How to Become an Addiction Counselor

With requirements varying by state, the road to licensure can get a little muddied. Here we explain how to proceed, giving you step-by-step instructions that help expedite and streamline the process.
counselor speaking
Take the leap and apply. It's a journey and an opportunity that's worth every penny.

In this article, we’ll describe exactly how to become a substance abuse counselor. Addiction continues to be one of the nation's leading health problems. And as awareness of mental and behavioral health disorders continues to grow, along with access to treatment, so does the demand for qualified substance abuse counselors.

Here we’ll take you step by step through the process of becoming a substance abuse counselor—from earning your addiction counseling degree all the way to getting licensed or certified in your state.

The Steps to Become a Drug and Alcohol Counselor

Addiction counselors are mental health professionals who help people overcome drug and alcohol addictions, and other co-occurring disorders. If you're looking for a way to give back and help others, few occupations are more rewarding. Counseling as a career is also in high demand, so you can count on a strong job market once you gain the necessary skills and education.

Treating substance use disorders (historically known as substance abuse counseling) is a profession that requires specialized training and work experience. If you're just starting out, you'll most likely need to earn an addiction counseling degree, get clinical practice hours in a professional setting and meet other state requirements to become a licensed or certified addiction counselor.

It also helps to have certain personality traits to be an effective substance abuse counselor. Substance abuse counselors need to be good listeners with strong senses of empathy for others, and they also need excellent interpersonal and communication skills.

If you're ready to pursue addiction counseling as a career, it's time to start making a plan. Next we'll walk through the steps of how to become a counselor, including how to fulfill and obtain the right education requirements, clinical experience and other credentials you'll need for certification or licensure as a substance abuse counselor.

STEP 1: Review Counseling Licensure or Certification Requirements for Your State.

The requirements to become a licensed or certified addiction counselor can vary significantly from state to state. Requirements may include degree type, curriculum, number of credits, accreditation, clinical experience, internships and exams. That's why it's important to start planning now.

First, think about where you'll likely work following graduation. Then, look up the state licensure or certification requirements to become a drug and alcohol counselor and compare these to the academic programs you're considering to ensure the requirements will be met. You can contact your state licensure or certification board directly with any questions. You might also want to talk with a substance abuse counselor in your community to learn how to become a therapist or addiction counselor.

Courses and internship experiences offered at the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies are designed for substance use and mental health licensure. Requirements vary from state to state. Learn more about addiction counseling programs at Hazelden Betty Ford.

STEP 2: Earn a Master's Degree in Addiction Counseling.

Again, requirements to become a drug and alcohol counselor will vary depending on the location of practice. You'll typically need a minimum of a bachelor's degree to practice alcohol and drug counseling. However, as the prevalence of co-occurring substance use and related disorders increases, many addiction counselors pursue an additional license as a mental health counselor so they can provide the expert help their clients need. 

Several states have started to recognize the need for master's degree level addiction counseling licensure and certification. But that's not the only reason why a graduate program is your best option if you're looking for a long-term career in the addiction counseling field. Earning a master's degree will open a much broader range of career options and boost your earning potential. You'll gain valuable real-world experience working with other professional substance abuse counselors. Most important, you will be equipped with the necessary skills to help more people.

Learn why earning your master's degree in addiction counseling is the best idea for your career.

Find the best-fit master's degree in addiction counseling.

It's good to have options. Whether you're an undergraduate student thinking about a career in counseling or a professional adult looking to change careers, there are many different master's degrees and counseling programs available to fit your goals, so think carefully about which best fits your needs.

You'll want to make sure the master's program you choose is accredited, which will help ensure you receive the quality education employers are looking for. As discussed, you also want to find a program that meets the educational and clinical experience requirements for employment in the state where you choose to practice as a substance abuse counselor.

There are accredited master's in addiction counseling programs available both on campus and online. Think about your availability and learning preferences to choose the right option for you. Learn more about the benefits of online vs. on-campus master's degrees in counseling programs.

STEP 3: Complete Exams and Supervised Field Experiences

To become licensed or certified as an alcohol and drug counselor, you will likely need to pass an exam such as International Certification & Reciprocity Consortium's (IC&RC) Alcohol and Drug Counselor Examination or Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor Examination, or an exam through the National Certification Commission for Addiction Professionals (NCCAP).

Some states require you to pass similar examinations for mental health licensure, such as the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). In some cases, you may need to pass an additional exam for your counseling program or organization.

Depending on your state and the type of licensure and/or certification you plan to pursue, you might also need to complete supervised, post-master's degree professional practice as part of your substance abuse counseling training.

STEP 4: Apply for Licensure or Certification in Your State

In order to practice substance abuse counseling, you must be licensed or certified by your state board. Since every state is unique, check your state regulatory board for how to apply. Keep in mind that if you wish to practice in more than one state or in a telehealth setting, it may be necessary for you to maintain credentials in each state where you have clients. Learn more about licensure and certification for addiction counselors.

STEP 5: Continue Your Education

Addiction counseling is a professional field that promotes lifelong education and personal growth—not only for patients but for practitioners as well. The training and best practices for addiction counselors are continually evolving, so you want to make sure that you're always learning. Continuing education is essential to maintain your professional counseling licensure or certification, and stay current with any developments in the addictions field.

Take the First Step Toward Your Career: Earn Your Master's Degree in Addiction Counseling at Hazelden Betty Ford

The Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies offers master's programs in addiction counseling both on-campus and online. As an accredited institution of higher learning, our integrated addiction counseling programs include coursework in mental health and co-occurring disorders.

At Hazelden Betty Ford, you'll have the opportunity to learn from top counseling experts at the nation's leading nonprofit addiction treatment center. You can also take classes full or part time. When you graduate, you'll have the training and real-world clinical experience you need to succeed in your field.

Learn more about the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies.

View the Master's in Addiction Counseling: Advanced Practice (on-campus program).

View the Master's of Arts in Addiction Counseling: Integrated Recovery for Co-Occurring Disorders (online program).

"The Hazelden Betty Ford name carries credibility. Take the leap and apply. It's a journey and an opportunity that's worth every penny."

—Tracey Baker, graduate Master's of Arts in Addiction Counseling: Integrated Recovery for Co-Occurring Disorders

Find more information about how to become a substance abuse counselor

  • Just learning about the addiction field? Start with the basics. Explore what addiction counselors do, where they work and other general information about counseling as a career. What Is an Addiction Counselor?
  • Jobs in substance abuse counseling are in high demand. Once you gain the necessary training and experience, you'll have a wide range of professional options available. Take a closer look at the many career opportunities you'll have as a licensed addiction counselor. Career Paths for Drug and Alcohol Counselors.
  • As you explore different state requirements, you might have questions about pursuing licensure or certification. Find out what you need to know about the differences between the two options. Licensure or Certification? What You Need to Know as an Addiction Counseling Student.