Cosmetology State Licensing Requirements FAQs

If you're considering earning a cosmetology license in the U.S., you likely have all sorts of questions you want answered before you start. This comprehensive list of frequently asked questions provides all the answers you need—and perhaps some answers to questions you didn't think to ask!

Basics of Cosmetology

What Is Cosmetology?

"Cosmetology" is an umbrella term for the practice of beauty services that, in most states, allows you to work in the following areas:

Read more frequently asked questions about cosmetology careers and training.

Cosmetology licenses allow you to perform the broadest range of beauty treatments on clients. You need a license to practice cosmetology in the U.S., though in states such as Alaska or Oregon, beauty professionals must select specific services (such as barbering or manicuring) for licensure rather than an overarching cosmetology license.

Every state has different requirements for cosmetology licensure, but there are some fairly common expectations:

  • Training hours: Completion of a training program often consisting of 1,000 to 1,600 hours OR about double the hours in apprentice training, where available
  • Coursework: Coursework including hands-on and theoretical topics, the latter of which may include customer service and business fundamentals, scientific aspects of cosmetology, sanitizing methods, and applicable state laws
  • Passing examinations: Passing scores on written and practical exams, plus potentially some state-specific exams on topics such as like relevant state laws, bloodborne pathogens, or how to recognize and report abuse
  • Personal and professional history: Submission of an application detailing your training along with information about any additional academic background, criminal history, and potentially some medical information
  • Fee: Payment of an application and licensure fee

Whether you can get a cosmetology license online depends heavily on your situation and the state you are seeking a license in. Typically, if you have an active cosmetology license and need to renew, states will have online portals run by the state board or perhaps the state department of business regulation where you can submit your renewal application, upload supporting documents, and pay the fees, all online.

For new seekers of a beauty practitioner’s license, you will often be able to submit your application through the online portal as well. However, any exams that are a prerequisite to receiving your license will need to be taken onsite in testing locations published by the state board.

If you are seeking a license transfer or reciprocal license from another state, the process will also differ by state. Some states will offer online submissions, and others will require mailed applications.

Cosmetology Licensure or Cosmetology School vs. Alternative Options

Licensing requirements for different beauty jobs is determined at the state level. In many states, a cosmetology license will let you perform most beauty services on hair, skin, and nails with clients. However, in some states, you may need specific additional licensure to practice in these fields. Many popular, newer beauty fields such as laser hair removal, permanent makeup, and lash extensions may be covered by cosmetology or esthetics licensure, or may not be regulated by the state board of cosmetology, hairdressing, or barbering.

Three things should factor into the beauty license you choose to get:

  1. What you want to do (i.e., everything related to beauty vs. one job, like nail design)
  2. How much time you want to spend training
  3. How much you can afford to spend on training

Cosmetology licensure programs usually take longer and cost more than other programs because of the license's broad scope. However, you can usually perform more services with a cosmetology license than with other beauty licenses.

Some states require cosmetologists to complete cosmetology school for licensure, but others permit apprenticeships.

Apprenticeships involve finding a licensed cosmetologist approved by the state board to provide you with supervised training. These programs must typically include direct instruction and hands-on work, like cosmetology programs do. In states that provide an apprenticeship path to licensure, the hourly requirement is often double the hourly requirement for the school path.

Unlike cosmetology school, apprenticeships are generally free. In fact, many pay you for your time working. They're often required to follow state laws governing employee working hours. Depending on your mentor, you may be able to complete your apprenticeship part-time, allowing you to work another job.

When your apprenticeship is over, you will typically still need to pass your state's written and practical exams and fulfill any other licensure requirements, such as paying an application fee.

You'll often need licenses other than cosmetology to work in the beauty and wellness fields below. The required credentials listed are typical, though they may vary by state:

A certification is very different from a license, even though you may hear the terms used interchangeably.

Certification means you've completed some specialized training in certain treatments. Certification isn't required or regulated by states but can make you more hirable. For example, the prestigious CIDESCO certification may make you stand out if you are applying to highly competitive beauty jobs. But, the certification alone doesn’t itself clear you to work as a cosmetologist in any state.

Licensure, on the other hand, is a specific process defined by the state of your residence that allows you to perform certain services on clients. For example, if a cosmetology license is required in your state to perform a specific beauty service, it is illegal to work professionally in that field without the license in good standing. Licensure steps vary by state but typically involve receiving training of a certain number of hours at approved institutions, passing one or more exams, and paying an application fee.

For certain fields that may be unregulated in some states, such as lash extensions, a certification and licensure may be all you need to get started in that job.

Learn more about cosmetology licensing.

When you select a beauty school with the intent of getting a license after you graduate, be sure that the program is approved by the state board of cosmetology to provide training for licensure. This means that the program satisfies the state’s requirements for total training hours, coursework topics, and quality of education in preparing students for the job.

