California Engineer Professional Licensing Guide



The California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (PELS) regulates the practice of engineering in the state of California.


The PE licensing process is the main focus of this topic. The PE name represents a high level of training, testing and experience. Being a PE offers you the full range of professional practice in California, including being able to bid for contracts and sell engineering and design services in the state.

California licenses Professional Engineers in the following engineering disciplines: Agricultural, Chemical, Civil, Control System, Electrical, Fire Protection, Industrial, Mechanical, Metallurgical, Nuclear, Petroleum, and Traffic. Structural, Geotechnical and Soils engineers are considered subspecialties of Civil Engineer and have extra requirements for practice.


There are some specific work environments where you do not have to be licensed to work legally as an engineer. There are exemptions under certain conditions for manufacturing, for government, or for military work.

In fact, a minority of graduates of US engineering programs become PEs; most use their training in positions that do not require licensing.

One warning: you must be careful, if you leave exempt work, not to continue calling yourself an engineer or offering design services; PELS can fine people heavily in these cases.


The PE licensing process is complex and takes years – even for graduates of accredited US engineering schools. It combines education, work experience, and performance on exams. Your education and experience before immigrating may be counted at least partially towards California licensing requirements if you can provide documentation of qualifying experience.

Many people choose not to re-license. There are many challenging and well-paid careers in engineering that do not require it. Most graduates of US engineering schools go on to work in their fields of study, but never become PEs. Whatever you decide about future licensing for your career, non-licensed positions are a way to first re-enter the field in the US.

If you want to become licensed in the future, a non-licensed position can support you and your career goals during this long-term process. Some employers even support qualifying candidates with training or pay their licensing fees.


Licensed opportunities: PE’s are often employed in design firms that work in both public and private engineering projects. A design firm is a company that also must be licensed under California law in order to practice engineering. Full engineering work for local and state governments also usually requires a PE license.

  • There is expected to be an increase in regulation and, therefore, in demand for licensed Professional Engineers. Since there is a limited supply of licensed engineers, it is relatively easy to find a job

Unlicensed opportunities: in any workplace involved in engineering there is a demand for skilled workers who are not licensed as PE’s in California. In California, electrical and mechanical engineering in particular can be done without a PE licensing in manufacturing, research and development, mining and some other areas, including Federal employment. If you find work in these areas you may have “Engineer” in your job title without having to have the PE license. However, when changing jobs you must be sure that you are still practicing engineering legally, and are not moving into a job that requires licensing.

In many cases, unlicensed roles exist working with Professional Engineers to facilitate their work. These technical, advisory and management positions can also provide good opportunities for meaningful and well-paid work. Job titles can include:

  • CADD Technician (Computer Aided Design and Drafting)
  • Expert Craftsman
  • Project Management Professional (PMP)

Some of these positions are described in more detail in the section Careers Related to Engineering.


Finding work in your field is probably a high priority for you. The job search can be especially competitive for immigrant professionals in a difficult economy.

  • Consider your qualifications for non-licensed jobs and specify target job titles to broaden your search
  • If you expect to become licensed, it is very important that you look for a workplace which has a professional engineer available to supervise you. This will allow you to meet the qualification for licensing that requires supervised work under a legally practicing engineer
  • Also consider expanding your job search beyond direct hiring positions. You may want to consider temporary placement through employment agencies that specialize in engineering-related hiring. They can provide you with contract opportunities in different workplaces, benefiting both you and the employer who has a chance to see your work without making a permanent commitment
  • Research small and medium-sized firms who often don’t advertise openings
  • Join networking and professional development groups in your areas of interest to make professional contacts and update your skills
  • Wait until you are advanced in the licensing process to apply to professional associations for professional engineers



The Professional Engineer licensing process has the following steps:

1. Register for and pass the the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE)

2. Apply for and receive Engineer-in-Training Certification

3. Accumulate 6 years of qualifying experience

4. PE licensing application

5. Pass PE exams (plus California Civil exams if civil engineer), receive license


The first step to becoming a licensed Professional Engineer in California is to pass the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying’s (NCEES) Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE).

The FE Exam is a national test that most US engineering students from accredited programs take in their senior year or shortly after graduation. The FE is offered in April and in October each year in 5 locations throughout California. Each applicant must register for the FE Exam on the NCEES website, pay the NCEES examination fee, and take the FE. The FE will be explained in more detail in the Tests section.

