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Do you need a license to style hair in California?

Styling hair professionally requires proper licensing and certification in the state of California. The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology oversees the licensing requirements for hair stylists in order to protect public health and safety. While some limited hair styling services can be performed without a license, most professional hair styling requires completion of a state-approved training program and passing exams to obtain a cosmetology or barbering license.

California hair styling license requirements

In California, the main license types related to hair styling are:

  • Cosmetologist license – Allows for cutting, coloring, styling hair as well as skin and nail services
  • Barber license – Allows for cutting, styling, shaving men’s hair and beards
  • Esthetician license – Allows for skin care services only

To obtain either a cosmetology or barbering license in California, the following requirements must be met:

  • Complete at least 1600 hours of approved training at a California cosmetology or barbering school
  • Pass a written and practical exam administered by the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology
  • Submit an application and pay required fees
  • Be at least 17 years old
  • Have completed at least 10th grade or equivalent

The training programs cover topics like hair cutting, coloring, styling, health and safety procedures, and salon business practices. Students get experience working on real clients in supervised school salon settings.

The licensing exams test candidates’ knowledge of proper application procedures, health precautions, chemical treatments, hair structure, and more. Both a written test and practical demonstration are required to get licensed.

Exemptions from licensing

In California, hair styling services that don’t use chemicals, dyes, or tools like blow dryers or curling irons do not require a license. Some exemptions include:

  • Braiding, curling, twisting or wrapping natural hair by hand
  • Hair styling as part of a theater, film, fashion show, or photo shoot production
  • Hair styling for a special event like weddings or parties for free (not as a paid service)

Additionally, shampooers and hair styling apprentices or students do not need licenses as long as they are directly supervised by a licensed professional at all times when working on clients.

Penalties for unlicensed hair styling

Performing professional cosmetology or barbering services without a valid California state license or license from another state that offers reciprocity is illegal. Penalties include:

  • Fines up to $5000
  • Jail time
  • Cease and desist orders
  • Permanent prohibition from obtaining a future California cosmetology or barbering license

The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology enforces licensing requirements through periodic inspections of salons and shops. License verification is available to the public on the Board’s website to check if a stylist is properly licensed. Consumers are encouraged to report unlicensed practice to protect public safety.

How to become a licensed hair stylist in California

To properly qualify as a licensed, professional hair stylist in California, the following steps must be completed:

  1. Graduate from high school or complete GED
  2. Complete a cosmetology or barbering program at an approved California school
  3. Apply to take licensing exams
  4. Pass written and practical licensing exams
  5. Submit license application and pay fee
  6. Receive license
  7. Renew license every 2 years

Choosing between a cosmetology or barbering license depends on the type of professional hair services you wish to provide. Cosmetologists can work with both men’s and women’s hair, while barbers focus on cutting and styling men’s hair specifically.

Many vocational high schools, community colleges, career schools, and private beauty academies in California offer cosmetology and barbering programs. Both full-time and part-time programs are available to accommodate students.

Here are some examples of accredited cosmetology and barbering schools located throughout California:

School Location Type of License Offered
Paul Mitchell The School Costa Mesa Costa Mesa Cosmetology
Federico Beauty Institute Sacramento Cosmetology, Barbering
Everest College Alhambra Cosmetology, Barbering
Monteclaro: Escuela de Cosmetologia Los Angeles Cosmetology
Long Beach City College Long Beach Cosmetology
California Hair Design Academy La Mesa Cosmetology, Barbering

Maintaining an active license

Cosmetology and barber licenses in California must be renewed every 2 years. To renew a license, the following requirements must be met:

  • Complete 24 hours of continuing education
  • Pay renewal fee
  • Renew on or before the expiration date

Continuing education courses provide updated training on new styles and techniques, products and tools, health and safety topics, and state regulations. These courses help licensed professionals stay up-to-date and enhance their skillset.

There is also an option to temporarily inactivate your license if you need to take a break from actively working. Just be sure to take the required steps to reactive your license once you are ready to start working again.

Reciprocity for out-of-state licenses

Each state has its own licensing requirements for hair stylists. California does allow people with existing licenses from other states to transfer through license reciprocity. The requirements are:

  • Submit verification of your current license from another state
  • Proof you passed the written and practical licensing exams in that state
  • Pay applicable fees
  • May be required to take California written exam
  • Cannot have any disciplinary actions against your license

The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology will review your out-of-state application to determine if your education, experience, and testing are equivalent to California’s standards. If so, you will be granted a license without having to attend school or apprentice again in California.

Some states like Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon have reciprocity agreements with California that allow licenses to transfer through a streamlined application process. Check with the Board to see if your home state has reciprocity.


In summary, California law requires hair stylists who perform professional chemical, coloring, cutting, or styling services to obtain a state license. The main licenses related to hair styling are the cosmetology and barber licenses. Key steps to becoming a licensed stylist include completing an approved training program with real-world experience and passing written and practical exams. Unlicensed practice can lead to fines and legal action. Maintaining an active license involves renewing every 2 years and completing continuing education. Hair stylists with existing licenses from other states may be able to transfer to California through reciprocity. By following California’s licensing requirements, hair stylists can show they are properly trained and ready to provide quality services legally and safely.