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How To Get a Contractor’s License in California in 6 Steps


Last Updated Nov 16, 2023

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To obtain a California contractor’s license, you’ll need to determine which specific license you need, fill out an application, pass an exam, and submit supporting documents.

This guide for general or speciality contractors getting their new business started in California — or looking to expand from another state — will cover how to get a contractor’s license in California, as well as who needs a contractor license — and why licenses for contractors are important.

Read more: The Ultimate State-by-State Guide to Contractor License Requirements

Table of contents

1. Identify the license classification you need

Before you apply for your license, you need to make sure you’re applying for the right one. There are four general types of contractor licenses in California. The type of work you do determines which license you need.

Class A General Engineering Contractor License

The CSLB requires a Class A General Engineering License for any contractor “whose principal contracting business is in connection with fixed works requiring specialized engineering knowledge and skill.” This includes land leveling, earthmoving, excavating, trenching, paving, as well as cement and concrete work.

Projects typically requiring Class A licenses could include overpasses, underpasses, bridges, airports, power plants, pipelines, railroads, and highways.

These are large-scale, public works-type projects. Projects like these will take off under one or more engineers’ licenses, usually employed by a large construction company or engineering firm.

Class B General Building Contractor License

The CSLB requires a Class B General Building License for any contractor “whose principal contracting business is in connection with any structure built, being built, or to be built, for the support, shelter, and enclosure of persons, animals, chattels, or movable property of any kind, requiring in its construction the use of at least two unrelated building trades or crafts, or to do or superintendent the whole or any part thereof.”

Here’s the gist: Class B is a California license for general contractors. If you are bidding on and taking prime contracts, you’ll need a Class B license. With a Class B license, General Contractors can take the framing contract on a project, but the project must also include two unrelated trades as well. 

Class B-2 Residential Remodeling Contractor License

Introduced in 2021, the Class B-2 Residential Remodeling Contractor License applies to contractors whose principal contracting business is in connection with any project to make improvements to, on, or in an existing residential structure, and the project requires the use of at least three unrelated building trades or crafts for a single contract. This includes:

  • (A) Drywall
  • (B) Finish carpentry
  • (C) Flooring
  • (D) Insulation
  • (E) Painting
  • (F) Plastering
  • (G) Roof repair
  • (H) Siding
  • (I) Tiling
  • (J) Installing, repairing, or replacing electrical fixtures, such as dimmers, fans, lights, outlets, and switches
  • (K) Installing, repairing, or replacing plumbing fixtures, such as faucets, sinks, toilets, and tubs
  • (L) Installing, repairing, or replacing mechanical fixtures, such as air filters, air delivery and return grills, and preassembled exhaust fans

For more information on the specifications and qualifications of a remodeling tradesperson and a Class C Speciality Contractor, please see the CSLB's Class B-2 Residential Remodeling Contractor License page.

Class C Speciality Contractor License

The CSLB requires contractors specializing in a particular trade to carry a Class C Specialty Contractor License. This license applies to electrical, plumbing, and HVAC subcontractors, to name a few.

CSLB designates over 40 different categories of Class C licenses. They include:

  • C-5 Framing and Rough Carpentry
  • C-9 Drywall
  • C-10 Electrical
  • C-27 Landscaping
  • C-29 Masonry
  • C-33 Painting and Decorating
  • C-36 Plumbing

If you’re taking a prime contract on a project that does not require two or more unrelated trades, you’ll be fine with a Class C license, provided you hold the license for that specific work.

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2. Meet the basic licensing requirements

The general licensing requirements in California are pretty straightforward. To qualify for a license in California, you must:

  • Be 18 years or older
  • Have the experience and skills necessary to manage the daily activities of a construction business, including field supervision (or have representation with the necessary skills and experience to serve as your qualifying individual)
  • Have four years of verifiable experience at the journey level, or as foreman, supervisor, or contractor in the classification you’re applying for
  • Secure a $25,000 bond to protect consumers against defective craftsmanship and employees from non-payment.

