Starting a construction venture in California? Whether you’re a budding contractor or an established one from another state, understanding the California contractor license process is essential.
Unlike a minority of states, California doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all license for general contractors. Instead, licensing is slightly more complicated because it varies based on the type of contractor you are, the trades you engage in, and the cities where you operate.
This article will guide you through the nuances of getting licensed as a contractor in California, helping you determine which specific license you’ll need and walking you through the application process.
Tip: If you’re planning to work as a general contractor in California, we recommend forming an LLC. This is an affordable business structure that protects your personal assets against debt and/or lawsuits.
Northwest Registered Agent ($29 + state fees)
Who Needs a Contractor License
Generally, any individual or any entity undertaking construction or alteration projects in California with a total cost (including both labor and materials) that exceeds $500 will need active licenses. In particular, this rule applies to all projects involving:
- Buildings and any other structures
- Parking facilities
- Railroads and related excavation
The Contractors State Licensing Board (CSLB), which regulates contractor licensing in California, strictly enforces this requirement. CSLB recommends that virtually all contractors — regardless of their specialty or the nature of their work — need to obtain a license.
It’s worth noting that, to prevent contractors from avoiding the licensing requirement, the CSLB has made it illegal to divide projects into smaller jobs in an attempt to skirt the $500 limit.
Because the complexities of contractor licensing in California can prove challenging, it’s essential to ensure you’re well-prepared for the licensing process. To help make this process easier and give themselves an edge, many applicants invest in study resources.
Interested in getting started? We recommend using online study materials and prep courses to give yourself the best chance of success.
The CSLB stipulates a number of exceptions from this requirement to obtain a contractor license. Some of the most common ones include:
- Public servants engaged in governmental projects
- Judiciary officials operating within their official capacity
- Utility providers operating under certain stipulations
- Owners or leaseholders executing oil and gas tasks
Note: The above list of exceptions isn’t an exhaustive one. You can find a complete list in Section 1 of the California Contractors License Law & Reference Book.
Which License Do You Need?
The state of California groups contractor licenses into three main classes based on the nature of the work and the expertise required. Below, you’ll find the specifics of each license class to help you understand which one might be right for you.
Class A: General Engineering Contractor License
The CSLB requires any contractors involved with projects that demand “specialized engineering knowledge and skill” to obtain a Class A – General Engineering Contractor License. This primarily covers tasks like land leveling, earthmoving, excavating, trenching, paving, cementing, and managing concrete work.
Large-scale projects (e.g., overpasses, underpasses, bridges, airports, power plants, pipelines, railroads, and highways) generally fall under this category as well as those typically overseen by engineers employed by major construction companies or engineering firms.
Class B: General Building Contractor License
The CSLB requires a Class B – General Building Contractor License for contractors whose main job involves constructing structures “for the support, shelter, and enclosure of persons, animals, chattels, or movable property of any kind.” These projects must incorporate at least two unrelated building trades or crafts.
If you’re a general contractor in California who intends to bid on and oversee main contracts, you’ll need to obtain a Class B license. While you can take the framing contract of a project with this license, this can only be done on those projects that also encompass two unrelated trades.
Class B-2: Residential Remodeling Contractor License
The Class B-2 – Residential Remodeling Contractor License is tailored for contractors who focus specifically on making improvements “to, on, or in an existing residential wood frame structure.” Projects under this license should involve at least three unrelated building trades or crafts in a single contract, such as painting, flooring, and tiling (among others).
If a project includes any of the following trades, however, a licensed residential remodeling contractor can’t contract for it unless they also hold the corresponding specialist contractor license:
- C-16 – Fire Protection License
- C-22 – Asbestos Abatement License
- C-57 – Well Drilling License
Class C: Speciality Contractor License
The CSLB requires contractors to obtain a Class C – Specialty Contractor License if their main contracting activity “involves the use of specialized building trades or crafts,” such as plumbers, electricians, or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors.
Each specialist trade has a corresponding Class C license — of which there are more than 40 distinct categories established by the CSLB.
