Cosmetology Licensing Requirements (U.S.)

When pursuing a career in cosmetology you require specific licenses earned through certified cosmetology training. Training can take up to two years depending on the type of license you wish to acquire. Each state has a licensing body that grants cosmetology licenses which require proof of training when you apply for licensure. Here we look at the licensure process and the requirements to obtain your license to practice in most states.

Who Grants Cosmetology Licenses?

State regulatory boards grant, issue and set the standards for cosmetology licensure. As a result, each state has its own licensing process. Regardless of where you apply, you will require proof of successfully passing a comprehensive exam at a recognized cosmetology program as well as performing a set number of training hours.

License Requirements By State

For more details on the licensing process in your state, click here.

Once you get your license you can decide the types of jobs that will help you achieve your career goals. Speak to your instructors for advice on how to prepare your resume and look for opportunities that provide the steppingstones to gain valuable experience relevant to your field. Remember now is the time to focus on building your skills and a reputation for excellence.

This is the best way to build a clientele whether you plan to open your own salon, gain a name for yourself to enter the entertainment industry or gain employment at a high-end spa.

Training Hour Requirements

The training hours required are based on the amount of time spent in class combined with the required hours of hands-on training. Program length is based on required hours to ensure students complete enough hours to obtain their license.

The American Association of Cosmetology Schools (AACS) averages the required training hours nationally between 1,400 to 1,600.

There are drastic differences from state to state too. For example, Florida requires just 1,200 hours, while other states like Montana require 2,000. Some states such as Missouri and Michigan have the option to obtain your license if you have a set number of hours apprenticing under a licensed cosmetologist.

Average Required Hours by Program

Here is a breakdown of the average hours you will be expected to complete based on the program:

Cosmetology1,400-1,600 hours
Barber1,500-2,000 hours
Esthetician600 hours minimum
Nail Technician300-600 hours
Hair Stylist1,500-2,000 hours
Makeup Artist100-1,000 hours
Electrolysis600 hours minimum
Laser Hair Removal600 hours minimum
Cosmetology Instructor800 hours -or- 8 years in practice


Many states also offer cosmetology apprenticeship programs to gain training hours for licensure. Instead of enrolling in a cosmetology program, you work under the guidance of a licensed cosmetologist. In this case, you will usually require far more training hours averaging 3,000 in states that offer an apprenticeship option.

State Board Exams

Every state requires you to pass a comprehensive exam to obtain licensure. The National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC) is responsible for administering the exam in most states. However, there are some states that administer their own equivalency exams.

If you have taken the comprehensive cosmetology program, you will have to complete two sections: Theory/written exam of 100 questions as well as a hands-on practical exam. Grading varies based on the specialty you have chosen.

How Much Does It Cost for the Exam?

The cost varies from state to state and program to program.

Renewing, Continuing Ed & Transferring Your License

Once you receive your cosmetologist license you will be expected to meet certain standards to maintain your license. Here are the most common steps required across the U.S.

License Renewal

States require license renewal that can range from every year to every four years. Most states also charge a renewal fee that can range from $52 to $130.

Continuing Education Requirements

Your state might also require you to earn continuing education units (CEUs) to ensure your skills are updated and you maintain a certain level of knowledge based on industry best practices. You will have to provide proof you have completed these units when you renew your license.

License Transfer & Reciprocity

One thing to consider when getting your cosmetology license is how it applies to other states. There are three scenarios when you wish to practice your trade in another state:

  1. Transfer: Your license transfers directly as long as you can provide a relevant work and educational history.
  2. Endorsement: In this case, you do not have to take board exams in the new state which is based on your previous state’s requirements. If they are significantly different from your new location, an endorsement will not be granted.
  3. Reciprocity: Some states have a reciprocity deal because they have similar requirements, so a new license is not required.

Keep in mind, neighboring states do not always have a reciprocity deal. It is not dependent on proximity, but instead on similarities in the licensing requirements for the state. As well, because laws vary so dramatically from state to state, there are other types of tests or standards you might have to meet. For example, a state might require taking a sexual and physical abuse detection training course or a course on state cosmetology laws. You can refer to local state reciprocity requirements here.

Licensing FAQs

Can I hold licenses in multiple states?

Yes, you can hold cosmetology licenses in multiple states as long as you meet their requirements. This is a good option if you pursue a career where you have to travel such as jobs in the film or media industry.

Is it possible a state might not recognize my area of specialty?

Yes, some states might not recognize certain types of cosmetology licenses which means it is illegal to provide those treatments in the state. In this case, you would lose your license for performing those treatments. As well it could be the state allows the treatment but does not require a license. In this case, you can work in the state offering those treatments without concern of license reciprocity.

The final scenario is the state requires a license but finds your state license does not meet their standards. You would have to complete training or take an exam to prove you do have the skills required to work in that state. If you fail to comply with their requirements and work without getting licensed in the state, you will lose your license.

What happens if I allow my license to lapse?

If your cosmetology license expires you cannot continue to provide treatment. It is very important to understand renewal laws in your state to avoid disruption to your job and the need to retake the licensing exam.

Is it possible to lose my license?

Yes. If you fail to follow the rules and regulations in your state, you could lose your cosmetology license. Inspectors can fine establishments and cosmetologists for non-compliance and also either temporarily revoke your license or remove it altogether depending on the seriousness of your violation.

Common violations include:

  • ZImproper disinfection of equipment and tools
  • ZImproper storage of salon products used for treatments
  • ZIncorrect disposal of non-disinfected items used for treatments
  • ZOwners hiring unlicensed employees
  • ZFailure to post your license at your workstation or in the reception area if you own the establishment
  • ZUnsanitary treatment areas including massage tables, headrests, nail tables, pedicure chairs, etc.

Does a criminal record interfere with getting a cosmetology license?

Getting your cosmetology license with a criminal record is possible, depending on the crime or if there are pending charges. The typical criminal records that can interfere with licensure include theft, fraud, and acts of violence. The main concern is whether your clients’ safety is at risk. Committing a misdemeanor is not as serious as committing a felony in many states. Each state sets its own rules surrounding criminal records. Check with your state cosmetology board before investing the time and money in working towards your license.