How to Get a C-20 California HVAC/AC Contractor License

TLDR: A Warm-Air Heating, Ventilating, and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) contractor license is mandatory in California for providing services that exceed $500. California imposes stringent requirements due to the potential risks associated with the HVAC industry and its significance in the state's construction sector. This article guides you through the process of obtaining an HVAC/AC contractor license and tells you what to look out for.

What is the C-20 HVAC/AC contractor license in California?

A C-20 HVAC/AC contractor license in California is a specific type of contractor license issued by the Contractors State License Board (CSLB). The C-20 classification authorizes contractors to perform work related to Warm-Air Heating, Ventilating, and Air-Conditioning systems.

With a C-20 license, contractors are legally permitted to install, repair, maintain, alter, and modify HVAC systems in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings. This includes activities such as installing central air conditioning units, furnaces, ductwork, ventilation systems, and other HVAC equipment.

Obtaining the C-20 license in California can take time and effort. However, it is a mandatory requirement for professionals in the California HVAC industry. To qualify and apply for the mandatory exam, you must have at least four years of recent work experience within the last ten years. Upon successfully passing the exam, applicants are granted a C-20 HVAC license. It is important to note that this license cannot be transferred to other states.


In California, all contractors must obtain a license from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB), including HVAC contractors who need the C-20 License. The primary goal of the CSLB is to protect Californians by carefully reviewing and registering construction businesses. This process ensures the citizens get quality services and that the contractors act within their regulations and in good faith. The CSLB oversees the application and examination process and keeps a publicly accessible database containing the license numbers of both active and inactive contractors.

The CSLB provides resources and educational materials to help contractors and consumers understand their rights and responsibilities. They offer guidance on contract requirements, dispute resolution, and other relevant topics to promote fair and ethical business practices in the construction industry. The CSLB also investigates complaints against licensed contractors. In cases where contractors fail to comply with state regulations or engage in unethical practices, the CSLB takes appropriate enforcement actions, which may include disciplinary measures, fines, or license revocation.

What you need for a C-20 HVAC/AC contractor license in California

To obtain an C-20 HVAC license in California, you must demonstrate a minimum of four years of experience as a journeyman, foreman, supervisor, or contractor in the HVAC industry within the past ten years. You also need to pass the required CSLB licensing exams. If you charge more than $500 for HVAC services, you must hold a C-20 HVAC Contractor License. Additionally, a $15,000 surety bond is necessary to secure the license. After passing the exam, you'll receive a C-20 HVAC license, which is specific to California and cannot be transferred to other states.

Licensing helps maintain industry standards and promotes high-quality craftsmanship. The license requirements include passing CSLB exams, demonstrating HVAC experience, and meeting educational or training prerequisites. This ensures that licensed HVAC contractors possess the znecessary skills and knowledge to perform their work competently. HVAC work can be hazardous, and untrained or inexperienced individuals can pose risks to themselves and others. The licensing requirement encompasses safety protocols and guidelines to minimize accidents and injuries on job sites. By having a C-20 license, you demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about HVAC/AC safety measures, reducing liability risks for both workers and clients. It promotes a safer working environment and ensures that HVAC installations, repairs, and maintenance are carried out with proper precautions.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the specific steps of how to get a C-20 HVAC/AC contractor license in California. 

Step 1: Gain working experience

To be eligible for the exam, candidates must possess 4 years of experience as a fully qualified journeyman, which means they are skilled and capable of independently performing tasks in the trade without supervision. Alternatively, candidates can qualify if they have completed an apprenticeship program. Similar to other licenses, obtaining the C-20 license requires either apprenticeship training or qualification through a Joint Examination Board.

Requiring four years of experience for someone applying for a C-20 HVAC license serves several important purposes, like ensuring skill development of the contractors. HVAC systems involve complex equipment, intricate installations, and various components that require specialized knowledge and skills. By mandating four years of experience, the licensing process ensures that applicants have had sufficient exposure to different aspects of HVAC work like System Upgrades and Replacement, Air Quality and Ventilation, and Energy Efficiency and Retrofitting. This experience allows them to develop competence in installing, repairing, maintaining, and modifying HVAC systems effectively. This requirement also ensures contractors are familiar with the industry. The HVAC industry encompasses a wide range of systems, technologies, and practices. Through four years of experience, applicants gain exposure to diverse projects, equipment types, and customer requirements. This familiarity with different scenarios and challenges helps them become well-rounded professionals who can handle various HVAC tasks and adapt to different job requirements.

Once you have acquired the necessary training, fill out the Certification of Work Experience and include it in your application packet.

Step 2: Get credible witnesses to testify to your background

Every claim of experience needs to be confirmed by a competent and reliable individual, which may include an employer, contractor, foreman/supervisor, colleague, other journeyman, union representative, building inspector, architect, engineer, or homeowner.

The person verifying your experience should have direct knowledge of the work you have performed, meaning they have personally observed the tasks you have completed. They will be responsible for completing the experience certification section of your application.

Here is a list of Acceptable Supporting Experience Documentation that you can use to determine what documents to submit in order to provide proof of your experience.

Step 3: Submit the dealer application and pay any required fees

After gaining work experience and verifying your background, you should complete the Application for Original Contractor’s License. Once you have confirmed you have completed your application and included all the requirements, you are now ready to submit it. Submit the application, the $450 application processing fee, and all required documents to:

CSLB Headquarters
Contractors State License Board
P.O. Box 26000
Sacramento, CA 95826-0026

The CSLB will send you an acknowledgment letter containing an application fee number and a four-digit PIN. You will be able to track your application’s status using these. 

