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How to Become a Licensed Architect?


When discussing licensed professionals here in the USA, architects are still a bit of a mystery.

Surely you've seen enough doctor shows to get a feel for the intern/resident/attending path for doctors.

licensed professionals on tv This group has been educating us on what it takes to be become a licensed doctor in dramatic, scandalous fashion.

You probably also know a law school graduate who's disappeared into study mode for the bar exam?

But what about architects? How do architects become licensed?

architectIs this still how the public perceives architects? It would really hurt my back to work like that. Image from "architect" wikipedia page.

There Aren't Many Architects

Don't feel alone if you are uncertain how one becomes an architect. Many architecture students and even some in the field, don't have a grasp on the licensing process. One of the reasons for the mystery is simple: there aren't many architects. Even in the most populous state of California (my home sweet home), there are far fewer licensed architects than lawyers and doctors.

number of licensed architect in CA


So, before we get started on how to become a licensed architect, here are two things to keep in mind:

  • There are national standards, but every state issues their own licenses and sets their own requirements.
  • The process continues to evolve. By the time I'm done writing this, they've probably added another test or internship requirement.

The Four Basic Steps to Becoming an Architect

1. School

As you would expect, you'll most likely need to go to school. Not just any school, but an accredited program. There are currently about 150 accredited schools. To find one, you can start by checking with the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

There are a few types of degrees that you can get in architecture that qualify:

  • Bachelor of Architecture (BArch)- Your basic, intense-limited-sleep-and-social-life-most-of-your-courses-are-predetermined, undergraduate university degree. I graduated with one of these degrees about 10 years ago and although I'm not as bitter as I may sound, I am still tired. Also note that BArch programs are five-year programs, so tack on an extra year of tuition compared to a typical major.
  • Master of Architecture (MArch)- You don't need an undergraduate architecture degree to apply for a graduate degree, but there are masters programs that are shorter for those that already have a BArch degree.
  • Doctor of Architecture (DArch)- If you decide to become one of the dozen people in the world that have one of these rare degrees, then you are too smart to be reading this blog. Move along.

2. Internship

If you still want to be an architect after school, you'll need to get a job working for an architectural firm. While you work for (often little) money, you'll be completing your internship hours. There's a system to this internship madness and it's called the Intern Development Program (IDP). The bad news is that IDP involves documenting work hours. The good news is that IDP's intention is good: to give young professionals a well-rounded experience in the architecture field.

IPD completion requires 700 training units (8 hours per unit) divided into 16 or so categories that cover a diverse spectrum of what architects do. This program is intended to better educate interns and prevent young professionals from being abused by only giving them repetitive tasks (stair details anyone?) that do little to provide the necessary real-world education.

Some states also have extra internship requirements (such as California), so be sure to check with the state architects board.

3. Testing

Long gone are the days of prospective architects taking a four-day paper and pencil exam administered once a year. Since 1997, national testing has been computerized, offering candidates the "opportunity" to take the different portions of the exam in any order and at any time they can get an appointment at the local computer testing center.

The national tests, or Architect Registration Examination (ARE) as they are known have multiple divisions or tests that must all be passed. When I took the ARE, there were nine tests that I took sporadically over several years as I found time to study while also working full time. There are now seven divisions, with combinations of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and graphic portions, which require test takers to draw and create layouts in a CAD-like program.

Some states also have additional testing requirements such as California's Supplemental Exam. I took this unpopular, formal, oral formatted test and it was not fun. Good news for California architects-to-be is that there are rumors that the California Architect's Board is changing the oral format of the exam.

4. Licensure

So, once you've completed the above three steps, you'll need to register (meaning pay a fee) with your state (or multiple states) and verify completion of the requirements. Once you're licensed, you can officially call yourself an architect.

Architects can put the initials R.A. (Registered Architect) after their names, but it's more common to see AIA (American Institute of Architects), meaning they're a member of the national professional association for licensed architects.

Many states (and the AIA) have continuing education requirements, which means architects have to document educational hours in topics relevant to the profession to renew their licenses.


