How To Check a Therapist’s License (The Steps and What Matters)
If you’re worried about ending up with a bad therapist, there are a few things you can do, including reading bios and online reviews. One way to weed out the worst therapists is to check their licenses first.
Checking a license is like running a background check on someone you want to hire for a job. That’s what you’re doing, after all! A therapist is someone you hire to help you. Think of their bio as their application, their reviews as their references, and your consult with them as an interview.
A background or license check doesn’t replace the value of any of those things, but it gives you information you might miss otherwise. Read on to learn how to check a therapist’s license and what you can find out when you do.
On This Page
- What Is a Therapy License?
- Why Should You Check a Therapist's License?
- What Can You Find Out When You Check a Therapist's License?
- What Gets a Therapist in Trouble with a Licensing Board?
- How Do You Check a Therapist's License?
- What Is the Difference Between Being Licensed and Being Certified?
- What Do You Do If You Find Negative Information About a Therapist?
- What Are the Next Steps After Verifying a Therapist's License?
What Is a Therapy License?
A therapy license proves that someone meets the professional requirements to practice therapy. It is unlawful to practice a licensed profession like therapy without a license.
Why? The risk of harm is too great if a therapist doesn’t know what they’re doing. Licensing laws protect consumers from incompetent or unethical therapists by establishing rigorous education and training requirements they must meet to get a license.
And a therapist isn’t done with the licensing board once they complete these requirements and get a license. To maintain a license, a therapist must follow the state laws and codes that govern their profession.
What Professional Guidelines Do Therapists Have to Follow?
To follow ethical and professional guidelines, therapists must:
- Abide by profession-specific codes of ethics and other ethical standards;
- Communicate openly and clearly with clients about all aspects of therapy;
- Participate in continuing education to keep their knowledge up to date; and
- Practice within the scope of their license, which they do by
- Not practicing medicine or other professions they’re not qualified to practice,
- Not providing any services during a therapy session other than therapy, and
- Only offering therapy methods that they’re qualified and trained to offer.
Therapy licenses are granted by government divisions called licensing boards. The members of these boards are licensed professionals who meet to review license applications, investigate complaints, and participate in other policy and advocacy activities for their profession.
Why Should You Check a Therapist's License?
By checking a therapist’s license, you can confirm that they meet at least the bare minimum standards to be considered a “good therapist.”
When you look up a therapist’s license online (or over the phone), you can usually find the following information:
- Whether that therapist is, in fact, licensed;
- Whether their license is active, expired, revoked, or suspended; and
- Whether they have a history of being disciplined for ethical violations.
Practicing without a license is a huge red flag. It’s illegal and it goes against the values that attract most people to the therapy profession in the first place. There’s usually a reason—and not a good one—that someone wants to risk practicing therapy without a license.
So, we recommend that you never go to a therapist who represents themselves as licensed but who isn’t actually licensed. (Note: It’s okay to see supervised trainee therapists, associate therapists, or unlicensed therapists in agencies or other settings that don’t require them to be licensed.)
It’s important not to jump to conclusions. Sometimes there are errors in licensing databases, and government websites can be unreliable. We recommend calling a licensing board to follow up if you look up your therapist but can’t find or verify their license online.
What Can You Find Out When You Check a Therapist's License?
When you do a license check, you can find out whether a therapist’s license is active and whether they’ve ever gotten in trouble with a licensing board.
Next to a therapist’s name and license type, you’ll usually see one of the following statuses:
A therapist with an expired license may have simply failed to pay the license renewal fee. Sometimes, if a therapist no longer wants to maintain a license, they can have their license listed as “Retired or “Inactive” instead of “Expired.” None of these statuses indicate that anything bad happened, but they do show that a therapist doesn’t currently hold an active license.
On the other hand, a therapist with a suspended or revoked license has been in trouble with a licensing board and has either permanently or temporarily lost the ability to practice therapy. “Surrendered” licenses usually indicate that a therapist got in trouble as well.
