Should You Pursue a Hairstylist License? (With FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated May 10, 2022 | Published May 11, 2021

Updated May 10, 2022

Published May 11, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you enjoy being creative in your hairstyles or have experimented in styling others' hair, you might consider a professional career as a hairstylist. Earning a license is often part of the process in attaining a creative and social career at a salon or on your own.

Learning more about the education and certification of a hairstylist can help you decide if this career path is right for you. In this article, we answer common questions about becoming a hairstylist and getting a hairstylist license.

What is a hairstylist license?

A hairstylist license is documentation that permits a hairstylist to practice in a certain state. In order to receive a license, a hairstylist has to take a national licensing exam that is administered at the state level, including written, oral and practical testing of your knowledge. State cosmetology boards certify the results. General cosmetology licenses often include fields such as hairstyling, nail work, makeup artistry and skin care.

Related: Certificates, Certifications and Licenses: Jobs That Require Them

What does a hairstylist do?

A hairstylist cuts, colors and styles clients' hair to boost their confidence and freshen their appearance. The stylist first listens to what the customer wants, collaborates on potential looks, recommends treatments or products and executes according to their expectations. When they aren't with clients, hairstylists are managing their schedules, payments and stocking supplies.

Read more: Hairdresser vs. Stylist: What They Do and Their Major Differences

What skills do you need to become a hairstylist?

Before you pursue your license in hairstyling, be sure you have or can learn the following skills:

  • Creativity: Customers may have an interest in unique or difficult styles for their hair. It helps to be creative when working with different hair textures, styles and equipment.

  • Interpersonal skills: Learning how to work with many personality types helps your customers feel comfortable. Being personable and interactive while styling encourages repeat customers. Being relaxed and informative can reassure any client who may be nervous about hairstyle changes.

  • Active listening: Clients appreciate a hairstylist who fully listens to their ideas about a cut and style. This requires you to carefully listen to, analyze and understand a client's needs, wants and concerns.

  • Critical thinking: Your clients may prefer help when making decisions about their hairstyles. Critical thinking helps you evaluate solutions in order to choose the best style for your client.

  • Business knowledge: Hairstyling is a service industry, so it's important to be able to manage components of your service, including scheduling, pricing, advertising, accounting, inventory and customer relationships.

  • Time management: Scheduling clients is a key responsibility for a hairstylist. Learning how long tasks take and being efficient with your time is crucial to your business success. However, staying personal with each appointment and meeting clients' needs is important as well.

Related: Hairstylist Resume Examples and Templates

Do you need a license to practice hairstyling?

Some fields in cosmetology may not require a license, but most states require a license to practice hairstyling. Though it may feel like extra paperwork, licensing is very important for hairstylists. It helps your clients feel safe, ensures all hairstylists are meeting a standard and encourages innovation.

How long does it take to earn a hairstylist license?

It typically takes one to two years between classes and exams before you can start practicing as a hairstylist. The variation in time depends on the path of education and training you choose and how quickly you proceed through your training hours.

Related: 14 Top Careers in Cosmetology

How do you earn a hairstylist license?

States across the country require a license to practice cosmetology professionally. Each state may require different coursework depending on its own requirements, but you can expect some combination of schoolwork, written examination and practical exams. Follow these steps to earn a license:

1. Research hair styling or cosmetology programs

Because requirements vary from state to state, it is good forethought to study and earn your license where you plan to practice. Also, understand the policies, as some states require a high school diploma or GED certificate before schooling and licensure, whereas others may only require you to be a certain age.

You can find state-approved cosmetology schools, dedicated hairstyling schools and colleges with cosmetology programs in most states. As with any education, ask about a schedule that work with your needs and investigate financial aid opportunities if you could use assistance.

2. Complete your education

After you decide on a program, attend and complete your training. In some locations, you may choose a hairstylist school, but it is common to go to cosmetology school where you learn about other areas of the field. Programs are usually at least nine months long and teach you about hair, styling techniques, how to chemically alter hair and cosmetology standards in your state.

Here are some classes you can expect to take:

  • Essential tools

  • Customer service

  • Cut and styling techniques

  • Shampooing and conditioning

  • Sanitation

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Business basics

  • Chemistry

  • Marketing

  • Merchandising

You may also consider an associate degree in cosmetology, usually offered at community colleges or technical schools. This degree program takes two years to complete and offers more in-depth classes such as leadership, business administration and more focused styling techniques.

Related: Cosmetology Skills: Definition and Examples

3. Fulfill training hour requirements

Along with classroom learning, most states require you to complete a certain number of training hours or an apprenticeship with experienced hairdressers. During these training hours, you practice basic job functions like shampooing and conditioning and observe the actions and interactions with the hairstylist and their clients. This is also a great way to network and explore potential job opportunities.

Related: FAQ: Hairstylist Training

4. Pass the exams

In order to receive a hairstylist license, you have to complete both a written and a practical exam. The written exam tests your competency on things like hair maintenance, infection control, best practices, styling techniques and science concepts. The written test is typically multiple choice, and there are practice exams online that can help you prepare. As with licensing, tests can vary from state to state, and you may need to take additional exams that test your knowledge about state requirements.

Besides the written exam, students must pass a practical exam. You might need to cut and style hair, provide suggestions and advice or maintain a sample workspace to prove you can apply your knowledge to real-life situations. If your license is in cosmetology, you may have to perform practical exams in other areas of the field such as:

  • Nail technician

  • Salon or spa

  • Beautician

  • Esthetician

  • Stylist

  • Makeup Artist

Related: Esthetician vs. Cosmetologist: A Comprehensive Guide

Professional hairstylist FAQs

Here are some common questions you might have about working as a hairstylist after earning your hairstylist license:

How long does the license last?

Depending on state board regulations, you may need to renew a license every one to two years and pay a fee for renewal. Some states also require that you earn a certain amount of continuing education credits per year through online classes or at physical schools.

How much do hairstylists earn?

The average U.S. salary for a hairstylist is $55,129 per year. You may earn more or less depending on location, experience, skills and employer.

Can you earn an advanced license or degree?

Yes. Through continued education, you can earn the title of a master cosmetologist. Some hairstylists who are interested in owning their own shop might also consider pursuing an advanced degree in business.

Read more: The Best Business Degrees for Your Field

Can you start working after receiving a license?

When you have your license, you can start applying for a hairstylist position through job sites and by networking with colleagues you've met through your education. You could begin with an assistant position at a salon or explore options at chain salons that might have higher employee turnover. If you don't want to work for a shop, you can start your own business styling hair from your home or at a client's preferred location. This is a good way to build your clientele if you hope to start your own shop one day.

Related: How To Start Your Own Business in 9 Steps

Can you do more than cut hair?

With a license in cosmetology, you can pursue any of the related fields such as makeup artistry or skincare. If you'd prefer to keep your focus on hair, you could also consider a specialty, such as:

  • Hair designer: Stylist who experiments and creates trends

  • Hair care specialist: Stylist who focuses on revitalizing or maintaining the health of hair

  • Natural hair care specialist: Stylist who focuses on natural hair textures, such as Afros or curls

  • Colorist: Stylist who specializes in colors and tones

  • Weavologist: Stylist who specializes in fake hair and extensions

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