After outlining all of these steps, the question becomes, is it more difficult to become a licensed architect, doctor or lawyer?


licensed architect in other country & still contempleting whether or not persue ARE or keep working as 'designer' ...  
why & how one can use 'NCARB' next to their name?
Posted @ Tuesday, October 27, 2009 1:12 PM by cd
Excellent article Derek and much needed information! 
I will do my part of broadcast since many need to read this. 
Here it is on Twitter: http://twitter.com/imadnaffa/status/5206971766 
All the best! 
Posted @ Tuesday, October 27, 2009 1:16 PM by Imad Naffa
To find out more on becoming a licensed architect in the USA, check out the NCARB process for foreign architects - ncarb.org 
NCARB after a name means NCARB certified. Not all architects are NCARB certified. More on this can be found here
Posted @ Tuesday, October 27, 2009 1:59 PM by Derek Leavitt
Architects are the least paid professionals of all professionals. You've got to love it to do it.
Posted @ Tuesday, October 27, 2009 8:18 PM by Marvin W Towler
Great article indeed. 
Can you please provide any information on licensing procedure in Non-US countries; preferably in India? 
Posted @ Wednesday, October 28, 2009 12:37 AM by Kiran
Posted @ Wednesday, October 28, 2009 8:49 PM by RAFAEL DAVILA
I am a licensed architect in Brazil but since i came to Califonia I have been dwelling whether or not to get licensed. 
Seems like the process is very long, expensive and requires a "lot" of construction knowlodge. 
I would appreciate comments and suggestions. 
Posted @ Wednesday, October 28, 2009 9:02 PM by Fernanda Lima
Some comment responses: 
1. Marvin - Agree, to get into architecture, you should love it. It doesn't pay that well compared to other licensed professionals. 
2. Kiran - I'll be the first to admit when I don't know something and I definitely know nothing about getting licensed in other countries (ie. India). So, for me to write about it would only be a disservice to all.  
3.Rafael - While I respect your opinion, I don't entirely agree. Being an architect is serious business with a lot of liability. I graduated architecture school at 22. And while I may have been a decent designer at the time, I was in no way ready to be an architect. Like it or not, US architecture schools spend most of their time educating their students on theory and design with little emphasis on the real world skills that architects must posses. It would be great if architecture school prepared its students to be architects right out the gate, but in reality, this is not the case. 
I don't necessarily agree with all of the requirements (especially the excessive testing and associated costs), but many of them are good intentioned and necessary. Remember, designing cool buildings is only a fraction of what we do. There are a lot of other skills required. To freely give away architecture licenses to people with five years of experience (in a classroom) is irresponsible and could lead to some dangerous buildings. 
I would also encourage you to lay off the ALL CAPS writing style. 
4. Fernanda - I agree with your assessment that the process is long and expensive. However, I'm not sure if the construction knowledge requirements are excessive. Just ask any experienced contractor if they think that most architects know a lot about construction and they'll probably have a tough time keeping a straight face. 
What the state is really looking for when it issues you a license is that you won't be a liability to yourself, the profession and the people that will occupy your buildings.  
What you might be referring to with the "construction knowledge" issue is that the test do require a lot of memorization. This is definitely a weakness in the requirements, because memorization does not equal real knowledge. In the real world, architects utilize resources such as code books and material specifications to do their job. Responding to complex questions without "looking into it" (research) is irresponsible, yet this is what many of the questions on the ARE tests are asking you to do. I don't have an answer to this testing issue, but I'll let you know when I find it. 
So, after all that babble, my suggestion is that if you truly love this profession and see yourself in it for life, then obtaining an architecture license is well worth it.
Posted @ Thursday, October 29, 2009 1:03 PM by Derek Leavitt
Nothing is ever done and finished with the passing of an exam. Experience, practice, and continually learning in an architectural practice is all necessary to maintain an architect's skill and ability. 
In my opinion, you've seriously underplayed the "continuing education" step that is required of architects to keep their license to practice. This is grouped into the last step, but it's perhaps the most important, as it keeps the architect up-to-date with ever changing building technologies and construction techniques. 
