in 2018.1 Marriage and family therapists earned a mean wage of $51,950 in the state during the same time period.2

Can I become a counselor in California with an online degree?

It is possible to become a licensed counselor in California with an online degree. An important step when evaluating programs is to ensure that the program you choose is approved by the appropriate California licensing board for the license you intend to seek. As long as the program is approved and accredited, attending classes online can be a great way to make progress towards your career goals.

How do I become a certified substance abuse counselor in California?

Unlike some other states, California does not license substance abuse counselors, although those who are interested in professional careers in substance abuse may follow the LPCC licensure path and become professional counselors with a specialty in substance abuse. However, although they are not required to be licensed, substance abuse counselors in California must achieve certification through a body recognized by the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) and maintain that certification for as long as they are working.

How much do marriage and family therapists make in California?

The average salary for marriage and family therapists in California is $51,950 per year, which is slightly below the national average of $54,150 per year.2 As with other licensed professions, the industry and work setting can impact pay: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top-paying industries for marriage and family therapists nationally are state governments and general medical and surgical hospitals.2

How do I become a high school counselor in California?

To become a counselor in a public high school in California, you will need to earn your master’s degree in school counseling and apply for licensure (the Pupil Personnel Services credential) through the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC). Note that private schools and non-public after-school programs may have different requirements.

What is a California high school counselor salary?

In California, high school counselors, or guidance counselors, are included in the educational, guidance, school, and vocational counseling category by the BLS, which reports an average annual salary of $74,530 per year.3 Compared to the national average reported in this category, of $60,160 per year, California counselors tend to earn more than those in other states.3

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211018.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211013.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Educational, Guidance, School, and Vocational Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211012.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Rehabilitation Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211015.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Counselors, All Other: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211019.htm
6. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections 2016-2026: https://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm