Certified Electrician vs. Licensed Electrician: 9 Differences Pros Should Know About

“Licensed” and “certified” sound similar, and they might be used interchangeably, but when it comes to electricians, they’re two different things. Here’s how.

By Tom Scalisi | Published Jan 31, 2024 5:24 PM

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Certifications and licenses are an important part of an electrician’s career journey. They’re more than just symbols or awards; they’re proof that the electrician is competent and able to perform certain types of work. However, certifications and licenses are not the same thing, and the terms are far from interchangeable.

When looking to hire a local electrician, potential customers may check to see if an electrician is licensed and certified. That’s why it’s important for electricians to understand the differences between certified electrician vs. licensed electrician titles so they can accurately communicate their expertise and get more business from local customers.

1. An electrical license is issued by a local government. In general, an electrician must have a certain amount of experience and pass a licensing exam to receive a license.

An electrician uses tools to assess electrical components in a wall.

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In order for electricians to perform electrical work in any capacity, they must carry a license. Depending on the locale, licenses are issued by a state, county, or city governing body that oversees licensing. This body determines the criteria for earning a license, such as the amount of experience the person must have, the coursework required, and the fees they must pay, and the paperwork they’ll need to complete for each license.

Generally speaking, an apprentice electrician will meet all the local electrician requirements and criteria upon completion of their apprenticeship. This is the most typical route trainees follow once they learn how to become an electrician. Others may choose to attend one of the best online electrician schools or local trade schools first.

Once an individual meets the criteria, they’ll need to take a test to prove their competency. They’ll register for a test, send in the appropriate application and fee, and then take an exam. In most states, there are two main electrician levels with tests to pass: the journeyman electrician’s license test and the master electrician’s test. Once they pass the test, they’ll be issued a license, making them an officially licensed electrician.

2. A certification is issued by an organization and can allow an electrician to take on more specialized jobs.

According to IAEI magazine, certifications are quite different from licenses. An electrician certification is the result of a course or training that an electrician participates in to learn a new skill, technique, or tool within the trade. Certificates are issued by organizations specializing in a particular aspect of electrical work rather than an electrical licensing body.

Types of certifications include:

  • OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) safety
  • Electrical technician
  • Electrical inspector
  • Solar installation
  • Green energy
  • Cable splicing
  • Standardized task evaluation
  • Instrumentation
  • Low-voltage
  • High-voltage
  • Computer service
  • Electrical maintenance

These electrician certifications allow electricians to take on more specialized types of work. Rather than working solely on wiring and common devices, a certified electrician can tackle projects such as data wiring, solar panel installation, and even the inspection of electrical installations or equipment.

“Electrical jobs that require certifications can include specialized electrical work such as structured cabling for control systems, instrumentation, and high-voltage systems,” explains Stephan Cole, corporate field trainer with Rosendin, a nationwide electrical contractor with headquarters in San Jose, California. “Some electricians who perform electrical inspections need to have certain certifications as well. Most states require different certificates for projects that are commercial, residential, or industrial as well.”

3. Generally, an electrician must become properly licensed before they can become certified.

According to the Philadelphia Technician Training Institute, an electrician usually needs to carry a license before they can pursue electrical certifications. This means they have to meet the licensing requirements and pass their licensing exams. In some cases, the certifying organization might also require a set amount of experience before the electrician is eligible for the certification. These requirements are to verify that the electrician has a base-level knowledge of the trade before they sit through classwork or certification testing that might be too advanced otherwise.

Some certifications don’t require the individual to carry a specific license. For example, many OSHA certifications are available to anyone who wants to take the course. Similarly, certifications offered by tool and material manufacturers are generally open to all folks within the industry. These are often certifications that bridge different trades and are simply helpful for individuals in those trades to carry.

4. The licensing requirements for an electrician vary from state to state, and even between counties or cities within the same state.

Licensing requirements can be quite different among different locations within the country. In fact, they can be quite different within states, counties, or cities as well. For example, most states have electrical licensing boards that oversee licensing. However, some states leave licensing up to individual counties or municipalities. In some cases, local cities may control the licensing. Electricians who work in multiple cities within the state may need to apply for a license in each of the cities in which they work.

Electricians looking for licensing information for their area of the country can start their search online. They’ll typically find the requirements listed on their state licensing body’s website.

It’s important for individuals to note that in many cases, an electrical contractor needs to carry two licenses. One of the licenses is the trade license issued by the state; the other license is a contractor license. In order to be eligible for the contractor license, they have to carry the trade license first.

