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Certificate vs. Certification vs. Licensure

Certificates, certifications, and licenses formally recognize knowledge, skills, and qualifications, but…

  • Earning a certificate doesn’t mean you’re certified… 
  • And earning a certification doesn’t mean you’re awarded a certificate… 
  • Sometimes a license can fulfill alternative certification requirements…
  • But a certification doesn’t mean you’re licensed…
  • Certifications are necessary for some jobs but not mandatory, like licenses are… 

Sounds confusing, right? Don’t worry, we’ll break down the differences between certificates, certifications, and licenses and answer common questions about each.

Comparing certificates, certifications, and licenses


What is a certificate?

A certificate is awarded after completing a course or program focused on a specific subject or skill. 

Who awards certificates?

Certificates are awarded by educational institutions, companies, and organizations.

Are continuing education credits required to maintain a certificate?

No, continuing education credits aren’t required to maintain a certificate after it’s awarded. However, certificates often count towards continuing education credits.

Does having a certificate mean you’re certified?

No, certificates do not mean you’re certified, but they can help prepare for certification exams.


What is a certification?

A certification signifies that an individual has passed an exam confirming they have met established industry standards of competence and expertise in a specific field or skill.

Who issues certifications?

Certifications are awarded by professional associations, companies, organizations, or certification bodies.

Are continuing education credits required to maintain a certification?

Yes, awarding organizations usually require continuing education credits to help expand expertise, stay relevant and up-to-date, and ensure professional standards are maintained.

Does a certification mean you’re certified?

Yes, passing a certification exam means that you’re certified in that specific area. However, maintaining certification status depends on meeting ongoing education requirements.

Does a certification mean you’re licensed?

No. While some professional certifications may be required by employers in certain fields, they do not grant the legal authority to practice a regulated profession like a license does.

Does earning a degree mean you’re certified?

No, earning a degree doesn’t certify you.

Are certification exams taken online?
Yes, online certification exams are common because they open the exams up to a larger audience and provide convenience for test takers. Many organizations remotely proctor certification exams to prevent cheating and support test takers throughout the process.

Do you receive a certificate after earning a certification?

After earning a certification, individuals typically receive a digital or physical document. However, this document is different from a certificate received after completing a certificate program.


What is a license (licensure)?

Licenses provide individuals with the legal authority to work in regulated professions after training and passing a licensing exam. 

Licensure can also include additional requirements, depending on the type of license and state, such as:

  • Attaining a degree
  • Earning professional certifications and/or certificates
  • Completing apprenticeship programs
  • Work experience

Who issues licenses?

Licenses are issued by government state licensing and certification agencies.

Does a license mean you’re certified?

No, a license does not necessarily mean you’re certified.

Are online licensing exams available?

Yes, high-stakes licensing exams can be taken online when remote proctoring is used to protect exam content and academic integrity.

Do licensing requirements vary based on the state?

Yes, licensing requirements can vary from state to state due to different laws, regulations, and standards set by each state’s regulatory bodies or licensing boards. 

For example, lawyers and teachers may need to meet different criteria or complete different processes to be licensed in different states.

However, some licenses can automatically transfer to other states, or the licensing requirements may be adjusted if the individual already holds a license, through reciprocity agreements or endorsement processes between states.

While there are distinct differences between certificates, certifications, and licenses, they all serve unique roles in professional education, reflecting the knowledge and skills required to help ensure competence and quality in various fields.

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