California Counseling License Requirements
As the most populous state in the US, California also has the highest employment levels for most types of counselors.1-4 Over 100,000 professionals work within the major counseling occupational groups in California as of May 2021.1-5 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 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 the requirements for the practice area pursued. There are many counseling programs in California that can prepare you for licensure. 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 (BBS), while school counselors are licensed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (the Commission), and substance abuse counselors are certified by one of three organizations approved by the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS). 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 (BBS). Licensed professional counselors in California must have a master’s or doctoral 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 BBS’s list of evaluated programs listed under “Schools with LPCC 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 an APCC. You must be registered as an APCC before you can begin accruing the supervised experience required to become an LPCC. The BBS provides separate applications for in-state and out-of-state applicants. The registration fee is $150 (as of October 2022). All APCC applicants must pass a fingerprint-based background check through the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 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 BBS 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 Pearson VUE, 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 LPCCs 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 BBS’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 $250 (as of October 2022). Applicants who meet all requirements will be given approval to take the licensing exam.
5. Pass the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE).
Once you receive the approval letter from the BBS, you may apply to take the National Clinical Mental Health Counselor Examination (NCMHCE). This exam is designed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) 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 Initial License Issuance Application to the BBS along with the $200 initial license fee. Once you receive your official LPCC license, you may begin practicing independently.
LPCC 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 complete California-specific coursework and pass the California Law and Ethics exam. For more information on the required coursework please refer to the LPCC out-of-state application for licensure.
Counselor License Renewal and Continuing Education Information
LPCCs must complete 36 clock hours of continuing education (CE) and renew their license every two years. These hours must include six hours of law and ethics and six hours of suicide risk assessment and intervention. For the first renewal period after licensure, only 18 hours are required, and seven must be dedicated to coursework on HIV/AIDs. 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 (BBS). 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 (at least 60 semester hours) in marriage and family therapy or a closely related field with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy. Up to 1,300 hours of the 3,000 hours of supervised work experience required for licensure can be earned during the degree. The LMFT licensure process requires candidates to:
- Register as an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT) (out-of-state applicants should use this application).
- Earn at least 3,000 hours of supervised experience over a minimum of two years (104 weeks).
- Pass the California Law and Ethics Exam.
- Apply for LMFT licensure and permission to take the LMFT Clinical Exam (LMCE) using either the in-state or out-of-state application.
- Request and receive your LMFT license.
To learn more about licensed marriage and family therapist careers, visit our LMFT career guide.
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 from a regionally-accredited school. 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 enroll in a CTC-accredited graduate program that leads to a Pupil Personnel Services (PPS), School Counseling Specialization credential (minimum of 48 semester units) The basic licensing process for school counselors in California is:
- Complete a practicum with school-aged children during your graduate program.
- Satisfy the basic skills requirement. (Note that candidates holding certification in Early Childhood to Young Adulthood – School Counseling through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBCT) should submit a copy of their certification exempt from the basic skills requirement and other credential requirements.)
- Complete the Live Scan fingerprint process and pay the application processing fee.
- Be formally recommended for a PPS credential to the CTC by your college or university when you have completed the program and pay the application 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 the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) recognizes three National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE)-accredited organizations that register and certify substance abuse counselors in California:
- California Association for Alcohol Drug Educators (CAADE) Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Califonia (ACCBC): leading to the Certified Addiction Treatment Counselor (CATC) credential
- California Association of DUI Treatment Programs (CADTP): leading to the Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor (SUDCC) credential
- California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP): leading to the Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor II (CADC-II) credential
In order to provide substance abuse counseling in California, you must have at least a high school diploma or GED. To qualify for certification by any of the three organizations, you will need to take specified college-level coursework. However, you may find greater opportunities for employment with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. In general, the substance use disorder counselor certification process in California is as follows:
- Register with one of the three DHCS-recognized organizations.
- Begin working as a substance use disorder counselor and accumulate the work experience and supervised training required for your desired certification.
- Take the examination required for certification with the recognized organization.
- Earn certification from the recognized organization within five years of registering.
- Maintain certification for as long as you are working as a substance abuse counselor in California.
Optional Substance Abuse Counseling Credentials Offered in California
In addition to the credentials offered by the DHCS, the three NCCA ICE-accredited organizations offer the following optional credentials for California substance abuse professionals who wish to further specialize their knowledge and boost their qualifications. Adding on one or more of the credentials offered by these organizations may improve your hiring potential and job possibilities.
- California Association for Alcohol Drug Educators (CAADE) Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Califonia (ACCBC): Offers a multi-tiered honorary CATC system based on educational level as well as the Certified Clinical Supervisor (CCS) Specialty Credential.
- California Association of DUI Treatment Programs (CADTP): Offers add-on credentials such as Driving Under the Influence Treatment Counselor Credential (DUITCC) and Medication-Assisted Treatment Counselor Credential (MATCC).
- California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals (CCAPP): Offers optional credentials including Certified Co-occurring Disorder Professional (CCDP), Medication Assisted Treatment Specialist (MATS), and 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
California leads the United States in employment for most counseling fields.1-5 Most counselors in California work in the area of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors (34,280), followed by educational, guidance, and career counselors and advisors (29,670).1,3 California educational, guidance, school, and vocational counselors are among the highest-paid in the US, with an annual mean wage of $81,590.3
The employment outlook for counselors in California is promising. Through 2030, the average rate of growth for all types of counselors in California is predicted at 13.6%.6 The fastest growth is predicted for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors (17.3%), followed by rehabilitation counselors (14.4%).6 This indicates that those interested in counseling careers in California can expect new positions to be opening over the next several years.
|Occupation||Number Employed||Average Annual Salary|
|Counselors, All Other||N.Av.||N.Av.|
|Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors||33,000||$81,590|
|Marriage and Family Therapists||29,600||$59,320|
|Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors||37,100||$59,790|
Counseling Associations in California
- California Association for Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (CALPCC): Provides continuing education and networking opportunities as well as an annual conference.
- California Association of School Counselors, Inc. (CASC): A professional organization that promotes the school counseling profession within California through advocacy, leadership, and professional development.
- California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT): An independent organization with over 34,000 members that advocates for the professional practice of marriage and family therapy and expanding awareness of marriage and family therapists in California and beyond.
- Addiction Professional Association of California (APAC): Advocates for the highest quality and most up-to-date, science-based services for clients, families, and communities by providing education, clinical training, and certification.
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 (DHCS).
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 that includes licensed professional counselors, earned a mean wage of $59,790 in 2021.1 Marriage and family therapists earned a mean wage of $59,3250 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. It is essential 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 $59,320 per year, which is slightly below the national average of $59,660 per year.2 As with other licensed professions, the industry and work setting can impact pay: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the top-paying industries for marriage and family therapists nationally are home health care services and state government (excluding schools).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, and career counselors and advisors category by the BLS, which reports an average annual salary of $81,590 per year.3 Compared to the national average reported in this category, of $63,090 per year, California counselors tend to earn more than those in other states.3
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021 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, May 2021 Marriage and Family Therapists: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211013.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021 Educational, Guidance, Career Counselors and Advisors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211012.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021 Rehabilitation Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211015.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021 Counselors, All Other: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211019.htm
6. Projections Central, Long Term Occupational Projections: https://projectionscentral.org/Projections/LongTerm