From the blog Food Handlers License: What It Is and How to Get Yours

Food safety is critical in the food service industry.

The stakes are high. Chefs, cooks, servers and bartenders interact with hundreds of ingredients each day. Commonplace mistakes, like using unwashed vegetables or unrefrigerated meat, can lead to foodborne illnesses. 

As a business owner, it’s up to you to ensure that every employee working with food has the proper food handlers license. This license certifies that a worker has completed basic food safety training and understands proper kitchen hygiene. 

Every US restaurant needs to have a food handlers license, but the process varies widely by state and municipality. Although the process of getting one isn’t universally regulated, it’s relatively easy once you know the rules.

In this guide, we’ll explain how you and your staff can become certified. We’ll also answer frequently asked questions about when and how to renew food handlers licenses. 

What is a food handlers license? 

A food handlers license is also called a food handlers card, certificate or permit. It certifies that you’ve completed a food safety course approved by the state or county. In general, a “food handler” or “food employee” is anyone who works with unpackaged food, food equipment or a food-contact surface. 

You’ll need to pass a food handlers course and exam to get your food handlers card. 

These training courses go over key industry practices. Students learn important guidelines on food temperature, allergens, tool sanitation, hand-washing and more. You’re tested on the causes of common foodborne illnesses and even symptoms that suggest that you shouldn’t go to work. 

Today, you can get a food handlers permit completely online. A course can cost anywhere from $5-$30, depending on the state or municipality.

For example, the Rserving course costs $5.95 while in Riverside County in California, the course and health department fee bundle is $27. Most training programs have a final exam at the end of the course. Some ask exam questions throughout the course. 

Your restaurant needs a food handlers license to legally operate, so let’s cover who’s required to have one.

Your restaurant needs a food handlers license to legally operate.

Who needs a food handlers license?

The short answer is that it’s best to require all employees to have a food handlers permit. When health inspectors pay a visit, you’ll have one less worry. You don’t want to pick up a health code violation because employees were ignorant of food safety requirements. 

At a minimum, employees that directly handle food—like prep cooks, line cooks and bartenders—should be licensed. For employees in a managerial role, there’s also a separate food protection manager certification.

That being said, state and county laws vary. In most states, you’re required to have at least one certified food handler on-site at all times. In California and Utah, on the other hand, all food employees need a permit. Whether your team is in the restaurant or serving lunch from a food truck, make sure at least one certified employee is there. 

As a small business owner, you’re on the ground with your restaurant every day. If you don’t already have a food handlers permit, it’s a good idea to get one. That way, you don’t accidentally violate any laws while your staff members work toward their certificates.

It’s best to require all employees to have a food handlers permit.

How to get a food handlers license

To get a food handlers license, you need to take an accredited course and pass the exam. You can find online and on-site classes. It’s also possible to get trained and certified in just a couple hours—great news for busy owners, managers and employees.

So how do you find a training program?

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) provides a list of over 25 different organizations that offer food handler courses. These programs are ANSI-accredited. That means they’ve been reviewed and certified to teach international food and safety guidelines. 

ServSafe is one of the most well-known providers of food handlers certifications. There may also be local classes provided by the public health department if you prefer in-person training. In any case, look for an ANSI accreditation.

Online training is convenient and accessible for your entire team. Courses are typically self-paced and offered in multiple languages, like English, Spanish and Mandarin. You can even take the course from your smartphone or tablet.

Here’s a quick overview of the steps you’ll need to take:

  1. Review your state’s training requirements: Every state and city has different laws and health codes. You need to know which courses are approved, who needs a license, and when they need to have it. Texas, for example, requires food employees to be certified within 60 days of being hired. In contrast, Illinois’ deadline is only 30 days. Check your state’s Department of Health website to determine how to get started.
  2. Purchase the course: Some popular ANSI-accredited courses are ServSafe, Rserving and MyCertify. The cost of a food handlers course usually covers the final exam and license. After about 90-120 minutes of instruction—and some studying—you’ll take the food handlers certification exam.
  3. Take the exam: Most exams are 40-45 questions long. Test-takers generally need to answer at least 75% of the questions correctly. You’ll have a few chances to pass before you have to retake the full course. When you get that passing grade, you’re officially a licensed food handler.
  4. Receive your certificate of completion: You might be able to print your food handlers certificate upon successful completion of an online course. Other programs mail you a temporary license so you can keep cooking in the meantime. You’ll receive the official version in the mail within a few weeks. 
  5. Save it or display it: Many local health departments require that you keep all employees’ food handlers licenses on-site. You may also be required to post the printed copies in a spot visible to health inspectors. Always check your local regulations for specifics.

Even if you’re only required to have one licensed food worker on-site, everyone should be practicing safe food handling. Consider setting up an employee training for all new staff members so everyone is on the same page.

It’s possible to get trained and certified in just a couple hours.

Food handlers license FAQs

Can you use food service licenses in other states?

Permits aren’t typically transferable to another state. But ServSafe’s certification, provided by the National Restaurant Association, is recognized in all 50 states. Check the program details of each course you consider.

How long is a food handlers license valid?

Like the ingredients in your kitchen, food handlers licenses eventually expire. Most licenses are valid for 2-3 years. Your certification will need to be renewed on a regular basis, but when and how varies by state. 

If your card has already expired, you will likely need to retake a food handler training course and test. In many states, when you renew your card, it lasts longer. In Washington state, for example, your license is valid for another 3-5 years. MyCertify will even email you when your certificate is close to expiring.

Permits aren’t typically transferable to another state.

Why food handlers certifications matter

In 2018, the restaurant employee turnover rate was a sky-high 75%. Restaurant owners and managers already have a lot to keep up with, from startup tasks like finding a restaurant POS system to correctly tracking inventory. When so many employees come and go, it can be challenging to make sure everyone is certified.

But your guests trust that everyone is handling their food with care, from the back of the house to the servers out front. In addition, health inspectors will regularly—and sometimes unexpectedly—visit your restaurant to make sure you’re practicing proper food safety. Without the right permits, your business could be fined or even shut down.

In the highly regulated restaurant industry, a food handlers license is more than another piece of paper. Protect your business, staff and diners by ensuring everyone has their food handler certification.

Wondering where to start? Don’t wait. Survey your staff today and see who’s licensed.

Without the right permits, your business could be fined or even shut down.

Are you ready to grow together?