Learn about North Carolina Licensure

Become a Licensed Social Worker

Written by Jack Levinson

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Social workers play an instrumental role in alleviating the ills that plague our society. Working on the frontlines of public crises, social workers are entrusted with immense responsibilities. Because of this, one can’t simply enter the field of social work overnight.

One must work hard to earn the position of a social worker, receiving the extensive training required to act as an authority in sensitive situations.

There are many different fields of social work, but all require similar amounts of preparation. Whatever path you choose to choose in the social work profession, be sure to do your research and plan a course of action that is sustainable for you in the long term.

To learn more about social work license requirements in North Carolina and what you’ll need to do to launch a career supporting those in need, read on.

Social Work License Requirements in North Carolina

If you are looking to get your social work license in North Carolina, here is the most important information for you to know at the outset of your educational journey.

Education Requirements for Social Workers

In order to work in the field of social work, one must at the very least hold a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, there are entry-level positions in many social work organizations that can expose you to the field and allow you to participate in the meaningful work of helping others.

To qualify for social work positions with full responsibilities, one must hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree.

An MSW education provides the framework and training you need to make a positive impact on individuals, families, and communities in need. These programs typically take two to three years, which includes both traditional classes and at least a semester of fieldwork (also known as practicum) to introduce future social workers to the day-to-day routines and responsibilities of their job.

In an MSW program, students typically determine their intended areas of focus within the field of social work. This is usually where they choose to direct their fieldwork efforts, as it will provide relevant work experience for the rest of their careers. In some cases, social work students are able to find their first long-term employment opportunities out of these internships.

An Alternative Route: BSWs and Advanced Standing MSWs

If you wish to become a social worker but don’t yet hold a bachelor’s degree, you have the opportunity to expedite your education by starting your coursework at the undergraduate level. A Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree is designed specifically for motivated students, providing a significant amount of the foundational curriculum of a traditional 2-year MSW program. A BSW can be useful for those pursuing entry-level social work positions.

However, the real upshot of a BSW degree is that it can speed up your process of receiving your MSW once you are ready. Because BSW programs include so much of the material that also appears in the first year of an MSW, those who hold a Bachelor of Social Work are eligible for Advanced Standing MSWs, which are one-year programs that offer an accelerated educational track. For students who are clear on their goals of becoming social workers, eliminating a year from their educational path can be a huge help, making the educational process significantly less daunting. If you don’t yet hold a bachelor’s degree and are thinking of becoming a social worker, it’s worth giving this path serious consideration.

Types of Social Work License

There are four primary types of social work licenses in North Carolina, as outlined by the North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensure Board. When choosing the licensing you wish to pursue, take your level of education into account, as well as the type of social work you would like to take on long-term. Those who wish to work in direct counseling or therapeutic roles will need to hold clinical credentials.

Certified Social Worker (CSW)

Those who hold a Bachelor of Social Work degree can pursue credentialing, making them eligible for some roles within social work organizations. While this certification is unlikely to qualify you for leadership positions and will not allow you to perform clinical services like direct counseling, it can give you a leg up in finding entry-level or lower-ranking jobs in the social work field of your choosing.

Certified Master Social Worker (CMSW)

Once you complete your Master of Social Work degree, you are eligible for CMSW credentialing. Those who hold CMSW standing are qualified for all roles within social work organizations other than clinical ones. These positions can be more advanced and more specialized than those held by CSWs.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Social workers who perform direct counseling and other therapeutic services are Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). This is the ultimate aspiration of many social workers, some of whom choose to pursue their clinical licensing in the same breath as their graduate education and others who decide to level up later in their career.

If you are hoping to work directly with individuals and families in need through counseling or other therapeutic services, an LCSW is the path for you.

The requirements for the LCSW include all of the elements of the CMSW expectations with additional coursework added, in particular extensive fieldwork for social work organizations. The additional fieldwork hours needed for LCSW certification tend to amount to two years in addition to an MSW program.

Certified Social Work Manager (CSWM)

Those with CSWM certifications hold high-ranking administrative and managerial roles within social work organizations. This can be a great path for those who would prefer to be involved at the macro level rather than the micro level of direct counseling. Those who hold CSWM certification are expected to have completed 3,000 hours of paid employment in the social work field within two to six years of completing their MSW.

Steps to Becoming a Licensed Social Worker

The following are the steps typically required to receive a social work license in North Carolina. As you review these options, take into account the particular license you wish to pursue, as the timelines and requirements for these can differ.

1. Receive your MSW Degree

As mentioned above, it is not possible to take on the full responsibilities of a social worker without receiving your MSW degree. The following program durations can be expected:

In this day and age, there are terrific MSW options in a variety of formats, from traditional in-person classes to online models, full-time course loads to part-time schedules for those who are juggling other responsibilities.

2. Complete your fieldwork / practicum

If you are aiming for CMSW accreditation, this will be included in the coursework for your MSW program. If you are aiming to become an LCSW, your field hours will turn into “Supervised Field Experience,” which will continue for approximately two years following your graduation from your master’s program.

3. Pass the ASWB (Association of Social Work Boards) exam

In North Carolina, all forms of social work credentialing require completing an examination.

Licensing exams for North Carolina social workers will vary depending on which level of certification you are seeking.

The board examinations for each of the types of social work license are as follows:

Social work license exam prep is important. Your education is likely to give you good preparation for these exams, but be sure to save time to study and prepare diligently for them, as they will play a critical role in developing the career you want.

4. Apply for social work license

Once you have completed your MSW and fieldwork, your next step is to apply to the NCSWCLB for licensure. Applications generally include your MSW transcripts, verification of any existing social work credentials, and your ASWM test scores.

It’s worth noting that there are often fees associated with applying for your certification, as well as for exams in some cases. While this can be a burden on students, see it as an investment in your career in the long term. After all, your social work license will allow you to begin a remunerative practice, compensating for these initial costs.


Can I only become an LCSW during my MSW program, or can I become one later?

No, you do not have to become an LCSW at the same time that you pursue your MSW. Many social workers choose to enter the field holding just an MSW and earn their licensure for clinical practice later down the line. There are pros and cons to each route: the advantage of becoming an LCSW alongside receiving your MSW is consolidating your education and licensing requirements all in one go, getting it out of the way. The advantage of waiting is ensuring that you may have more academic stamina to take on another rigorous educational program. In short, social workers can always choose to expand into clinical practice and do not need to do so while receiving their master’s degree.

Does North Carolina offer social work license reciprocity (transferring your social work license to another state) for those moving in from other states?

North Carolina does not offer automatic social work license reciprocity in the way that some states do. However, qualified social workers may apply to the North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensure Board for licensure by substantial equivalency. If this is granted, they will be authorized to practice as social workers.

Is it worth becoming a CSW if I plan on becoming a CMSW or LCSW?

If you have received your BSW and intend to immediately attend a Master of Social Work program, in most cases it will not be to your benefit to receive your Certified Social Worker license. This is because a CMSW will make you eligible for higher-level jobs quickly enough that it would not be worth the time and effort to study for your ASWB bachelor-level exam. If you hold a BSW and are not planning on pursuing your MSW anytime soon, you are a good candidate to pursue your CSW credential.

Do I need to receive my CMSW certification if I am pursuing LCSW status?

If you are adding LCSW certification as the final step of your MSW program, you do not need to hold CMSW certification as you complete your supervised fieldwork hours. This is because a CMSW is intended to boost your qualifications for future work opportunities. However, while pursuing your LCSW, you will already be working and will finish with a higher level certification than a CMSW.