Examinees who pass the FE Exam can then move to step two and apply to the California Board to be issued a certificate as an Engineer-in-Training.


After passing the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE), the next step is to apply for Engineer-in-Training Certification (EIT). In order to apply for EIT Certification, California requires that applicants:

  • Have three years or more of engineering-related work experience anywhere in the world
  • Have never been convicted of a crime related to engineering practice
  • Previously passed the NCEES Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE)

Note: in many other states, foreign-educated professionals cannot qualify for the exam until their credentials are evaluated (most often by CPEES, the Center for Professional Engineering Education Services). This is not the case for California. No education documentation is required with your application for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam, but the Board has the right to ask for it. One drawback to this process for highly educated engineers is that you receive limited credit for your foreign education when it is time to show qualifying experience for your Professional Engineer license.

Your application package should include:

  • Application form (see Important Links section)
  • $50 fee, payable to the Department of Consumer Affairs
  • A self addressed, stamped postcard (it will be mailed to you to confirm receipt of your application)

If approved, you will then be designated as an Engineer in Training (EIT) by the state of California. More information can be found in the Important Links section.


Engineer-in-Training (EIT) is your first legal professional title in engineering in the state of California. All EITs need to accumulate 6 years of qualifying experience before moving to the next step in licensing.


Foreign education: These 6 years can include a maximum of just 2 years of your foreign education, even if you have an advanced degree in engineering. You must follow specific instructions on how to document your education – the Board requests sealed transcripts or notarized copies, and any documents not in English need notarized translations.

Foreign work experience: Your foreign work experience may qualify for the remaining 4 years of experience, but only if you can document that you worked under the supervision of an engineer who was legally practicing in the country where you worked (that person was either licensed nationally or worked in a field that did not require a license).


If you do not have four full years of qualifying experience you can document, then you will need to earn the rest of your experience in a US workplace (there are some options for activities like studying or teaching as well). You will need to work under a legally practicing engineer (either a licensed or exempt engineer) and your work will have to include supervised engineering activities.

Some tips:

  • Look for employment in a firm or other workplace with a professional engineer on staff and get permission for the engineer’s participation in your program
  • You will have to document your work for the PE and receive his or her recommendation to meet the California Board for
  • Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BPELS) qualifying experience standards
  • Your exact job title is not relevant; you just need to work under a legally practicing engineer with increasing responsibility
  • If you change employers and/or supervising PEs over this four-year period, you must have all PEs submit documentation to account for the full amount of qualifying experience


California requires you to use the Engagement Record and Reference Form (see Important Links) to document all of your qualifying employment. It does not matter if this experience was in a foreign country or if you have been working in the US to earn it. It is important to read the instructions carefully for information about the total number of references you need, which specific professionals are qualified to fill them out, and what parts of your experience qualify.

It will be helpful if you remind the people who will be your references of your exact duties and other information about your work to be certain that the reference reflects your full experience. Also note that reference forms ask the supervisor opinions about your performance. These records are then sealed. Since a negative review can hurt your case it is a good idea to discuss the form first with the reference to be certain that this reference will be positive.

Once you have gathered all documentation, submit it together with the application in Step 4 to BPELS for approval.



Your licensing application will determine if you are eligible to take your PE examination. It can include:

  • 2-page application (this form must be typed and signed and also include your Social Security number or Taxpayer I.D.)
  • All documentation of work experience (Engagement Record and Reference Forms which must be sealed and marked by the people giving you the references)
  • All documentation of educational experience (transcripts, translations, etc.) if you will use your foreign education for 2 years of experience credit
  • 2 stamped postcards addressed to you (the Board will mail the first postcard to confirm your application was received and the second to inform you when your application review is complete)
  • Your answers to the Take-Home Examination on State Laws and Board Rules (see Tests section)
  • $125 fee (check or money order to “Department of Consumer Affairs”)

Note on deadlines: the Board must receive a complete application with all of the items below almost 4 months before the Professional Engineer exam date you wish to take. Give yourself plenty of time to meet your deadlines, because PE exams are only given once or twice a year, depending on the specialty.

All links for application information are available in the Important Links section.

If all of your documents are in order, you will be given a notice of permission to register for the PE exam. If you are a civil engineer you will also qualify for the two extra California examinations required for civil engineers.