As of January 2023, California's licensing bond amount was increased from $15,000 to $25,000. The CSLB recommends the following actions for contractors with a license bond already file with CSLB to ensure their contractor bond is increased to the new amount:

  • If you have a cashier’s check in lieu of a surety bond, contact about increasing your bond.
  • If you have a contractor’s bond through a surety company, contact your surety about increasing your bond or refer to the list of sureties on file with the CSLB (current as of February 2023).

In California, all contractors must hold a contractor license bond. Two additional bonds may be required:

  • A Bond of Qualifying Individual for when the qualifier is a responsible managing employee OR when a responsible managing member, manager, or owner has less than 10% stock ownership
  • An LLC Employee/Worker Bond when the business entity is licensed as an LLC

Contractor education & credits

There are no educational requirements outside of those required to meet the journey level in your trade. 

However, the CSLB may provide credit in the form of work experience for up to three years for vocational training or an applicable apprenticeship. You can also receive a credit for up to 1 ½ years for an Associate of Arts in building or construction management, or three years for a bachelor’s degree meeting certain requirements.    

Note from the CSLB: “Please be aware that there are no schools or application preparation organizations that are affiliated with or agents of CSLB, although some may have company names that are confusingly similar to CSLB. If you discover that an organization has misrepresented itself as being CSLB, you should submit a complaint to CSLB or the California Department of Consumer Affairs. Official CSLB examination study guides are available free of charge on CSLB’s website and are mailed to applicants when they are scheduled for exams.

California contractor licensing schools

  1. Find a community college with a construction program near you
  2. Research private schools with California’s Bureau for Private Post-Secondary Education (BPPE).

3. Fill out the licensing application

The first step in becoming licensed in California is to determine that you’re eligible. There’s a non-refundable $450 application fee, so be sure you meet the requirements before applying.

If you meet the requirements for licensing, you’ll need to fill out an Easy-Fill or PDF application, or order a paper application.

The application requires the following information:

  • Full business name
  • Address information, including:
    • Public mailing address
    • Physical location
    • Business phone and fax numbers
    • Email address
  • License type or class requested
  • Business entity type, including:
    • Sole proprietorship
    • Partnership
    • Limited Liability Company, requiring:
      • $100,000 surety bond
      • $1,000,000 liability insurance policy
      • Identifying information for every officer, responsible manager, member, or director 
    • Corporation (requires an active California Secretary of State registration number)
  • Identifying information for the Qualifying Individual, including:
    • Name, address, date of birth, social security number, and driver’s license number
    • Current or previous CSLB license numbers
    • The percentage of the business owned by the Qualified Individual
  • Identifying information for personnel, including:
    • Legal names
    • Dates of birth
    • Social security numbers
    • Addresses
    • Driver’s license numbers
    • Title or position
    • Personal phone numbers
  • Work experience breakdown, completed by the Qualified Individual

Mail the completed application and the application fee to:

CSLB Headquarters

Contractors State License Board

P.O. Box 26000

Sacramento, CA 95826-0026

After the CSLB accepts the application, you’ll receive a fingerprinting packet. Take care of that quickly, as the exam notice should arrive within three weeks. If you have to reschedule the exam, additional fees will apply. 

4. Complete a background check

Once the CSLB accepts your application, you’ll have to submit fingerprints as part of the criminal background check. The CSLB will contact you with how to get these taken care of, where you can go, and ultimately, how much it will cost.

After fingerprinting, a random selection process could require you to verify your work experience. You can use an employer, a general contractor, a foreman or supervisor, as well as another journeyman for this step in the process. That person will need to verify that you have the experience required to run a construction business.

Criminal background exclusions

If you have a conviction for a criminal offense on your record, you may still qualify for a license. The CSLB has the right to deny a license for any conviction substantially related to the duties, functions, or qualifications of a contractor.

That said, the board may issue a license if you’ve shown sufficient rehabilitation. 

If you’re qualified, fingerprinted, and verified, you can schedule your CSLB examination.

