Cosmetology License Requirements
Cosmetology encompasses a wide range of services that help improve and maintain clients’ appearance, including hair cutting and styling, hair braiding, manicures and pedicures, hair removal, makeup application, and skin care treatments like facials.
All cosmetologists in the U.S. must be licensed to practice, and each state’s cosmetology or regulatory board is typically in charge of regulating and issuing cosmetology licenses. Cosmetology license requirements vary from state to state, but all states mandate some form of cosmetology education or training. Aspiring professionals must also pass an exam to receive licensure.
This is a comprehensive guide on obtaining a cosmetology license in the U.S., along with state-by-state cosmetology license requirements.
How to Get Your Cosmetology License
Typical steps to obtaining your cosmetology license are:
- Meet the minimum licensure requirements set by the state, such as a minimum age (such as 16 or 18 years) or level of education (such as a high school diploma or GED)
- Go to cosmetology school for a state-approved program or apprentice under an approved cosmetology professional for the required hours
- Pass a state cosmetology exam
- Pay a licensing fee to the board of cosmetology or other regulatory agency in your state
Cosmetology license requirements differ widely from state to state, so reach out to your regulatory board to learn what requirements you must fulfill before taking the licensing exam.
Once you’ve completed your schooling and are ready to get your license, you can also consult the cosmetology board to find resources that can prepare you for the exam.
General Requirements for a Cosmetology License
While requirements for earning a cosmetology license often differ depending on the state, many cosmetology boards in the U.S. share the same minimum requirements regarding age and education.
In general, states require prospective cosmetologists to be at least 16 years old and have completed some high school. Most require a minimum of 1,000-2,000 training hours from a state-approved cosmetology school. Some states accept an apprenticeship completed under the supervision of a licensed cosmetology professional in place of schooling.
Cosmetology license examinations usually comprise a practical examination and a written test on the state’s cosmetology regulations. Many state boards also require cosmetologists to complete continuing education requirements for cosmetology license renewal.
Minimum Age and Education
Although most states require cosmetology licensure applicants to possess a high school diploma or GED and be at least 16 to 18 years old, some states, like North Carolina, don’t have any minimum age or prerequisite education requirements.
Several states have less stringent education requirements for cosmetologist license candidates. Instead of finishing high school, completing 10th grade and taking an additional test may suffice in some states.
The number of required training hours—including hands-on training—for a cosmetology license varies by state, but according to the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS), the national average is between 1,400-1,600 hours. A full-time cosmetology student may be able to complete their education in less than two years.
Some states, however, deviate from the average. In Massachusetts and New York, aspiring cosmetologists only need 1,000 training hours, while Iowa requires more than 2,000 training hours. (In recent years, several states have decreased the number of required training hours for cosmetology licensure, so check with your state board for the most current information.)
Cosmetology students can pursue a full cosmetology program or specialize in one area such as nail technology, esthetics, medical esthetics, or electrolysis—many of which come with fewer training hours and their own licensing requirements.
Some cosmetology schools also offer teacher training to prepare cosmetologists to teach students. Teacher training varies from 500-1,000 hours, depending upon the state.
Certain states have specific training hour requirements for learning about the prevention of HIV/AIDS and infectious diseases as well. Check with your state regulatory board regarding those regulations.
Cosmetology candidates in some states can complete an apprenticeship instead of a formal cosmetology program. Apprenticeships involve working in a professional setting such as a salon or spa under the guidance of a licensed, qualified cosmetologist. Rather than practicing on models or mannequins in a classroom, you’ll be working with clients as an apprentice.
This hands-on, practical approach usually requires double the number of hours of a traditional cosmetology program—and therefore often takes longer to complete as well. For instance, Alabama requires 1,500 cosmetology school hours but 3,000 apprenticeship hours. And California requires 1,600 school hours and 3,200 apprenticeship hours.
All states require successful completion of a cosmetology exam to obtain licensure. States either develop their own exams or use the one created by the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC). Most states mandate that cosmetologist applicants test through the NIC.
The NIC exam consists of a written theory examination and a practical, hands-on test. Currently, 35 states use the NIC’s exams. For states that do utilize the NIC tests, the written exam includes 110 questions from the following subjects:
- Scientific Concepts (30%)
- Hair Care and Services (40%)
- Skin Care and Services (15%)
- Nail Care and Services (15%)
The practical portion consists of 10 core domain sections utilizing mannequins or models and the appropriate tools. The exam covers:
- Work Area and Client Preparation, Set Up of Supplies (First Client)
- Thermal Curling
- Work Area and New Client Preparation, Set Up of Supplies (Second Client)
- Chemical Waving
- Predisposition Test and Strand Test With Simulated Product
- Highlighting With Foil, Virgin Application With Colored Simulated Product
- Hair Color Retouch With Colored Simulated Product
- Virgin Hair Relaxer Application With Colored Simulated Product
- Blood Exposure Procedure
States differ on whether they require the written or practical exam or both. For instance, California and Colorado require both tests, while Connecticut just requires the theory exam. Additionally, some states require cosmetology license candidates to pass a written test on the state’s laws and regulations regarding the practice of cosmetology.
Many states offer cosmetology licensing exams in several languages, such as English, Spanish, Korean, and/or Vietnamese. If your state administers the NIC exams, the Candidate Information Bulletins (CIBs) offer valuable testing information, including content outlines and sample questions and answers.
Cosmetology License Cost
Most states use third-party test proctors like PSI or Pearson VUE to administer exams, and licensing fees range from $125 to nearly $400.
Cosmetology License Renewal
As with all licensed professions, cosmetologists have to renew their licenses regularly. Cosmetology licensure renewal depends on the state but typically involves completing a certain number of continuing education (CE) hours and paying a renewal fee.
Some states don’t mandate CE hours to renew your cosmetology license. Instead, you need to submit a renewal application and pay the necessary fees.
Most states require cosmetologists to renew their licenses every two years, but some require license renewal every year. All states have a fee for renewal, generally costing between $20 and $100.
Cosmetology License Reciprocity and Endorsement
License reciprocity and endorsement are the main ways a professional cosmetologist transfers their license from one state to another. To successfully transfer your cosmetology license and perform your services legally in another state, you often need to provide proof of your completed education and evidence you passed the board exams.
With reciprocity, licensed cosmetologists can work in other states with similar training requirements. Some states even have established license reciprocity agreements, meaning they’ve determined their exam and licensure requirements are similar enough to qualify for reciprocity.
Licensure by endorsement is when a cosmetologist attempts to qualify for another state’s license without taking that state’s board exams. With an active cosmetologist license in good standing and similar education and exam requirements between the states, cosmetologists may be able to apply for licensure by endorsement.
Every state handles cosmetology license reciprocity and endorsement differently.
And some states don’t allow reciprocity and require cosmetology applicants to meet the state’s training requirements and pass the necessary tests. Other states allow cosmetologists to substitute work experience for a reduction in the state’s required training hours.
Cosmetology license transfer fees range from $39 to more than $320.