The PE exam will be discussed in detail in the next section, as will the additional exams specific to California civil engineering.

Once you have passed these exams, you will be granted licensure as a Professional Engineer in the state of California. Please refer to the section Beyond Licensing for basic information on requirements to maintain licensure.



The Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE) tests the knowledge that is expected of recent university graduates for general engineering concepts and other specific engineering disciplines. It is sometimes still referred to by its former name, the Engineer in Training Exam (EIT). The examination is administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).

The FE Exam costs $125 and is payable to the NCEES when you register for the exam. You must pay an additional application fee of $50 to the California Department of Consumer Affairs when you apply for your Engineer-In-Training Certification (EIT).

  • The FE exam is offered two times a year, in April and October – but to qualify in time, your application to the Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors must be received over 2 months in advance
  • The FE exam consists of a full day of testing in one morning and one afternoon session of 4 hours each

The morning session is standard for all test-takers. It has 120 questions in 12 topic areas. These are: math; engineering probability and statistics; chemistry; computers; ethics and business practices; engineering economics; engineering mechanics – statics and dynamics; strength of materials; material properties; fluid mechanics; electricity and magnetism; and thermodynamics.

The afternoon session consists of one 60-question Module. You choose one of seven Modules available. They are:

  1. Civil engineering: this module has 9 topics: surveying; hydraulics and hydrologic systems; soil mechanics and foundations; environmental engineering; transportation; structural analysis; structural design; construction management; and materials
  2. Other/general engineering: this module has 9 topics: advanced engineering mathematics; engineering probability and statistics; biology; engineering economics; application of engineering mechanics; engineering of materials; fluids; electricity and magnetism; thermodynamics and heat transfer
  3. Chemical engineering: this module has 11 topics: chemistry; material/energy balances; chemical engineering thermodynamics; fluid dynamics; heat transfer; mass transfer; chemical reaction engineering; process design and economic optimization; computer usage in chemical engineering; process control; safety, health and environmental
  4. Electrical engineering: this module has 9 topics: circuits; power; electromagnetics; control systems; communications; signal processing; electronics; digital systems; computer systems
  5. Environmental engineering: this module has 5 topic areas: water resources; water and wastewater engineering; air quality engineering; solid and hazardous waste engineering; environmental science and management
  6. Industrial engineering: this module has 8 topics: engineering economics; probability and statistics; modeling and computation; industrial management; manufacturing and production systems; facilities and logistics; human factors, productivity, ergonomics, and work design; quality
  7. Mechanical engineering: this module has 8 topics: mechanical design and analysis; kinematics, dynamics, and vibrations; materials and processing; measurements, instrumentation, and controls; thermodynamics and energy conversion processes; fluid mechanics and fluid machinery; heat transfer; refrigeration and HVAC

Your background in a specific field of engineering practice such as mechanical or civil engineering may make choosing its module for the afternoon session appear to be an easy decision. However, you may also wish to consider general engineering, especially if your test preparation time is limited. Its topics are an extension of the topics covered in the morning session.

All reference materials for both morning and afternoon sessions, such as formula sheets, are provided by NCEES. However, test takers must provide their own calculators, chosen from an NCEES- approved list (See the Important Links section for more information.)


This 25-question multiple choice exam is available on the Board website and should be included in your PE license application (Step 4). It covers California-specific laws and processes for the practice of engineering. You can learn this information by studying the California Professional Engineers Act and the Board Rules in detail.


The Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam (PE) is an exam for Engineers-in-Training. The PE exam tests the theoretical and practical engineering knowledge you have gained through a minimum of six years of qualifying education as well as employment experience under the guidance of a legally practicing engineer. NCEES, which administers the exam, offers many distinct PE exams for various specialties.

Your PE Licensing application and its $125 fee does not include the cost of your PE Exam. The PE Exam costs $265 and is payable to the NCEES when you register for the exam.


In California PE exams are given two times a year, in April and October, for the engineering specialties of:

  • Chemical
  • Civil
  • Electrical
  • Mechanical

Other exams are given only once a year, in October, for:

  • Agricultural
  • Control Systems
  • Fire Protection
  • Geotechnical
  • Industrial
  • Metallurgical
  • Nuclear
  • Petroleum
  • Traffic


Each PE test is 8 hours long – a morning and afternoon session of 4 hours each.

Breadth Exam: the morning exam is called the Breadth Exam, and covers major practice areas or subspecialties within an engineering discipline.

