To earn a cosmetology license, you will need to prove to the appropriate licensing body that you are ready to enter the field as a working professional. Cosmetology training, which can take up to two years, is both preparation and a requirement for applying for licensure. However, equally important is understanding the licensure process, including how licenses are granted, who grants them, and what to expect during the process.
State regulatory boards are generally responsible for issuing cosmetology licenses. State boards also set standards for licensure. That means requirements can and do vary from state to state, sometimes considerably. In all states, however, you will be required to complete a recognized cosmetology program, complete a set number of training hours, and pass a comprehensive exam.
What Are the Requirements for Getting a Cosmetology License?
The general requirements for getting your license involves completing the required number of training hours and taking an exam. As mentioned previously, state requirements can vary, so it is important that you check with your state board.
Training Hour Requirements
Training hours refer to the amount of time you spend in school. These include both in-class learning and hands-on experiences. Generally speaking, the larger the training hour requirement, the longer you will be in school.
Training hours are a critical component in earning your cosmetology license. According to the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS), the national average number of training hours required is between 1,400 and 1,600. However, that number can vary by hundreds of hours from state to state. For example, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota require 2,100 hours, while New Jersey and Florida require just 1,200.
Find a Cosmetology School in Your State
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
No matter what state you live in, you will need to take and pass a comprehensive exam before you get your license. The National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) will most likely administer the exam. If not, your state will administer its own equivalent test.
- Scientific concepts (30%)
- Haircare and services (40%)
- Skincare and services (15%)
- Nail care and services (15%)
The practical exam covers 10 key areas, all of which are timed and practiced in physical workspaces with actual tools and mannequins or models. They include work area and client prep and setup of supplies, thermal curling, haircutting, chemical waving, predisposition test and strand test, highlighting with foil, hair color retouch, hair relaxer, and blood exposure procedures.
The cost of the test varies by state, but NIC offers practice examinations for the written portion of the test for $39, as well as an overview DVD that can help prepare you for the practical exam. That resource costs $30.
Some states allow you to complete an apprenticeship program as an alternative to going to school. An apprenticeship involves working in the field in a spa, salon, or similar setting under the supervision of a qualified professional. That professional will be specifically certified or licensed to mentor you, which means you will learn on the job—not on mannequins or models in a classroom, but in an actual working facility, watching and practicing on real clients.
The tradeoff is the mentor gets free professional support in a salon, spa, or other apprenticeship setting. Before you pursue this option, consider what goes into it and understand that it can likely extend the length of your training. States that allow apprenticeship hours often require you to complete far more of them than traditional school hours. California, for example, requires either 1,600 training hours, but 3,200 apprenticeship hours.
Your cosmetology program can prepare you in the basics of hair, skin, nails, and makeup. However, you can also opt to concentrate in one or more areas as a specialty. Some schools offer specialty tracks as part of a primary cosmetology program, while others might require you to complete the main program first then pursue additional hours in your specialty area.
If you know you want to specialize make sure the school you choose offers that concentration. Common specialties include men’s styling, blowout specialist, and hair color specialist, artist, or painter.
The height of the profession is “master cosmetologist” status. Achieving this professional status means completing a cosmetology program, passing an exam, and earning your license. You will need to work in the field for a period of time—usually about a year—while pursuing your state’s mandated number of continuing education and training hours. Then you can apply for a master cosmetologist license, complete another exam, and earn a license as a master cosmetologist.
This additional credential can enhance your employability, fast-track you for management positions, and help you command a higher salary.
Every state in America requires licensure before you can work as a professional cosmetologist. The process, however, will not be the same for everyone.
How to Get Your Cosmetology License
Your particular licensing body can tell you what you need to do to apply. Once your application is approved, you can complete the licensing exam(s). Once these requirements are satisfied, the next step is paying any necessary fees—some states charge application fees, examination fees, licensing fees, or all of the above. These costs can run into hundreds of dollars in some states. Keep in mind that earning a master cosmetologist license is a separate process that comes later.
Who Sets Cosmetology Licensing Requirements?
The governing licensing body is always the state board, but that organization can vary from state to state. It’s often the state department of cosmetology, but in some cases it’s the department of health. In other states, it’s the division of professions or the bureau of occupational licenses. Those organizations determine the number of training hours, the required exam or exams, and any associated costs and fees.
Maintaining Your License
A role as a cosmetologist requires maintaining your license throughout your career. Requirements vary by state, ranging from annual licensure renewal to every four years in states such as Indiana and New York.
Many states require continuing education units (CEUs)—extra training hours to update skills and knowledge—when it’s time to renew your license. Connecticut, for example, requires completion of 10 CEUs. States like Arizona, California, and Arkansas don’t require any CEUs. There are often fees for renewal and these can also vary. In Utah, the fee is $52. In Vermont, it’s $130. You can find licensing fees for where you live on your specific state page.
You can also pursue a certification. Unlike state licensure, certification is voluntary and not necessary to work as a cosmetologist. Some cosmetologists pursue certification to stand out from the competition when looking for work. In other cases, employers might require their cosmetologists to become certified in an advanced or specialized procedure—like permanent makeup, for example—before they’re allowed to offer that service.