Whether you want to be an agent or a broker, if you want to buy or sell real estate in California, you’ll need a real estate license. You’ll also need to be at least 18 years old, complete specific real estate coursework, pass an exam (or two, depending on the license), and undergo a criminal background check.

Which license is right for you? The difference between a real estate agent and a real estate broker is largely based on years of experience and education. For one, an agent or salesperson must work under a licensed broker, whereas a broker can work for themselves and/or hire agents to work for them. Becoming a broker also requires completing additional coursework and working a minimum of two years as an agent.

Key Takeaways

  • As the most populous state in the U.S. and home to several large and medium cities, California is a great place for real estate professionals.
  • First, you'll need to get the appropriate license as either a salesperson (also known as an agent) or a broker.
  • Agents are required to work for licensed brokers, while brokers can work for themselves or hire agents to work for them.
  • 135 hours of real estate coursework is required to become an agent, while a broker license requires 360 hours and two years of practical experience.
  • Both licenses require passing a final exam and undergoing a background check.

California Real Estate License Requirements

There are two types of licenses in California so the requirements will vary depending on the license. A California real estate agent, for example, is authorized to handle real estate transactions but must work under a licensed broker. On the other hand, a broker is able to own their own company and to hire other agents to work for them.

Salesperson/Agent license requirements:

  • Must be at least 18 years old
  • Must complete 135 hours of real estate coursework (three courses) at an accredited university or private real estate school approved by the California Real Estate Commissioner
  • Must pass a final exam
  • Must be truthful and pass a background check

Broker license requirements:

  • Must be at least 18 years old
  • Must have worked for at least two years as an agent within the last five years OR have a four-year college degree with a major/minor in real estate OR equivalent experience as an unlicensed professional
  • Must complete 360 hours of real estate coursework (eight courses) at an accredited university or private real estate school approved by the California Real Estate Commissioner
  • Must pass a final exam
  • Must be truthful and pass a background check

How Long Does It Take to Get a Real Estate License in California?

From start to finish, it's estimated to take up to six months for an agent to become licensed.

For a broker, the road may be a little longer due to the additional requirements: completing eight real estate courses (instead of the three required to become an agent), as well as having worked a minimum of two years as an agent or completing a four-year college degree with a major/minor in real estate or other equivalent experience.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Real Estate License in California?

Becoming a real estate professional in California requires both time and money. When it's all said and done, an aspiring agent will spend about $515 to get their license, while a broker can expect to pay about $880,with each spending an additional $245-$360 annually to keep their license active.

How these costs break down:

  • Pre-licensing exam coursework can run anywhere from $99-$375.
  • Exam fees for an agent run $60, while a broker exam costs $95.
  • License fees for an agent cost $245, while a broker license costs $300.
  • And both licenses require fingerprints, which will cost $49.
  • Other miscellaneous fees can run upwards of $240, if applicable.

Real Estate License Reciprocity

California does not have reciprocity agreements with any other states so if you don't live in California and you want to buy or sell real estate in the state, you need to meet the same requirements as anyone else, with a few additional caveats.

While it's not a requirement to be a state resident to obtain a California real estate license, brokers must maintain a California business address if conducting business in the state (or file for an exemption), and agents who wish to conduct real estate business in the state must likewise be licensed with a California broker.

Can You Apply for a California Real Estate License Online?

You cannot apply for a California real estate license online. You must either fax or mail the completed application, along with any transcripts and fees paid by check, credit card or money order.

The review process takes about six weeks, after which time you'll be able to schedule your exam. And that you can do online via California's eLicensing system.

California Real Estate License Exam

Once you receive notification that you've qualified to take your exam, you'll either receive an Examination Schedule Notice or approval to self schedule.

Exams are offered in five cities in California: Fresno, San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Oakland.

The agent (or salesperson) exam is three hours long and consists of 150 multiple choice questions.

The broker exam is four hours long and consists of 200 multiple choice questions.

For either exam, you must score 70% or higher to pass. If you don't pass the first time, you will be able to reapply to take the exam again (with additional fees).

California Real Estate License Application

Once you pass the exam, you will need to fill out an application with the California Department of Real Estate for your license.

You can also apply for the exam and license all at the same time to avoid having to fill out another application after the exam.

Note that the state will conduct a background check with fingerprint processing before approving your license.

You must disclose any and all criminal convictions on your application. Depending on the crime, a conviction may or may not be disqualifying. But failure to disclose a conviction, even for a minor offense, is grounds for immediate denial of your application.

California Real Estate License Renewal

California real estate licenses are good for four years and the state will notify you within 60 days of your renewal.

Renewal fees will run $245 annually for an agent, while a broker license renewal will cost $300.

Does California Require Post-Licensing Education?

California real estate agents and brokers who are renewing their licenses or filing for a late renewal must complete 45 hours of approved continuing education coursework.

Special Considerations

If you are an attorney who is a member of the California State Bar in good standing, you are exempt from some of the requirements to become a licensed real estate agent or real estate broker.

Basically, you are granted permission to sit for the exam straight away. Your eligibility to practice law in California can be used in place of the college classes required of other applicants. However, you must still take and pass the relevant exam to become a real estate agent or broker.

Moreover, you are not exempt from the two years of real estate experience required of broker applicants. However, that experience does not necessarily have to be in sales: Other types of experience, such as practicing real estate law, might be deemed acceptable. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

And speaking of real estate law, California has a number of statutes and regulations that all real estate professionals should be aware of. The California Department of Real Estate has a guide to laws governing real estate in the state, including what may have changed year over year. More details can be found here: 2021 Real Estate Law.