For example, the Breadth Exam for the Civil Engineering PE has 40 questions covering five areas: construction; geotechnical; structural; transportation; and water resources/environmental engineering.

Depth Exam: the afternoon session, called the Depth Exam, is an exam that focuses in on just one of the major practice areas that are covered in the morning session.You are free to choose the area you want to be tested in for the Depth Exam.

All reference materials for both morning and afternoon sessions, such as formula sheets, are provided by NCEES. Test takers must provide their own calculators, chosen from an NCEES-approved list.


The State of California requires two additional exams for civil engineers seeking licensing in the state. These are 2½-hours long each and are both offered on the day after the PE Civil exam. The Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors has special resources to prepare these exams.

The Important Links section has links to online documents and test preparation resources for all of the tests used in California Professional Engineer licensing.



Evaluating your foreign degree and achieving licensing as a Professional Engineer in California depends on many factors:

  • The completeness of your educational and professional records (the more documentation, the better)
  • The size of the gap between your engineering degree and US accreditation standards
  • Your performance on FE and PE licensing exams and their timing
  • Your access to employment that can bring you necessary qualifying experience
  • Your free time and what you can afford to spend on licensing

We provide two hypothetical scenarios to show some of the variety of results that immigrant professionals may find when they seek to become Professional Engineers in California. Please consider these scenarios as two examples out of many possibilities. Your experience will vary.


StepMore Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
Less Efficient Scenario
Approximate Time and Cost
1 Register and Pass the FE ExamYou pass the FE exam on the first try

6 months + $125
You spend $300 on test preparation then pass the FE exam on the first try

6 months + $425
2 Apply for Engineer-in-Training (EIT) CertificationYou apply for EIT certification

3 months + $50
You apply for EIT certification

3 months + $50
3 Accumulate 6 years qualifying experienceYour school sends sealed, original transcripts from your engineering degree (no translation needed) which counts for 2 years of experience

You gather documentation from your long foreign work experience that exceeds the remaining 4 years of required qualifying experience

6 months + $300
Your school sends sealed, original transcripts and you get notarized translations. This counts for 2 years of experience

You can only get adequate documentation from foreign work experience equivalent to 1 year of qualifying professional experience

You find full time and project work under licensed PEs and complete 3 years of qualifying experience in 4 1/2 years

5 years + $400
4 PE Licensing applicationYour qualifying experience is accepted and your application approved

3 months + $125
Your qualifying experience is accepted and your application

3 months + $125
5 Pass PE, receive licenseYou pass your PE exam with just a few months' preparation

The PE Board approves your application 5 months later

1 year + $265
You take a test preparation class but fail the exam the first time

The PE Board approves your application 5 months after you receive a passing score

1 year, 7 months + $1,280
More Efficient Total
Approximately 2 1/2 years + $850
Less Efficient Total
Approximately 7 1/2 years + $2,300


The diversity of jobs in engineering and the high numbers of positions that do not require licensing make non-licensed careers in engineering very attractive to foreign-educated professionals. Here are just a few notes on in-demand credentials or job titles to start you in your research. The Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Important Links can give you a better idea of the responsibilities in these and other careers in engineering.

Preparing for licensing takes a significant amount of time, money, and effort. Some professionals choose to seek lower-level positions in engineering to help them meet longer-term licensing goals. If you take a job with fewer responsibilities but with access to a supervising PE, you may find some distinct advantages. These include the ability to build job security, polish technology skills and adapt to the US workplace culture in a lower-pressure environment, and to have more energy left over to focus on preparing for licensing exams. You should be honest with your employer about your long-term plans and be sure that they understand how you can contribute to their company’s objectives.


Detailer/Drafter – Computer-Aided Design and Drafting

Typically, knowledge of CADD software is a prerequisite for this position, which involves the preparation of detailed drawings for engineering projects. 2 years of college typical. 2010 median earnings nationally: $47,880.


Project Management Professional Certification

If you have prior experience of project management and particularly strong communication and organizational skills, you may want to consider qualifying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute. The PMP is a widely-recognized credential that can complement an engineering background, as many large engineering projects require both project skills and mastery of technical specialties. Again, if your soft skills prepare you for this kind of work, it is a way to work actively in the engineering field without having to hold professional licensure.