And a comment about the post's composition. You write an entire post about what it takes to be a licensed architect for an audience of those interested in it or knowledgeable about the field. Then you close asking the question whether it is more difficult to obtain a license to practice law, medicine, or architecture without providing any basis for comparison. 
It's a nonsensical question. If you're going to ask this question, then the content of the post might provide the information needed for readers to discuss. You only provide a one sentence reference to TV - not reality. I'm surprised there aren't irate doctors in the comments section. 
I would have probably let the lawyer/doctor references slide if you didn't have that last sentence. The post was best written as a good layman's FYI on the process, which is always needed for those of us in a smaller (and shrinking these days) demographic!
Posted @ Thursday, October 29, 2009 11:00 PM by Amanda
Thanks for your comments. My two cents. 
I completely agree with you on this notion of exams. If you see some of my responses above, I am highly critical of the ARE exam process. And don't even get me stated on the California Supplemental Exam.  
" In my opinion, you've seriously underplayed the "continuing education" step that is required of architects to keep their license to practice." 
Again, agree, but in my defense, the title of this blog post is "How to Become a Licensed Architect?", not "How to Remain an Architect?" When (and if) I write that post, I'll be sure to go into plenty of detail on continuing education. 
In general, I'm not a big fan of lengthy blog posts and I felt that this one was long enough for what is supposed to be an overview of the licensure process. 
"And a comment about the post's composition...." 
You caught me. The ending to the post is pretty crappy. My Comp 101 professor from freshman year undergrad would surely be disappointed. I am not a good writer. It's actually quite painful and time consuming for me to write these blog posts. I'd rather be building models or whatever it is we architects do for real. I only do it to try to share the limited information I have in hopes that some people in the interwebs find it helpful. Ending blog posts is tough. I think I'll go children's' book style from now on - " And then all the architects lived happily ever after. THE END." 
"I'm surprised there aren't irate doctors in the comments section." 
If you can find a doctor that reads this blog, let alone comments, I'll send you a check for $10 and promise not to write anything inappropriate in the memo part. If most doctors are anything like my doctor friends, they're way to busy doing doctor things to read some random, poorly composed (see above) architecture blog like this. My doctor friends don't even have time to grab a beer with me and they really like to drink (of course never when they're on call, I think). 
"The post was best written as a good layman's FYI on the process..." 
BINGO. Finally a compliment! 
That is a compliment right? 
Well, I'll take it as a compliment, because, as it says in the heading, the intention of this blog is to be "an architecture blog for non-architects." If you're looking for an architecture blog that uses lots of complex words like "juxtaposition and "a priori" to discuss the complexities of architectural theory, then this is the wrong place for you. Besides, I barely know what "a priori" means. 
I actually have no idea what "a priori" means.? 
I'd much rather connect to and (hopefully) educate non-architects, young professionals and students than cater to the snobbish architecture elite. There are plenty of blogs for that.  
In all seriousness though, I really appreciate your comments and the critical feedback. If you promise to come back and visit, I'll promise to lay off the nonsensical blog ending questions. 
Posted @ Friday, October 30, 2009 12:58 PM by Derek Leavitt
I think I will come back and visit! Thanks for spending some time contemplating my comments, too. It was a pleasure to participate in some back and forth.
Posted @ Friday, October 30, 2009 3:30 PM by Amanda
Please checkwww.areforum.org for those who want to take the ARE 4.0
Posted @ Friday, October 30, 2009 4:41 PM by Hector Ramirez-Lasso
I've put together some charts about the process and duration of education, internship, and licensure as an architect in the US. These are based only on statistical data provided by the NAAB, NCARB, and the state of NY licensing board. They show a different story about the process than the one that is commonly understood. check them out atwww.stairwaytoarchitecture.com. 
please feel free to distribute the pdfs -- there are three 20" x 30" posters there.
Posted @ Saturday, October 31, 2009 12:49 PM by Matt Arnold
Hector & Matt, 
Great resources! Thanks for the contributions.  
Posted @ Saturday, October 31, 2009 1:52 PM by Derek Leavitt