You may also see a status indicating that a therapist was “Censured” or placed on “Probation” by the board for a violation. If so, you’ll usually be able to get more information about what the therapist got in trouble for doing (or failing to do). If you can’t find it easily on the website on your own, you can request that information from the licensing board.
What Gets a Therapist in Trouble with a Licensing Board?
Therapists get in trouble when they violate licensing laws and regulations. The licensing board can find out about a potential licensure violation through the media, but they usually find out after consumers or other professionals file a complaint.
What Are Some Examples of Licensure Violations?
Things therapists do that can result in licensure violations include:
- Being charged with a criminal offense
- Practicing outside of the scope of their license
- Failing to meet continuing education requirements
- Committing financial, insurance, or other types of fraud
- Not maintaining adequate client records and case notes
- Violating clients’ confidentiality (either accidentally or willfully)
- Providing services other than psychotherapy during a therapy session
- Providing therapy methods or services they are not competent to provide
- Providing therapy while under the influence of a substance or otherwise impaired
- Engaging in sexual or other dual relationships (such as business relationships) with clients
- Abandoning or neglecting clients such as by cancelling or ending services without notice
Of course, some of these violations get therapists in more trouble than others. A therapist may permanently lose their license for being charged with a criminal offense, but probably not for failing to meet a continuing education requirement or for having a few missing notes. When therapists are disciplined for lesser violations, they usually receive less severe consequences.
The licensing board has to investigate a complaint first to determine if it is valid. If the complaint is found to be valid, board members then decide what the appropriate response should be. (For more information on how this process works, you can read our article “Filing a Complaint Against a Therapist.”)
What Consequences Do Therapists Face for Licensure Violations?
If a therapist is found guilty of a licensure violation, they might:
- Lose their license;
- Have to pay a fine;
- Have their license suspended; or
- Be placed on probation and have to
- Take a class or course,
- Participate in clinical supervision,
- Go to therapy or go to a rehabilitation program, or
- Take steps to correct the issue that led to the violation.
One of the most important ethical standards for therapists is that they do not have sexual or other kinds of dual relationships with their clients. These boundary violations can cause significant harm to clients and are one of the most common reasons therapists lose their licenses.
Therapists are expected to communicate openly and clearly with clients about all aspects of therapy. Licensure boards are more likely to severely discipline therapists who misled or showed gross disregard for their clients than therapists who made honest mistakes or who were struggling with personal issues.
How Do You Check a Therapist's License?
You can check a therapist’s license online, over the phone, or by mail. All you need to do is use an online search form or contact someone at a licensing board to request a license verification. The easiest way is to check online.
Licensing board websites nearly always include a link to an online license search page. In some cases, you may need a therapist’s license number to do the search, but usually all you’ll need is the therapist’s name. (You’ll also need to know what kind of license they have—for example, whether they’re an LPC, an LCSW, or a licensed psychologist.)
Check Out Our Helpful License Lookup Tools and Guides!
To start the process of checking a therapist’s license, visit our State-by-State License Lookup Guide, where you’ll find links to local licensing boards and official license lookup pages.
To learn more about the differences between the types of therapy licenses, you can read “What Different Kinds of Therapists Are There?”
If you ever need to report a therapist to a licensing board, you can read “Filing a Complaint Against a Therapist” for more information on how and why (and why not) to do it.
To learn other ways to screen a therapist other than checking their license, you can read “The Five Steps to Background Check Your Therapist.”
We’ve done some of the work for you. We’ve compiled an extensive list of licensing or certification boards for the following types of professionals in all 50 states:
- Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs)
- Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs)
- Licensed Mental Health Counselors (LMHCs)
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs)
- Licensed Psychologists (PhDs and PsyDs)
- Licensed Psychiatrists (MDs or DOs)
- Licensed or Certified Addiction Counselors
What Is the Difference Between Being Licensed and Being Certified?
The main difference between licensure and certification is that licensure is legally required to practice a licensed profession, while certification is optional.