There are several possible paths for beauty schools to demonstrate that they offer a program (such as in cosmetology) that satisfies state requirements. One is by receiving approval from the state board; many state boards will publish a list of approved schools. Many beauty schools go a step further and receive accreditation from a programmatic accreditor, which is an organization that has authority from the U.S. Department of Education to review programs in different subject areas. For cosmetology, such organizations include the National Accrediting Commission for Career Arts & Sciences (NACCAS) and the Council on Occupational Educationi (COE), among others.

Because the accreditation process is rigorous and costly, many excellent beauty schools do not seek accreditation. For licensing purposes, the fact that a school is state-approved for that discipline is sufficient.

If you are taking a beauty program that does not culminate in licensure because your state does not require licensing in that discipline—for example, makeup artistry in many states does not require a license—state board approval or accreditation is not required. However, you may want to more heavily consider the schools that do have accreditation or approval (even if for other programs it offers) as a signal of quality, or do additional research on reviews or word of mouth reputation to make sure you will be receiving worthwhile training.

Learn more about beauty school accreditation and approval.

About Cosmetology Exams

Nearly every state requires written and practical exams, and some require additional tests or proof of training.

These exams are typically held at specified testing locations, where a representative of the state board will observe you. Several people will likely be taking the test alongside you.

When you get to the exam site, you must confirm your registration and any accommodations you have already applied for, including those for disabilities or non-English languages. If you have brought notes or electronic devices with you, they need to be put away. You may not be allowed to bring a bag in, and not all testing sites have secure locations for them, so plan accordingly.

You may also not bring anyone into the testing room with you unless approved by the board, like a helper for accommodations. Children won't be allowed in, so if you're a parent or guardian, you'll need to make sure you have childcare offsite.

The practical exam allows you to demonstrate your hands-on skills. If you were trained in something, you can expect to be tested on it.

You'll likely need to bring your own kit, often including sanitation supplies and possibly a mannequin head or hand. Some states supply a model for you to work on, while others ask you to bring someone with you. This is the only person you would be allowed to bring into the testing room with you, except any approved interpreters or similar.

Typically, a practical test will go as follows (though the order may be different):

  • Set up your station, including cleaning it appropriately
  • Perform a hair design
  • Provide a nail treatment
  • Do a skin treatment
  • Apply makeup
  • Handle stray eyebrow hairs through plucking or waxing
  • Demonstrate any other skills required by your state

You'll also need to sanitize the station between treatments, as required.

Note: During the COVID-19 pandemic, some states are only allowing treatments on mannequins. You may also need to bring other COVID-19-related supplies, like masks.

Tests may occur on paper or a computer. Like the practical exam, you can be tested on anything you've learned, such as:

  • Beauty treatments
  • Customer service
  • Sanitation and safety procedures
  • Scientific terms
  • State laws
  • Use of supplies

Several states create their own tests, but many instead use tests created by the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) or PSI.

Some states only require written and practical exams, but several require additional tests or proof of course completion on one or more of the following:

  • Bloodborne pathogens
  • First aid/CPR
  • Recognizing signs of abuse
  • State cosmetology laws

Check with your state board to see if any of these are required. Your school may provide the training, or you could take a course online.

Cosmetology Licensure for Disabled People

Physical disabilities limit cosmetology licensure only if the work isn't possible with reasonable accommodations.

Many beauty professionals have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve their beauty career dreams. In 2019, Sandra Yelling, a blind woman in Texas, obtained her hair braiding and weaving license. Jessica Ruiz, a Philadelphia woman who has limited use of her arms and hands, uses her mouth to manipulate makeup applicators.

Can you do the work? That's all that should matter.

People with mental illnesses and disabilities can also work in cosmetology in most circumstances. Like those with physical disabilities, they have the right to reasonable accommodations.

Exceptions may be made if your mental illness or disability symptoms pose a risk to others. The entity refusing licensure or employment must prove this is the case, not just make assumptions based on a diagnosis. If you can demonstrate that your condition is under control, you should be allowed to practice.

If you can show you're capable of demonstrating the needed skills, attending cosmetology school with a disability and obtaining licensure afterwards should generally be possible. Employment may depend on whether the employer can prove they have a valid reason to deny you a job.

An important consideration for disabilities and illnesses is whether you can perform essential functions of the job either with or without reasonable accommodations. These are things an employer does to ensure you're able to work effectively but don't cause them undue hardship (e.g., if the necessary accommodation is too expensive for them to implement).

Learn more about your employment rights as a disabled person from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When it comes to communicable diseases, some states, like New York, require proof that your illness isn't likely to put the public at risk. As per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a licensing entity can almost never refuse licensure to those with HIV/AIDS. The only exception is if it can be proven—not assumed—that the person in question poses a high risk of passing the disease to clients or coworkers.