My name is Michael and I am three years into what I hope will end in a masters in Architecture. Thank you…  
I never read blogs, and I came across this one (complements of a google search) to figure out more about the licensing exam.  
I am also in the process of looking for an internship and was wondering what the likelihood of getting an internship in Germany would be. I have family I could live with and I can understand the language fairly well. 
--Am I shooting too high here? 
If so, where in the states would you recommend spending some time in? 
Thanks in advance 
Posted @ Thursday, November 05, 2009 5:52 PM by Michael
I'm not sure about getting an internship in Germany as an American. I know that plenty of Americans do work overseas, but I haven't had any personal experience with it, so I don't think I have much to offer. You would no doubt learn a lot in Germany, but I don't think your internship hours would count towards IDP back here in the states. 
There are plenty of great places across the US to learn to be an architect. I actually believe that things have changed dramatically from the days when people only looked to LA & New York for innovative architecture firms. There are now great firms in big, mid-sized and small cities alike. I've seen excellent work from smaler firms in places like Portland, Austin, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix. All over really. If you're not set on a particular place, I encourage you to look all over and keep your options open. 
Hope this helps, 
Posted @ Thursday, November 05, 2009 6:21 PM by Derek Leavitt
That makes sense then, i'll visit over the summer.. and thanks for your quick response!
Posted @ Thursday, November 05, 2009 9:25 PM by Michael
Ok here's a question. I never finished my schooling, but have been working in the field for over seven years now. My experience has grown from draftsmen to project designer. I can't finish school and I didn't finish school because I'm a single dad and I have to work. Or else I'm a dead beat dad according to the state. 
I recall IDP also allowing people with several years of work experience to take the tests with proof of work. Is that still the case? 
Posted @ Tuesday, November 10, 2009 3:10 AM by Gino Lomeli
Hey guys! I'm currently a freshmen in college at the University of Illinois enrolled in Civil Engineering, but I would like to do Achitecture.. 
i'm more ceative then I am a scientist, and i would like to be a professional architect. 
(im planning a little too far in the future) 
can I get some feedback and perhaps some steps to how i can be successful in the architectural field? 
Thank you! 
P.S. On average, how much do architects make a year? (licensed and unlicensed)?
Posted @ Tuesday, November 10, 2009 1:10 PM by Alan
Licensing requirements vary per state. A first step would be to contact your state for their specific requirements. A simple call to your state board may answer this quickly. 
I'm not definite on this, but I do believe NCARB has a process for licensing individuals without a professional degree from an accredited program. However, I believe a degree of some kind is necessary.  
You can find more information on education requirements at NCARB
Posted @ Tuesday, November 10, 2009 2:31 PM by Derek Leavitt
Your question: "can I get some feedback and perhaps some steps to how I can be successful in the architectural field? 
This is a broad question. It depends on what you want to do within the field. I'd be happy to discuss this with you over the phone if you'd like - 310.526.7826. 
As for architecture salaries (& other interesting facts), check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Posted @ Tuesday, November 10, 2009 2:59 PM by Derek Leavitt
Thanks, this was excellent i always wonder how it all worked. Thanks
Posted @ Monday, November 16, 2009 11:05 PM by Jeremy
Writing from across the pond (Atlantic pond) -- I am wondering what the percentage of practicing women architects there are in California now--compared to the number of those who completed education as well as those who completed the exam successfully. Do they drop off in higher concentrations percentage-wise than the men?
Posted @ Monday, May 03, 2010 11:00 AM by Mary
Hi Mary, 
Sorry for the delayed response, but I haven't been able to locate this info for you. The California Architects Board has a lot of data related to taking the ARE exams, I couldn't find anything on percentage of practicing female architects. Too bad. If you find anything, please pass it along. 
Posted @ Friday, May 21, 2010 11:10 AM by Derek Leavitt
i really enjoyed that back and forth with you and amanda. good fun.
Posted @ Wednesday, January 05, 2011 1:26 PM by jeff