5. Pass the California contractor licensing exam

Beyond the basic education and experience requirements, California contractors have to pass a licensing exam. Once the CSLB accepts your application, you’ll have to sign up for an exam at one of the following locations:

  • Fresno
  • Norwalk
  • Oakland
  • Oxnard
  • Sacramento
  • San Bernardino
  • San Diego
  • San Jose

Regardless of the license, you’ll have to pass a Law and Business section to confirm that you’re familiar with the laws and regulations that govern construction. The other half of the test will cover actual knowledge of the trade (or trades, in the Class B case).

Depending on the license type, an additional trade-centric section might be a requirement. This section will ensure that the applicant has practical knowledge of the codes, best practices, and methods for the specific line of work for which they applied.

6. Submit bonding & insurance documents

If you pass the exam, you’ll have more paperwork to do. You have to submit proof of your bond, worker’s compensation, and liability insurance. You’ll also have to pay an initial licensing fee.

Who needs a contractor license in California?

If you’re wondering if you require a license in the State of California, the answer is probably yes.

The general rule is that a person or entity needs a license if they construct or alter any of the following if the total cost (including labor and materials) is $500 or more:

  • Building
  • Road
  • Parking facility
  • Railroad + excavation
  • Any other structure

This guideline goes on to state that contractors, subs, and specialty contractors engaged in home improvement must have a contractor license before submitting bids. 

Essentially, these guidelines include all contractors. So, if you’re a general contractor, you must have a license. If you’re a painter, you need a license. If your company installs windows and siding, get a license. In general, the CSLB is very strict on this point. However, there are a few exceptions.

Licensing exceptions

A handyman service that completes projects less than $500 in value (including the cost of materials) does not need a license. However, they cannot break a large job down into smaller $500 projects to skirt this law.

The CSLB gives this example: Suppose you are remodeling the kitchen for a total cost of $6,000. You sublet the flooring work, which is only $300. The flooring worker is not exempt from licensure, because the overall project cost was over $500. 

Also, owner-builders — those building a structure on their own property — do not need a license. The same exception applies to security alarm company operators, satellite installers, or any craftsperson selling or installing finished products that do not become part of the structure.  

As you can see, it’s actually easier to name the trades and businesses that do not need a license in California than the other way around. The CSLB is extremely clear on this topic. If you’re working on projects valued in excess of $500 in California, the chances are that you need to go through the contractor licensing process.

Why you need a contractor license in California

There are many valid reasons why carrying a contractor license in California is important for your business and the state’s interest.

A California contractor license makes you look professional

If you want to land profitable jobs, it's best to present yourself in a professional light. Providing your customers with your license ID number buys them some peace of mind.

In short, a license is good for business.

A license ensures you’re capable

The state doesn’t want fly-by-night contractors working in construction, whether it be commercial or residential work. By passing the licensing exam, the state is certifying that you know what you’re doing. 

It ensures you’re insured and bonded

The state also needs to ensure that contractors carry the right insurance and bonds for whatever work they’re doing. The best way to do that is to require proof of those compliances in order to get a license. 

It’s the law

Most importantly, carrying a general contractor license — or other contractor license types — is a legal requirement in California.

In fact, the state requires general contractors, their subcontractors, and other specialty contractors engaged in home improvement to carry a license before even submitting a bid. Not only are there fines and legal consequences, but unlicensed contractors may not have mechanics lien rights.

How much does a California contractor’s license cost?

At a minimum, the total cost for a California contractor’s license is $699. That does not include any extra fees for additional fingerprinting or rescheduling an exam.

  • The application for licensing is $450.
  • The fee for the actual license is $200 (and it’s valid for two years). 
  • You’ll need fingerprints taken to ensure that your criminal background is accurate. The fee for fingerprinting is usually $49. Fees for additional fingerprint rolling are a possibility.
  • If you have to reschedule your exam for any reason, there is a fee of $60.

Renewal fees

Once you have your license, you’ll have to maintain it with the CSLB. Active licenses expire every two years, while inactive licenses expire every four. The CSLB will send a renewal application roughly 60 days before your license is due to expire. You need to fill it out and send it back with the renewal fee.

