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California General Contractor License: How to Get Certified

August 10, 2023 8 min. read
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Getting your California general contractor license is your ticket to one of the most lucrative construction industries in the United States. The Golden State employed the most construction managers of any state in the country last year, with over 36,000 licensed professionals, and according to IBIS, the industry is expected to reach $37 billion in 2023.

The average salary for a California general contractor is over $125,000, which means you stand to make a considerable living as your experience grows or you start your own business. Now is the perfect time to get your foot in the door of this lucrative industry. 

Do I need a contractor license in California?

Yes, you need a license to work as a general contractor in California. The only exception is if you work on a project with a value of less than $500, including material and labor, which doesn’t give you much opportunity to make a living. 

In California, general contractor licensing is overseen by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB), a division under the umbrella of the Department of Consumer Affairs. Here’s how the role of a general contractor is defined in California’s Business & Professions Code:

A contractor whose main business is the supervision of residential and commercial building projects that require at least two unrelated skilled trades. 

Types of contractor licenses in California

A general contractor license is just one of the many types of contractor licenses that you can get from the CSLB. Here are some of the other licenses offered in the state:

License TypesDescription

General Engineering Contractor (Class A)

License holder is primarily involved in the construction and management of projects requiring specialized engineering knowledge and skills, including irrigation, water supply, transportation infrastructure, sewage systems, and industrial plants.

General Building Contractor (Class B)
License holder is involved in the construction, supervision, and management or oversight of various residential and commercial structures where at least two unrelated building trades or crafts are utilized in the construction process.

For projects involving trades other than framing or carpentry, the general building contractor must either possess the appropriate license classification or subcontract with a duly licensed specialty contractor for the specific work involved.

Residential Remodeling Contractor (Class B-2)
License holder works on projects where the primary goal is improving, modifying, or renovating existing residential wood frame structures, where the project necessitates the use of at least three unrelated building trades or crafts under a single contract. 

The license holder cannot lead projects that involve certain specialized trades, like making structural changes to load-bearing portions of structures or significantly altering electrical, plumbing, or mechanical systems, without the appropriate license or subcontractor.

Specialty Contractor (Class C)
License holder can perform specialized construction work and operate a business revolving around specific building trades, including: 

• Electrical
• Fire extinguishing systems
• Flooring and carpet installation
• Framing and rough carpentry
• Drywall, lathing, and plastering
• Boilers, water heaters, and steam fitting
• Plumbing 
• Roofing
• Solar 
• Welding

Check the CSLB for a full list of specialty contractor classifications.

You can find a full description of each contractor type in the CSLB’s Description of Contractor Classifications guide.

California general contractor license requirements

All contracting licenses overseen by the CSLB have similar work experience requirements. You need to have at least four years of experience working in the class you are applying for, and the experience needs to have been in one of the following categories: 

  • Journey-level: You are a fully qualified, experienced worker who can perform tasks without supervision, or you’ve completed an apprenticeship program
  • Foreman/Supervisor: You have journey-level knowledge and experience and have also supervised construction projects
  • Owner-builder: You have built up the knowledge and skills of a journeyman by working on your own property. You’ll need to submit a Construction Project Experience form for each project.

While there are no education requirements to get a general contractor license, the CSLB lets you count up to three years of schooling, technical training, or apprenticeship toward your license. Include transcripts of your experience with your application, and the CSLB will evaluate it to determine whether it counts toward the four-year minimum. 

How do I get a general contractor license in California?

Follow the steps laid out on the state licensing page for each of the general contractor license types and categories: 

  1. Ensure that you have the necessary qualifying experience (see above) and supporting experience documentation
  2. Submit the Application for Original Contractor’s License
  3. Complete the fingerprint/ live scan process required by the California Department of Justice (DOJ) and disclose any convictions
  4. Pass both the Law and Business and trade certification exams
  5. Secure a $25,000 bond or file a $25,000 cashier’s check with the CSLB

Applications, forms, and payment can be submitted to the CSLB online portal or by physically mailing them to the following address:

CSLB Headquarters
P.O. Box 26000
Sacramento, CA 95826-0026

You can find all the application forms you will need on the CSLB forms and applications page.

California general contractor exam

You need to pass both the Trade Certification and Law and Business exams to get your general or residential remodeling contractor license in California.

Each exam is three and a half hours long, and you will find out if you have passed right after the exam.