Hi derek, having a license for a chosen career is really not that easy. As a graduate of Engineering studies it really requires a lot of hard work and sacrifices to pass the board exam. But it is an advantage if you are already a licensed professional. There are more door for opportunities in the society, but somehow there are also big companies that accept engineers, architects that are not licensed sometimes they look for the work experience of the employee. But your post is good and informative to those students that are still in their University.
Posted @ Thursday, March 17, 2011 7:01 PM by research paper writing service
Is there any way to become a licensed architect with a BS in Architecture and a MS in Architecture? The BS in Architecture was achieved while the program was becoming accredited. The MS in Architecture is from abroad as well. I hope you know!
Posted @ Friday, April 01, 2011 11:10 AM by Betta
The short answer is Yes. 
What you need to do to get licensed depends on a combination of things.  
First you must consider your state requirements. If you're mobile, there are some states that do not requires a degree at all. For a rundown of states, go to http://ncarb.org/en/Getting-an-Initial-License/Registration-Board-Requirements.aspx. 
While at the site above, check the general requirements. 
Finally, there's a chance that you can get cradit for your international degree. Look here: http://naab.org/international/ 
Just remember that the state in which you intend to practice is what ultimately governs. 
Posted @ Friday, April 01, 2011 5:41 PM by CaliforniaArchitectCE.com
Thank you so much for the help! I decided to go abroad because of the specialization in restoration program they had at a university in Italy, which unfortunately is only a MS in Architecture, instead of a M. Architecture. I am 100% beyond happy to be in the program I am in Italy, but I was nervous I would someday have to receive an M.Architecture after my MS in Architecture, just to get licensed.  
If I were to work in a state that requires an M.Architecture, could I just receive my licensing in a state that does not, then have a fellow architect with licensing in that state sign all of the documents? From what I know from working, firms do this when they work in states or countries where none of the architects at their office are licensed in that area. If I understand correctly, they have to work with a local architecture firm that signs all of the documents for them. Correct me if I am wrong.  
Thanks again for your help. It is mind boggling that I am in my 5th year of my architectural education and no one has ever made this information clear to me or my fellow students. You are a life saver!
Posted @ Saturday, April 02, 2011 7:13 PM by Betta
I would like to become a licencee
Posted @ Tuesday, May 24, 2011 1:14 AM by Abdalla Saad Beshir Mohamed
Resources on Becoming an Architect - 
Becoming an Architect, 2nd Edition - Wiley 
Posted @ Sunday, May 29, 2011 4:23 PM by Dr. Architecture
Your the man....Love the blog and all the great info you provide all of us designers, students and architects. 
I am ending my Fourth year of architecture school, almost done, one more year to go then off to the real world and the slow economy. But hopefully with all your 'blogs and insights' on the modern architect, I shall survive. 
I'm a big fan of modern design and the design/build aspect, being the client,owner,architect and contractor is the way to go.  
Rethink your Resume is great! I created one after reading your blog. 
Posted @ Wednesday, June 08, 2011 12:47 AM by Ryan
re: women in architecture: i studied this issue a bit in arch grad school and what we found (about 7 years ago) was that even though the schools graduated about 50/50 male/female ratios, the dropout rate for women in the profession is much higher so that after 10 years the rate is around 15% female (that includes women who are not lisenced.) the rates are even lower for ethnic minorities. this is puzzling as law and medicine have both achieved much greater gender and ethnic diversity over the same time period. not sure how this compares with other countries. the research we found suggests many factors including lower salaries than other professions that require the same level of education, as well as the profession's difficulty in accomadating family leave situations. i realize this post is a year later but its an interesting subject and one worth pursuing there's been some great research done by women in design at the gsd that you can google to find out more about it...
Posted @ Sunday, November 20, 2011 1:07 PM by jennifer
I was employed by an Architectural Firm a week after I graduated high school in the early seventies. 12 years later, after all that experience, I sat for the four day exam, and passed all portions without stepping a foot in an architectural school. The knowledge gained through true professional surrounding under the leadership of some great Architects made it all possible. I was surprised at what little the guys knew that where coming out of five year programs with a degree. One graduate took the ARE nine times and gave up. What I'm trying to reinforce here is that experience in the office and a lot in the field, after graduation, will do wonders for your knowledge as a young Architect.  