Your workplace is generally allowed to say you can't come to work if you have a temporary contagious illness like the flu or COVID and may require a doctor or test to clear you before returning to work.

Requirements to disclose a disability or disease to a school, cosmetology board, or employer vary by state and situation.

Some states require a doctor to confirm you're medically able to work. Others may mandate that you disclose addictions. If you require accommodations to attend a school or take exams, you need to tell the school or licensing board.

Employers can't ask about disabilities during the interview process, although they can ask if you can perform all essential job functions. You should answer honestly, but you don't need to tell them about any diagnoses unless you want to. The ADA advises careful consideration before disclosing diagnoses unless required because "of the myths and stereotypes that still exist about people with disabilities…"

However, if you've been given a conditional employment offer, employers can legally require a medical exam and ask questions about disabilities, as long as they do this with all employees.

If you have a disability or disease that doesn't require disclosure from the state and you know it doesn't require accommodations, you don't have to say a word. If you later find you need accommodation, you can bring it up then. The same applies if you become disabled during your employment.

If you feel you've been discriminated against by a school or licensing entity, consult a lawyer or the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and file a report with the United States Department of Justice.

If you believe you have been discriminated against as a disabled person by a potential or current employer, file a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Reasonable accommodations are generally available during your exams. The examiners make the final call.

You need to apply for accommodations ahead of time, and doing so usually involves providing evidence of your disability, information about the type(s) of accommodation(s) you need, and details about why you need the accommodation(s).

Common accommodations include extended time for the written exam, a sign language interpreter or text reader, a modified setup to accommodate any physical needs during your practical test, or a separate room to take your written tests in.

Service animals are allowed in public places. A service animal (often a dog, but other animals may qualify) is trained to perform a specific task directly related to a disability. There is no certification or vest necessary. The service animal goes wherever the person needing the animal goes. The only questions anyone is permitted to ask about a service animal are: "Is this animal here because of a disability?" and "What task does it do?"

You may not be denied employment or licensure due to having or needing a service animal. However, if the animal proves untrained or engages in unhygienic practices (such as being allowed to urinate on the floor), your job may be jeopardized.

Cosmetology Licensure for Individuals Affected by the Criminal Justice System

Having a criminal record doesn’t necessarily prevent you from being eligible for a cosmetology license, but it depends on the crime. If you have pending criminal charges, particularly any that could be related to your work, you may have to wait until they're resolved.

Crimes that may disallow you from receiving a license include theft, fraud, and acts of violence. That is, if the board is worried your background could affect your ability to do your job safely, they may not allow you licensure. Felonies are taken more seriously than misdemeanors, and the time since the offense may be factored in.

All of this varies by state, and you should check with your state board for the rules that apply to applicants in your state.

Cosmetology is a field of study offered at many correctional facilities—and not just in women's prisons. If you're facing incarceration or know someone who is in that situation and are interested in beauty programs, look into the availability of these programs.

Cosmetology Licensing and English Language Learners

Some states allow testing in languages other than English, while others don't. Some permit the written test to be taken in another language but require the exam's hands-on portion to be conducted in English. Check with your state board.

Regardless of whether your state allows testing in other languages, they typically require a certain level of English proficiency. This is often the ability to speak, read, and write in English at a 10th-grade level.

Learn more about going through beauty school and cosmetology exams for English language learners.

Every state offers tests in English, but not all provide them in other languages. Common languages for exams include Spanish, Chinese, and Korean, although others may be allowed depending on the state.

If your state doesn't have a test in your language but allows testing in languages other than English, you may be able to have an interpreter with you. The state will typically provide the interpreter to avoid the possibility of cheating.

In states that don't allow testing in other languages, it's essential to study carefully to make sure you understand the written exam questions and the requirements for the practical exam.

Cosmetology License Renewal and Keeping Your License Active

Cosmetology licenses need to be renewed, and states have different requirements. In general, you need to do the following:

  • Pay a relicensing fee
  • Fill out paperwork
  • Take continuing education credits
  • Have worked for a certain number of hours or years during your active licensure
  • Not have violated any state requirements consistently or, in some cases, at all

Some states have no continuing education requirements, but the other requirements on the above list are fairly universal.

Depending on your state, you may also need to do the following:

  • Detail any new criminal charges or convictions
  • Report changes in your health, particularly if you've acquired a communicable disease

Cosmetology license renewal periods vary by state, but it's typically every two to five years.

