Credentials for the Massage Therapy Profession

Credentials help inform a consumer about the qualifications and competency of a massage therapist.

Massage therapy credentials include:

  • Licensing
  • Board Certification
  • Education and Training with an Accredited School
  • Membership in a Professional Association


Most states regulate the massage therapy profession in the form of state registration, state certification or state licensure. Cities, counties or other local governments also may regulate massage. 

Licensing is the most rigorous form of professional regulation, making it illegal for anyone to work as a massage therapist unless he or she has a license.

Board Certification

Massage therapists may choose to become board certified in massage therapy. The board certification is administered by the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB).

Individuals who meet standards of education and pass the examination are entitled to use the designation Board Certified in Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and its initials, BCTMB. Board certification indicates that these massage therapists possess the skills, abilities and knowledge to demonstrate advanced knowledge that meets standards determined by the National Certification Board.

Education and Training with an Accredited School

Standards for education and training can assist the consumer to know whether a massage therapist has adequate preparation to practice. Most states require a specific number of hours of in-class initial massage therapy training, which must include the study of anatomy and physiology, the theory and practice of massage therapy, and elective subjects. This varies by state from 500 to 1,000 hours of initial education.

One method of knowing whether a program or massage school provides a nationally-recognized standard level of education is to see if it is accredited by a credible agency (i.e., one that follows the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education).

Membership in a Professional Massage Therapy Association

Membership in a credible professional association indicates professional preparation and accountability. The American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) is the largest non-profit, professional association representing massage therapy and was founded in 1943. AMTA requires members to meet minimum education requirements, pursue continuing education and uphold its Code of Ethics.

What Are the Differences Between Certification, Licensing and Accreditation in the Massage Profession?

Professional certification uses a formal process to identify and acknowledge individuals who have met a recognized standard and is typically a voluntary process. Usually this standard includes education, experience, and an exam of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to perform the job. 

When an individual meets the standard, he or she receives certification from a certifying agency. The credibility and integrity of the certifying agency determines whether the agency’s certification means anything to the public, and therefore, ultimately, its value. Accordingly, certification agencies may seek out recognition by an outside agency that will, in turn, attest to the certifying agency meeting a standard.

Generally, this standard involves the requirements to take the exam, whether the exam meets accepted psychometric standards for exam development, how the exam is given and scored, how the agency is administered, and whether its rules are fair. A non-governmental professional organization grants recognition to an individual who has met certain qualifications. The National Organization for Competency Assurance operates the National Commission for Certifying Agencies for that purpose.

Licensing is a non-voluntary process by which an agency of government regulates a profession. It grants permission to an individual to engage in an occupation if the applicant has attained the degree of competency required to ensure the public health, safety, and welfare will be reasonably protected. Licensing is always based on the action of a legislative body. Once a licensing law has been passed it becomes illegal for anyone to engage in that occupation unless he or she has a license. Healthcare professions are typically licensed at the state and/or local level, but not usually at the federal level.

Two regulatory variations are state certification (not to be confused with professional certification) and registration. These generally are somewhat less restrictive than licensing, but how each is defined can vary from state to state.

Certification differs from licensing in that certification is nearly always offered by a private, non-governmental agency. These agencies are usually outgrowths of professional associations which create them to identify and acknowledge those who have met a standard. Another contrast with licensure is that, under a licensing law, practitioners of the licensed occupation must have a license in order to practice. It is involuntary.

On the other hand, certification is voluntary. A person does not have to be certified in order to practice. An individual takes the certification exam because they want to enjoy the benefits of certification. However, to use the title and initials copyrighted and associated with the professional certification, one must be certified.

Accreditation is a non-governmental, voluntary process that evaluates institutions, agencies, and educational programs (i.e., institutions or schools that grant certificates or diplomas) while certification and licensing involves individual practitioners.

Accreditation is defined as the process whereby an agency or association grants public recognition to a school, institute, college, university, or specialized program of study (such as a massage training program) for having met certain established qualifications or standards determined through initial and periodic evaluations that usually involve submitting a self-evaluation report, site inspection by a team of experts, and evaluation by an independent board or commission.