It was a great deal more fun standing at a board drawing by hand than sitting at a computer when I look back at 40 years in the profession. A lot has changed.
Posted @ Sunday, November 20, 2011 10:46 PM by Steve
The bitter truth that we in the Architectural community except as the "practice" is sorely misunderstood. Getting a license to practice in this time honored and mysterious profession is quite difficult. 
I earned a masters degree from an accredited school or Architecture and have worked for over ten years. In my time between firms I have taken notice of the injustice we do to the young people that aspire to become Architects. I say injustice because because the practice is flawed in it's ability to mentor the young and willing. There was a time when an internship was truly an internship and one was lucky to hold that position because it was the only way to achieve the credentials to sit for the exam. This time was not long ago.  
An intern did not get paid and most certainly was not learning anything other than how to make "blue prints". Tasks could include cleaning off the book shelves shelves containing outdated industry literature or tag along to a meeting carrying awkwardly sized presentation materials and being made to play the part of the unpaid and eager help. 
Some of you may be thinking "oh you just had bad jobs or are bitter because you don't get to design anything". I have a great portfolio, stellar references and versed in many different market sectors of this fine practice. I say this lightly because my experience has come with a price. Missing family gatherings, working holidays and more weekends than I care to elaborate on. The time required to achieve a license is definitively an investment. Through all that and I am still not licensed.  
Why you ask? There are key contributors this simple answer, time is a luxury that affords one the opportunity for study. I am not here to debate and explain my situation. It has been my preference to seek the skill set and knowledge base that enable me to work as an Architect.  
There are some that would say and certainly agree that practicing Architecture is as much a job as it is a lifestyle. I however disagree, which leads back on topic. Many professionals in their 30's most likely work for someone that interned during a time that was described above. When interns didn't get paid and you were lucky to even be where you were running blue lines or the like. You were luckier than the rest if you had a significant other to make you lunch or bring you dinner because you are broke, working late or on some ridiculous deadline. 
During the intern process you will perform tasks that that high school students would probably turn down. You will make less money than your friends that wait tables and substantially less than your friends that decided to go into IT or some government related position. This is all but true, seriously. Continue to read, it gets better.  
Architects and design professional are notorious procrastinators, this fact is inarguable. My next point before I end this soap box thesis bound rant is that your boss, future boss or Intern Development mentor will pass the same nonsensical values of treating an intern the same way they were treated because they can. The process is cyclical and perpetuated throughout the profession. A right of passage or running of the gauntlet and completely absurd. I spent my nights and weekend looking at old drawings, reading manuals on and taking on more work that I could handle. Sometimes getting in over my head but pulling through by some miracle or aligning of the planets. It takes work, but its worth it. 
People want to be Architects, it is glamorized on TV and in literature. Architecture is a noble profession, one of servitude and... Well,,, putting up with a ton of BS. When you tell someone (not in the industry) that you are an Architect they will most likely say "that is so cool" or "I always wanted to be an architect".  
I still have student loans (11 years later) I can't afford to buy a house and have little savings, but I love what I do and think it is the coolest job on the planet. I'll repeat that, "a job". Im not one of those that wears all black or has the attitude glasses or the funny accessories people think Architects have.  
Yes, I said it. The coolest job on the planet. To become an architect you must go to an accredited school of Architecture or complete a post professional degree in Architecture in order to be eligible for the exam (a few states don't require an accredited degree for eligibility). You must complete the 3 year Intern Development Program and after all that pass all 7 exams, previously 9. Then you can truly call yourself an Architect.
Posted @ Monday, April 23, 2012 9:53 PM by Arkitecto
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