If your cosmetology license expires, you need to take additional steps to renew it. Depending on your state, these may include:

  • Paying a higher fee
  • Taking recertification courses
  • Retaking exams
  • Redoing all training and exams (usually only necessary if your license expired a very long time ago)

If you're only a little late to renew, paying the higher fee is probably all you'll need to do. If you've been out of the profession for years, you may need to undertake the other requirements.

Some states require continuing education for relicensure, but you should seriously consider getting additional training even if this isn't required. Additional training can keep your skills sharp, prove your dedication to the field (which potentially makes you more hirable), and may allow you to offer new services, which could potentially earn you more money.

Cosmetology Licensing Between States

You may be able to use your current cosmetology license to speed up the process of licensure when you move. This may sometimes occur via license transfer, reciprocity, or endorsement in a different state or country, or you may need to fulfill additional requirements.

Even if your state doesn't have transfer, reciprocity, or endorsement, your previous experience will almost always count toward working in a new place.

Refer to our state-by-state list of cosmetology license reciprocity requirements.

States tend to fall into three categories regarding carrying your license over to your new home: transfer, endorsement, and reciprocity. All three are ways of getting licensed in a new state without taking the new state's exams, though the way they work has subtle differences:

  • Transfer: Your license transfers directly to your new state with little-to-no additional training. You typically only need to provide your relevant work and educational history and pay a fee to potentially be granted a license in that state.
  • Endorsement: This is when you can get your license in a new state without taking board exams. When your state offers endorsement, you may or may not be granted this, depending on whether your previous state's requirements are significantly different from your new state's.
  • Reciprocity: This means your state has a deal with another state with very similar requirements. You may not need to get a new license and continue to work under your license from your previous state, though this varies. If you can keep practicing with your previous license, you still need to let the state know you're there before you start working. You may need to pay a fee.

Moving your license has nothing to do with proximity—if you're licensed in Missouri and work in Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, driving those extra five minutes to Kansas doesn't guarantee you the legal right to work there. You'll need to go through any required steps to be allowed to work in that state.

Your license generally needs to be active and in good standing in all these cases. You must report violations and criminal records, and you may also need to fill out health forms.

Even if your state offers these options, if they require specific training (such as sexual and physical abuse detection training), you'll need to take those courses. Some states require a test on cosmetology laws in that location, and they may allow transfer, endorsement, or reciprocity, so long as you take that exam as part of your application.

If your state doesn't allow transfer, endorsement, or reciprocity, or you don't meet the requirements for those, you may need to complete additional licensure steps. In addition to providing all relevant paperwork, including criminal and violation histories, the following are often required:

  • Proving you've worked long enough to balance out any differences in training
  • Taking additional classes to meet your training hours
  • Passing state board exams

Some states allow transfer, endorsement, or reciprocity, while others don't. View our state-by-state transfer and reciprocity guide or check with your state board to see what you need to do.

Yes, you can hold cosmetology licenses in multiple states. You need to meet each state's requirements, but you don't have to give up your license in your previous state once you've become licensed in another.

As military members move frequently, some states have different rules for military spouses who want to bring their licenses to new states. However, they almost universally require your training to be similar to that state's requirements. Some states require the spouse in the military to be stationed in the state for at least a year.

A couple of common provisions for military spouses are expedited licensure and lower fees.

While cosmetology licenses can be transferred relatively easily, certain specialties may not be available universally.

In the simplest cases, you can practice your specialty without anything more than your cosmetology license in your new state, as that state permits the treatment but doesn't need you to have a special license.

The reverse is also true. If you're coming from a state that doesn't require licensure in your specialty and moving to a state that does, you'll need to fit any of their requirements to obtain the relevant license.

Some states don't allow certain treatments. For example, California bans eyelash and eyebrow tinting and dyeing. If you're caught performing illegal treatments, you may lose your cosmetology license and even face criminal charges. So, you may need to specialize in a different cosmetology area if you still want to focus on one type of treatment.

Cosmetology Licensure Resources

There are tons of resources available to budding cosmetologists. The best way to learn about your licensure options is via your state's cosmetology board, but here are some other resources that may help you on your way:

5 Tips for Succeeding in Beauty School
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English Language Learners' Guide to Beauty School
If English isn't your first language, this article is here to help you get through school, earn your license, and find and succeed in the workforce.

Financial Aid for Beauty Students
While beauty programs are typically less expensive than four-year degrees, nearly everyone could use some help paying for their training. This post explains loans, grants, and scholarships and links to a list of beauty school scholarships.

Milady Standard Cosmetology
This publication, similar to a textbook, includes current information on licensure, cosmetology techniques, and more.

National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC)
In addition to creating one of the most common cosmetology exams, NIC works to improve every aspect of the field of cosmetology.

Professional Beauty Association
This organization provides a wealth of information, events, and discounts to members. They offer special memberships for cosmetology students.

Cosmetology Licensing Requirements in Your State