Here’s an overview of each exam: 

ExamExam Information
Law and Business• Business Organization and Licensing (13%)
• Business Finances (15%)
• Employment Requirements (20%)
• Insurance and Liens (12%)
• Contract Requirements and Execution (21%)
• Public Works (5%)
• Safety (14%)

General Building Contractor (B) 
• Planning and Estimating (17%)
• Framing and Structural Components (22%)
• Core Trades (30%)
• Finish Trades (19%)
• Safety (12%)
Residential Remodeling Contractor (B-2)• Planning and Estimating (15%)
• Job Site Preparation (13%)
• Core Trades Remodeling (25%)
• Finish Trades Remodeling (18%)
• Exterior Remodeling (13%)
• Safety (16%)

You can find information about the trade certification exams for general engineering and specialty contractors on the CSLB site.

Does California reciprocate general contractor licenses?

Reciprocal licenses allow general contractors from out of state to apply directly for a license in California. 

The CSLB currently has a reciprocity agreement with Arizona, Louisiana, and Nevada for general contractors who have held an active license for at least five years before applying.

You can find out more about California’s reciprocity requirements on the CSLB website.

How much does a California general contractor license cost?

The cost of getting your California general contractor license varies depending on whether you are applying as an individual (sole owner) or part of a business (non-sole owner). You can expect to pay between $750 and $900 for the initial license.

Here’s a list of all the CSLB’s fees:

Licensing StepFee
Original Application$450
Initial LicensingSole Owner: $200
Non-Sole Owner: $350
Active RenewalSole Owner: $450
Non-Sole Owner: $700
Active Renewal (Late)Sole Owner: $675
Non-Sole Owner: $1,050
Inactive RenewalSole Owner: $300
Non-Sole Owner: $500
Inactive Renewal (Late)Sole Owner: $450
Non-Sole Owner: $750
ReactivationSole Owner: $450
Non-Sole Owner: $700
Fingerprinting$49 +  $40 Live Scan fee

Renewing your California contractor license

You need to renew active general contractor licenses every two years in California, while inactive licenses need to be renewed every four years. 

The CSLB typically sends the renewal application out two months before it expires, giving you lots of time to renew. If you haven’t received the application 45 days before expiration, you can order the renewal form online

You can then mail your renewal form to the CSLB office or submit it online, along with the corresponding fee for the type of renewal. 

What happens if my general contractor license expires? 

If you think your contracting license has expired, stop all work immediately and check the status of your license using the CSLB “check a license” portal. If your license is expired, fill out the renewal form or renew online and pay any late fees.

Continuing to work without an active license will open you up to penalties and legal action. First-time offenses for contracting without a license are usually a misdemeanor but carry a potential sentence of up to six months in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. You’ll also face an administrative fine that can run anywhere from $200 to $15,000.

If your license has lapsed for longer than five years, you’ll have to go through the initial licensing process again.

How to start a contracting business in California

Once you’ve secured your California general contractor license and built up experience in the industry, you’re ready to take the next step: starting your own general contractor business.

The Secretary of State (SOS) has a dedicated web page and checklist explaining everything you need to know about starting a business in the Golden State. Here are the main steps they outline on the New Business Checklist

  1. Develop a business plan
  2. Secure any necessary financing
  3. Decide on a type of legal entity and business name
  4. Register your business with the SOS
  5. Register a fictitious business name (if applicable)
  6. Choose your business location and identify zoning regulations
  7. Secure any necessary licenses and permits
  8. Get your Employer Identification Number (EIN), workers’ compensation insurance, and other employer responsibilities completed
  9. Meet all your tax obligations
  10. Stay aware of ongoing SOS filing requirements

On top of these legal, financial, and tax requirements, there are some practical areas that you’ll also want to address, like getting all the necessary equipment, hiring the right people, and marketing your business, and getting contracting business software. Check out Jobber’s Resources for Contractors page to learn about the ins and outs of running a general contracting business. 

Does a general contractor license in Carolina increase your earning potential?

Yes, getting your general contractor license in California absolutely increases your earning potential. Without a license from the CSLB, you are limited to projects with a value under $500. But by applying for your general or residential remodeling contractor license, you are getting your foot in the door of a booming $37 billion industry. 

The average annual wage for general contractors in California is over $125,000. But that salary can substantially increase alongside your expertise; the top 10% of earners in the country make around $177,000. You also stand to earn even more than that if you open up your own general contracting business. 

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