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5. Once certified, an electrician may enjoy new job opportunities, higher pay, and a more flexible work schedule.

There are plenty of great reasons for electricians to pursue certifications. For one, certifications are often required for electricians to tackle some types of projects. This means employers are willing to pay more for employees who carry these certifications, since this allows them to charge higher electrician costs to customers. A certification can also open up new possibilities for electricians, allowing them to work in different specialties within the electrical trade.

Essentially, the more certifications an electrician holds, the more valuable and versatile they are. They might even be able to specialize in a technique or aspect of electrical work that no one in their area is certified in, allowing them to charge as much as they want for their services. They can work for themselves, name their price, and make the most of their certifications.

6. Certifications may be acquired from organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association or the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners.

Electricians looking to add certifications to their resume have some excellent resources to consider.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is the leading body on electrical code. The fire safety organization offers a wide range of certifications to electricians who want to understand how to prevent electrical fires. Examples of NFPA-offered certifications include:

  • Certified Electrical Safety Technician
  • Certified Electrical Safety Worker
  • Certified Emergency Power Systems Specialist for Facility Managers
  • Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) offers certifications as well:

  • Photovoltaic Installation Professional (PVIP)
  • Photovoltaic Technical Sales Professional (PVTS)
  • Photovoltaic System Inspector (PVSI)

These are all helpful types of electricians certifications that expand their knowledge while also making them eligible for certain project types. The electrician will attend the required course, complete any testing and paperwork requirements, and receive their certifications.

7. Some examples of electrical certifications include green and renewable energy, electrical safety, cable splicing, and instrumentation.

As mentioned, there is a wide range of electricians certifications available. For example, those interested in the growing green energy field have a slew of certifications to consider. These electricians can choose from certifications such as the NABCEP’s PVIP, LEED Green Associate, Wind Turbine Technician, Energy Storage Systems, and Certified Solar Heating Installation (CSHI).

Similarly, if an electrician wants to specialize in the electrical safety field, they have plenty of certification options. These include OSHA courses, Certified Electrical Safety Compliance Professional (CESCP), Certified Electrical Safety Worker (CESW), or Certified Electrical Inspector (CEI) from the International Association of Electrical Inspectors.

There are more examples as well. A certification in cable splicing allows an electrician to join the ends of a wide variety of cables. Instrumentation certifications imply that an electrician is capable of using tools to measure, control, and monitor electrical parameters and devices (particularly large high-voltage systems and equipment). Certifications can help an electrician identify the best electrician tools (such as the best voltage testers) to purchase for their equipment inventory.

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8. Once a licensed electrician has received a certification, they can begin working in the field in which they are certified.

Becoming certified at the end of a course or training gives the electrician the ability to work in a specific field. They may choose to continue as a general electrician and take on these additional projects, or they might choose to pivot and work solely in the certified field. It truly depends on the individual electrician in question and whether the certification field has enough demand to support full-time work.

For some, a certification may be the path to the career they always wanted or the business they always wanted to start. Those who want to specialize in green energy, such as solar or high-tech low-voltage fields, can start to market their services once they’re certified. They’ll need to choose a business structure, obtain a business license, get whichever local licenses are required, and get insurance, but they’re essentially ready to start their businesses. Those who need help starting their business can hire one of the best LLC services, such as LegalZoom or Northwest Registered Agent, to ensure they complete all necessary steps to operate legally in their state.

Also, certifications can help an electrician stand out in a field of job candidates. If the electrician already has the certifications that a hiring company is looking for, they may be able to move to the front of the pack and take a big step forward in their career.

9. An electrician may need to renew their license and certifications periodically; the interval will depend on the regulations in their geographic area.

Just getting a license or certification doesn’t necessarily mean that all the work is over. In most states, electricians will have to renew their credentials at set intervals to maintain eligibility. Some states require professional electricians to renew their trade licenses every 2 years, while others might require renewal every 3 years. It depends on the jurisdiction, whether it be the state, county, or city.

Certifications can have similar requirements as electrical licensing renewals, but this is usually not the case. Rather than a certification expiring, new certifications may be introduced as technology evolves, allowing electricians to pursue additional training and gain more certifications. Some licenses also have multiple tiers that an electrician can complete in succession, such as Level 1, Level 2, and so on, until they’ve mastered all of the certifications in their chosen field.

Electricians may be required to provide proof of coverage from one of the best small-business insurance companies (like NEXT or Thimble) in order to renew their license or certification. They can contact their local licensing authority to determine the exact requirements for renewal.