If you’re looking to take a primary contract on a project that doesn’t require multiple unrelated trades, a Class C license would suffice as long as it relates to the specific work you’re undertaking.
Interested in getting started? Kick-start the preparation for your contractor licensing exams today with comprehensive study courses and learning materials.
How to Get a Contractor License in California
Below, you’ll find the key steps you’ll need to take in order to quickly and easily become a licensed professional contractor in California.
- Meet the basic requirements. Before submitting an application, it’s important to check if you’re eligible given the non-refundable $450 fee. Specifically, you must be:
- At least 18 years of age
- Capable of managing construction business activities, including field supervision.
- Equipped with four years of experience at the journey level or equivalent
- In possession of a $25,000 bond (increased from $15,000 in January 2023) for consumer and employee protection
- Submit an application. After confirming you meet the basic requirements, you’ll need to submit a paper or PDF application in which you’ll provide your business’s details, license type, business entity type, and all required personal information. Once complete, mail your completed application to the CSLB headquarters in Sacramento and wait for your fingerprinting packet to arrive.
- Undergo a criminal background check. If the CSLB approves your application, it’ll contact you with information on how to provide your fingerprints for the required background check. You also may be randomly selected to provide verification of your work experience through credible references.
- Pass the relevant licensing exam. The next step involves passing a mandatory licensing exam that includes two sections. The first is a law and business section and the second is a practical test that’s specific to the license you seek to obtain. Some licenses also require an extra trade-specific section.
- Submit your bonding/insurance documents. After you pass the exam, you must offer proof of contractor license bond as well as workers’ compensation and liability insurance. You also must pay an initial licensing fee.
Note: For more guidance on how to prepare for your California contractor licensing exam, check out the CSLB’s Examination Study Guides page.
Other Licenses You May Need
On top of a statewide general contractor license in California, there are a number of additional licenses and permits that you may still need, which we’ve broken down in more detail below.
State Business Licenses
In order to operate legally in California, there are a number of statewide business licenses you’ll likely still need to obtain before you can get up and running.
Because the building materials and services a general contractor provides to their clients as part of a construction project are generally taxable, for example, you’ll likely require a sales tax license.
Additionally, your general contractor business may require a permit from specific environmental regulators throughout the state if it takes on certain types of projects with the potential to put public safety or health at risk, like renovating or demolishing structures with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
Note: To better understand your general contractor business’s licensing requirements, check out our California Business License guide for a more in-depth overview.
City and Municipal Licenses
In addition to these statewide regulations, your business will likely still be required to satisfy some local licensing regulations as many local municipalities in California often impose their own additional requirements.
For example, local contractors in Los Angeles must apply to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) for the building permits they need before starting certain projects.
Similarly, any business based in the city of San José must register for a business tax certificate within three months of launching.
Note: This is just an overview of the contractor licensing requirements in some of the most populated cities in California so make sure to visit your city’s government website to learn more about the specific regulations that apply to you.
California Contractor License FAQ
How do I get a contractor’s license in California?
To obtain a contractor’s license in California, you must meet the basic qualifying individual requirements and submit an application to the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). Then, you’ll need to complete a criminal background check, pass the licensing exam, and provide proof of bonding and insurance. For more information, see our How to Get a General Contractor License article.
How long does it take to become a licensed contractor in California?
The timeline varies based on processing and exam scheduling. After submitting your application and meeting all the specific requirements, you can expect the entire process — from application to obtaining the license — to take several weeks to a few months. For more information, see our California Contractor License article.
How do I get a general contractors license B in California?
To obtain a Class B license, you must have experience in two unrelated building trades, meet the minimum age and experience requirements, and be in good standing with the CSLB. You’ll also need to submit an application, pass a licensing exam covering law, business, and trade knowledge, and provide proof of your bonding and insurance.
What is the difference between a Class B and Class B2 contractors license?
While similar, there are notable differences between the Class B and Class B2 license classification. While a Class B license covers general construction projects in California, the Class B2 license specifically focuses on residential remodeling for consumers — that which requires expertise of licensed contractors in at least three unrelated building trades or crafts for a single contract.