Construction Manager

People trained in civil or structural engineering may find that earning construction management certificates offers a way for you to specialize in the medium term and save resources while still maintaining a critical role in your field. Construction management is a viable option if you have excellent communication and organizational skills and have already worked in this capacity in your career.

LEED Certification Professional

Green building and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification depend, in part, on systems that fall to mechanical engineers, such as heating and cooling. Given trends towards large-scale investment in environmentally-friendly building and rehabilitation, getting certified to assess projects for LEED can be an interesting credential for an engineer with the right transferable skills.



If you plan to have your own engineering business once you are a Professional Engineer in the state of California, it is important to know that you must file detailed business information with the Board. This is done through an Organization Record form. It is your responsibility to keep all records updated to be certain that public health and safety are protected in engineering business transactions – including filing a Disassociation Form when you leave a firm where you had responsible charge of engineering projects.


Once you are licensed as a Professional Engineer you must maintain your California licensure by renewing it every two years with the Board. The cost in 2012 was $125.

California does not require you to document continuing education or professional development hours to renew your license.


State and national associations for professional engineers and structural engineers provide opportunities for professional development and networking. They also help set acceptable working conditions for the industry and give information and opinions on policy in California and across the US. Their websites may offer useful orientation to the licensing and examination process, including test preparation. Their employment networks, however, are typically restricted to licensed professionals. Once you have progressed in the licensing process you may want to join a professional engineer or structural engineer association.


  • California Society of Professional Engineers


  • National Society of Professional Engineers

Even if you are not seeking licensing, you can find a large variety of professional associations with membership based not on licensed status but on specialty discipline, job type, sector, ethnicity, gender, or religion.


Some people with PE licenses from one state want to practice engineering in another state. The autonomy of each state’s professional regulation creates differences that complicate licensing mobility.

PEs from other states can qualify to practice as Professional Engineers in California through comity (similar requirements) if they:

  • Show that their education and experience meet all California eligibility criteria for licensing as a PE
  • Apply for and receive a California license in addition to their existing license

Conversely, when California PEs want to work in other states, they must research and meet the licensing guidelines of their destination state, which can sometimes be less restrictive than California regulations. In either case, some employers see the value in helping their engineers with licensing mobility when their business crosses state boundaries.


Civil Engineers whose business is based in another US state or even in a foreign country, w here they hold a valid license, can apply for a Temporary Authorization to conduct engineering work in the state for up to 180 days per year if it is for just one project. The process includes a take-home test and an appointment with the Board to discuss the project and the applicant’s qualifications.

(BS for Bachelor of Science or BA for Bachelor of Arts): in the US, a four year university degree. An equivalent degree in another country may take either 3 or 4 years.

Items like medical insurance, paid days off, and retirement savings plans that some employers offer workers in addition to salary.

Documents that authorities accept as proof that you have learned specific skills (from courses, study, or practice) and are qualified for certain types of job responsibilities. Examples of credentials are a university degree, a certification, or proof of participation in training.

Management and direction in professional engineering work by a licensed Professional Engineer which can include having authority and responsibility over the work of unlicensed workers

Your university’s official record of the subjects you studied and your grades.

A special-case exception to the general rule



  • California does not evaluate credentials on a course-by-course basis, it only looks for granting of an undergraduate degree in engineering







Be your own advocate throughout the licensing process. Seek clarification about questions and concerns directly from official sources. The California Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (BPELS) can answer specific questions on an individual basis by phone or email.


Carefully document any foreign experience that may qualify to meet requirements for PE licensing


Your FE exam includes a general engineering test in the a.m. and your choice of a general or specialized engineering topic for the p.m. Look at NCEE exam descriptions and study materials to decide which choice will be the best for you. Some people prefer to take General Engineering in the afternoon because all of the day’s material will require similar preparation. Others with significant experience in a specialization may prefer to take the afternoon test in the discipline they know the best.


Build professional networks; consider temporary or contract employment in your field to build your reputation; be prepared to start at lower levels and prove your competence. To compete successfully you should work to keep up to date in workplace technologies such as CADD and Excel; perfect your communication skills for professional emails, reporting, and client contact; learn how to discuss your past work experience in terms of skills you can transfer to new projects, and develop a portfolio of work that highlights your skills without compromising the intellectual property of your former employers. If you seem overqualified for a position, be prepared to explain how the position will help you become established in a way that shows long-term benefit to the employer.

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