Laws on Practicing Without a License

Hundreds of occupations require professional licensing, and not having that license can result in criminal or civil penalties or both.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 10/23/2023

For some occupations, it's necessary for people to first obtain licensure before they can engage in the practice of that profession. Licenses are required for hundreds of jobs, including physicians, attorneys, nurses, pharmacists, engineers, veterinarians, barbers, cosmetologists, nail technicians, tattoo artists, plumbers, HVAC technicians, social workers, real estate agents, accountants, and others.

Anyone who engages in these professions without having the proper license violates the law—known as practicing without a license or by similar terms. Individual states each adopt their own licensing requirements and penalties, but all states have laws that punish practicing without a license. Depending on the state law and occupation, a violation can result in civil or criminal penalties, administrative fines, or other sanctions.

What Does It Mean to "Practice" an Occupation?

When a state requires a license to practice an occupation, the term "practicing" means performing services for someone else. Licensing of certain professions serves to protect the public by ensuring that those engaged in these occupations are capable of providing the intended service. For example, physicians treat people for illnesses and injuries, and if they do not have the proper training, education, and expertise, they could cause their patients harm. When you practice a profession, you hold yourself out as having this expertise.

While state laws require people to have a professional license if they intend to provide services to others, practicing without a license does not include services you provide to yourself. For example, you don't need to be a licensed barber to give yourself a haircut, nor do you need to be a licensed attorney to file your own lawsuits or represent yourself in court. Licensing requirements apply when you provide services to others. If your state requires you to have a license before you provide such services to others, this is where practicing without a license applies.

What Are the Penalties for Practicing Without a License?

Penalties for practicing without a license depend on the occupation and state law. Each state's professional licensing laws are very different. Practicing without a license—say, as a barber—might carry criminal penalties in one state and civil or administrative penalties in another or both.

Criminal penalties include the possibility of incarceration, fines, probation, and restitution. These penalties are initiated by a government prosecutor and handled in criminal court.

Civil penalties may include fines paid to a licensing board or state agency. These penalties would likely be issued by a state agency or an administrative law judge in civil court.

Administrative sanctions generally refer to licensing sanctions, such as a license suspension or revocation. The licensing board would generally impose administrative sanctions.

Below are a few examples of common penalties for practicing without a license.

Practicing Medicine Without a License

States have differing definitions of what it means to practice medicine. Regardless, all states require medical professionals to obtain some kind of license before they can engage in their occupation. This includes doctors, dentists, nurses, physical therapists, and other healthcare workers.

States typically define practicing medicine as any activity that is intended to cure disease or preserve health. A person who diagnoses illnesses or physical conditions, prescribes medication, or performs physical examinations is typically engaged in the practice of medicine. However, this broad definition doesn't generally include activities such as selling vitamins, providing books on nutrition or healing, providing general advice, selling home remedies, or related activities.

Engaging in the practice of medicine without a license is often a felony offense. A person will also likely face civil penalties and administrative sanctions.

Practicing Law Without a License

Attorneys must also be licensed before providing legal services to other people. States have different definitions of what it means to practice law, though they typically include the same type of activity. Practicing law means providing legal advice, representing someone in court, preparing legal pleadings or legal documents, offering opinions about the validity of real estate titles or titles to personal property, or similar matters connected to the law. Anyone who engages in the unauthorized practice of law can face civil and criminal penalties and administrative sanctions.

Practicing Cosmetology or Barbering Without a License

All states require cosmetologists and barbers to be licensed to practice. Barbering typically involves providing hair and beard services, such as cutting, trimming, and shaving, for the head and neck only. Cosmetologists provide broader personal, cosmetic care services for the entire body—hair, nails, and skin.

States vary widely on what services or professions are considered barbering or cosmetology. For instance, some states exclude hair braiding and blow-dry stylists, eyelash technicians, and makeup artists from the definition of cosmetology, while other states include these professions. Nail technicians or manicurists generally must be licensed but may have different requirements than cosmetologists.

Practicing cosmetology or barbering without a license is a misdemeanor in many states. State laws usually impose civil penalties and administrative sanctions as well.

How to Find Professional Licensing Requirements in Your State

As mentioned above, every state has different licensing laws and procedures.

Internet Search

To find out licensing requirements for a particular occupation, try doing an internet search with the name of the state, the occupation, and the term "licensing." Often, the search will provide a name and link to:

  • a specific state licensing board (such as the State Board of Industrial Trades or State Board of Cosmetology)
  • a state agency or department for that profession (such as the State Board of Education or State Board of Health), or
  • an overarching state professional regulations agency (such as the State Department of Labor or the State Department of Professional Regulations and Licensing).

Along with licensing requirements, these websites should have information on violations and the penalties for violations.

Additional Licensing Resources

Other resources that might be helpful include:

  • SAN's links to Licensed Professions by State
  • professional organization websites, like the American Bar Association or American Academy of Physician Associates, or
  • academic program websites, like a university or technical school.

Reciprocity in Other States

Licensing requirements apply on a state-by-state basis. If you move states, you'll likely need to apply for a license in the new state or seek reciprocity. Either way, you'll need to submit a request to the licensing board in the new state.

Getting Legal Advice

If you face criminal charges for a licensing violation, speak with a criminal defense attorney. Even if the charges seem minor, criminal charges carry the possibility of jail time and stiff fines. Having a criminal record can also affect your ability to practice in that occupation and make it difficult to secure future employment.

If you're facing civil or administrative penalties, you may want to speak with an attorney who works in the area of business or employment law.

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