It is important  to note that payments at CSLB's Sacramento office may be made by cash (exact change only), check, or money order.

Step 4: Submit your fingerprints

After your application is approved, you will be given a fingerprinting live scan packet as part of the board's procedure to conduct a criminal background check. Your fingerprints will then be compared to records in the possession of both the California Department of Justice (DOJ) and FBI to ascertain the presence of any criminal history.

All applicants for a license, as well as each partner, owner, and responsible managing employee are required to undergo fingerprinting. However, individuals who are currently licensed by CSLB and are not making any changes to their license, along with applicants for a joint venture license, are exempt from this requirement.

After CSLB deems your application as complete, every individual listed on the application will be provided with instructions on how to acquire and submit their fingerprints. They will also receive a "Request for Live Scan Service" form (BCII 8016) to facilitate the process.

You must complete the third section (applicant information) in its entirety and take three copies of the completed form to a Live Scan station to have your fingerprints processed and submitted to the DOJ and FBI. Live Scan fingerprinting services are available at most sheriff and police and departments as well as public Live Scan site.

A listing of Live Scan locations is available here.

Step 5: Take the CSLB Examination

Upon acceptance of your application, you will be issued a Notice to Appear for Examination. The examination notice should reach you with a minimum of three weeks' notice before the examination date. It is crucial to prioritize studying for the CSLB exam.

When going to the testing center, ensure you have a valid photo identification. Personal calculators, cell phones, pagers, or any electronic devices aren't permitted in the testing area. The duration of the exam is three and a half hours.

The exam will be:

  • 115 Questions of Contractor Law
  • 115 Questions about Warm-Air Heating, Ventilating, and Air-Conditioning
  • 3 hours to complete each portion
  • Multiple choice exam, done on a computer
  • Closed Book

The C-20 HVAC Contractor License exam is broken up into four sections.

  1. Evaluation, Design, and Estimation (26%)
  2. Fabrication, Installation, and Startup (27%)
  3. Troubleshooting, Repair, and Maintenance (22%)
  4. Safety (25%)

Step 6: Get a California Contractor License Bond

Once you pass your exam, you will be given a bond and fee notification form at the testing site. This form will notify you of what you need to submit to meet your issuance requirements.

Among your requirements will be a California contractor license bond valued at $25,000. This is a type of surety bond specifically designed for contractors. It is a form of financial protection for clients and the public that ensures contractors fulfill their contractual obligations, adhere to relevant laws and regulations, and conduct their business ethically and responsibly.

To get a contractor bond, generally, you need to provide basic information such as business name, owner name, address as well as social security number for a soft credit check.

Once you are approved for your contractor bond bond, you can make a payment on the bond and expect to receive the bond in your mail in 3-5 business days. You need a hard copy of the bond for your application. 

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Step 7: Receive your C-20 license

If your application is accepted, the CSLB will mail you a wall certificate and a plastic pocket card that contain your information, your license number and it’s specific information about the license. You are now eligible to become a contactor in California!

The law mandates displaying your wall certificate in your primary office or main business location. Additionally, it is advisable to routinely carry your pocket card, especially during situations where you might engage in business solicitation or interact with potential customers.


How often should I renew my contractor license?

The state of California requires renewal biannually. Any updates or changes to your general business information must be accurately reflected on the renewal application.

What are the fees involved in getting a contractor license?

Application fee: $500

Initial License Fee (Sole Owner): $200

Dept. of Justice Processing Fee: $32

Initial License Fee (Non-Sole Owner): $350

Federal Bureau of Investigation Processing Fee: $17

You can find a list of fees here.

Where can I take the CSLB test?

The following cities have testing centers:

  • Fresno
  • San Diego
  • San Jose
  • Berkeley
  • Sacramento
  • San Bernardino
  • Norwalk
  • Oxnard

The PSI website contains more detailed instructions on the location of these testing centers.

Based on your city of residence, you will be assigned a testing location. Once your application is accepted, you will have a period of 18 months to successfully pass both examinations.

How long is my license valid?

Initially, a contractor license is issued for a duration of two years and will expire on the last day of the month it was issued. For renewal, licenses can be extended for either two years if on active status or four years if on inactive status.

What do I do if my original contractor application is returned to me?

You can return your application with improvements up to 90 days from the time it is returned to you. 

If your license becomes inactive, you cannot reinstate it, and you will need to submit a new application along with the required processing fee if you wish to obtain a license again.

What if I don’t live in California and can’t access a live scan facility?

If you do not live in California and do not plan to come to California during the application process, or if you do not have access to a Live Scan site, you will be fingerprinted using hard copy fingerprint cards. For out-of-state residents, the hard copy cards automatically will be generated and sent after your application has been posted. 

What if I fail to appear for an examination?

If you fail to appear for an examination, you must pay a $100 rescheduling fee.

Where can I get a contractor bond?

When seeking a Contractor bond, it is crucial to work with a trusted and experienced surety agency that understands the intricacies of the process. SuretyNow’s established reputation and expertise in the field ensure that you can confidently rely on their services to obtain the necessary bond efficiently and smoothly.

Having multiple insurance carriers on board gives SuretyNow a competitive edge, as they can shop around for the best rates and terms available. This means you'll have a greater chance of finding a Contractor Bond that suits your budget and requirements without compromising on quality or coverage.