Some people who practice licensed professions choose to get certified in specialized methods as well. In professions that don’t require licensure, getting an optional certification can help a person show that they have met certain professional standards—but it isn’t required.
While therapy is a licensed profession, there are affiliated professions that don’t always require a license. For example, whether addiction counselors are required, or even able, to get a license varies widely from state to state. Addiction counselors who can’t get licensed in their state can usually get certified by an independent certification board if they choose to do so.
For More Information
To learn more about what substance abuse counselors do and the requirements they have to meet, you can read “What’s the Difference Between Substance Abuse Counseling and Therapy?“
It’s important to note that certified professionals don’t have the same degree of legal oversight as licensed professionals. Certification boards are private organizations in which membership is voluntary. A person who loses a voluntary certification can still work in that field. However, it’s illegal for a licensed professional to continue practicing after losing their license.
What Do You Do If You Find Negative Information About a Therapist?
If you find negative information about a therapist, you’ll have to decide whether you’re still willing to see them. We strongly recommend not seeing a therapist who has a suspended or revoked license (or a therapist who was never licensed in the first place).
It’s more of a gray area if a therapist has been disciplined for a licensure violation but still has an active license. Some therapists who violate the terms of their license are placed on probation or given a warning and allowed to continue practicing. To come off of probation, they may simply have to pay a fine or take a class. It’s up to you to determine if what they were found guilty of doing is a deal-breaker for you.
Keep in mind that not every therapist who does something bad gets in trouble for it, and not every therapist who gets in trouble did something terrible. But the truth is, there are many therapists out there, and a licensure violation is not a good sign. If you’ve found two therapists who seem like equally good matches and one has a licensure violation and the other doesn’t, we suggest going with the one whose license is clear.
Again, though, it is totally up to you. People, including therapists, make mistakes, and they can often turn themselves around after they do.
What Are the Next Steps After Verifying a Therapist's License?
Checking a therapist’s license only gives you part of the picture. You can find out more by doing more research.
How Can You Research a Therapist Online?
After a license check, you can continue to research a therapist online by:
- Reading their bio on their website (or on a page like ours or Psychology Today)
- Reading articles that they have written or posted on a blog or another site
- Reading online reviews that their clients or colleagues have written
(Note that some review sites are biased toward negative or positive reviews. Also note that it’s actually a licensure violation for a therapist to solicit good reviews. There are good therapists who don’t have any online reviews.)
After you have done all the research you can online, you can set up a phone consult or interview session with a therapist. If you feel good about the interview, you can commit to some initial sessions and keep going as long as it’s going well.
For more detailed information on what to look for in your research and examples of questions you can ask in an interview with a therapist, you can read our article on how to screen a therapist.
Checking a therapist’s license won’t tell you everything about them, but it can tell you things a bad therapist wouldn’t tell you. For example, it can tell you if they’ve been in trouble with a licensure board or if they’re lying about having a license.
Checking a therapist’s license is like doing a background check. If a therapist has an active license and a clean record, it’s not proof they’re a good therapist, but it shows they meet the bare minimum standard for being a good therapist.
Don't See a Therapist If...
If a therapist has no license, a suspended or revoked license, or a history of major licensure violations, you can rule them out right away. Simply put, you shouldn’t see a therapist who has anything other than an active license. It’s illegal for therapists to practice without a license and it’s a huge red flag when they try to get away with doing it.
It’s more of a gray area when a therapist commits minor licensure violations and still has an active license. Therapists are human, after all, and make mistakes. But we suggest at least asking the therapist about it and seeing how you feel about their response. Do they seem defensive and dishonest, or do they honestly acknowledge their mistake and seem to have learned from it?
Finding out that a therapist is lying about their license can save you from seeing an unethical or incompetent therapist—or even a criminal or con artist posing as one. Knowing you have this protection can give you the confidence to go forward with a therapist who passes the check.
It’s not a required step in researching a therapist, but with our handy online database of license search pages, checking a therapist’s license is an easy way to get started in your research. It’s a step worth taking if it gets you on the road to finding the good therapy that can change your life.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.