Timing is everything with your renewal. If you send your renewal application in on time, an active renewal will cost $450, while timely inactive renewals cost $225. If you’re late with your application, the fees jump to $675 for active and $337 for inactive. 

The CSLB recommends ordering a renewal online if you don’t receive a renewal application within 45 days of your license’s expiration date. As of May 2023, payment kiosks at CSLB offices statewide are currently unavailable, and all payments must be made online or via mail.

Reciprocity: Transferring a license from another state

If you already hold a license in another state, California may make it easier for you. The three states that California offers a reciprocal license with are Arizona, Nevada, and Louisiana. 

In order to qualify for reciprocity, you must be applying for a license that appears on California’s State Reciprocal Classification List. You must have held that license in good standing for the previous five years.

You’ll then need to submit a Request for Verification of License, completed by the already-licensed entity. After that, it’s an Application for Original Contractor’s License.

If the CSLB accepts your request, you’ll have to show proof of bonding, necessary insurance, and pay your licensing fees.

Licensing timeline

Ultimately, it’s difficult to provide even a rough timeline to suggest how long it will take you to get your license from start to finish, even if you pass your test on the first go.

To get an idea of where each CSLB testing location is in the application process, you can check the CSLB Processing Times.

Penalties for unlicensed contractors

Financial penalties

Anyone performing unlicensed work in California likely has zero recourse for payment.

Under California law, an unlicensed contractor “may not bring or maintain” any action for compensation for performing any act or contract for which a license is required unless the contractor was duly licensed “at all times” during the performance of the job. 

Keep the phrase “at all times” in mind. Even if someone was licensed when starting a project, if their license expires or is suspended for any reason, the same penalties apply.

Perhaps even more severe than that is the “disgorgement” principle. which means to “give back” ill-gotten gains. An unlicensed contractor may be required to disgorge (“give back”) any past compensation. 

So any money that was fronted for materials and labor is now lost. They may even end up paying taxes on the money earned.

Criminal penalties

A first offense of unlicensed contractor work is a misdemeanor, which can include up to six months of jail time and/or a $5,000 fine. That doesn’t include administrative fines that can range anywhere from $200 to $15,000. 

A second offense comes with a mandatory 90-day jail time and a fine of either 20% of the total contract price or $5,000, as well as possible felony charges. Additionally, illegally using another person’s license or pretending to be licensed, is considered a felony. So is unlicensed contract work during a declared state of emergency or disaster (unless the rules have been relaxed by the appropriate governing bodies).

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Why contractor licensing is critical in California

It protects consumers

The CSLB’s entire purpose is to protect consumers from defective work and inexperienced contractors. Any project valued in excess of $500 requires a contractor to hold a license.

Unlicensed contractors can often undercut the bid of a licensed company because they don’t have to carry overhead expenses, like insurance or bonds. As a result, substantially lower project estimates may be a red flag of an unlicensed contractor. CSLB regulations require licensed contractors to carry insurance and bonds. Without the appropriate insurance, property owners could be liable for issues that occur on the job. 

Here are some resources:

It maintains contractor rights

As a contractor, it’s critical to carry the appropriate license to work. If an unlicensed contractor performs work where a license is required, they lose all legal rights to collect payment.

They cannot file a California mechanics lien, bond claim, and could pay substantial legal fines and fees — or even face fail time.

California is also very clear on payment disputes involving contractors without licenses. Unlicensed contractors have no remedy for nonpayment.

The bottom line on licensing

California takes unlicensed contractor work very seriously. If you are a contractor or sub in California, it’s well advised to not perform any work on a construction project without a valid California contractors license in place at all times.


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Written by

Tom Scalisi

57 articles

Tom Scalisi is a writer with over 15 years of experience in the trades. He is passionate about educating contractors and specialty contractors about the best practices in the industry. He has seen first-hand how education, communication, and preparation help construction professionals overcome challenges to build a strong career and thriving business in the industry.

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