How Long Does it Take to Earn a Black Belt in Karate?

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Karate, which means “empty hand” in Japanese, is a synthesis of mental and physical techniques with roots in Indian Zen Buddhism. Karate developed in Okinawa, though it was strongly influenced by Chinese martial arts techniques. Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced karate to mainland Japan in the early 20th century, developed a belt ranking system based on the system used in Japanese Judo. The black belt represents karate’s highest skill level.

Belt Colors

Schools that teach different variations of karate may use slightly different belt systems. Funakoshi’s version, called Shotokan Karate, contains 20 levels. There are 10 preliminary levels, followed by 10 black belt levels. The preliminary levels -- or “kyu” in Japanese -- begin with two levels of white belt, followed by yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, then three levels of brown belt. The higher levels -- called “Dan” -- run from first degree through 10th degree black belt.


To attain a higher level, a karate student takes a formal examination. The examination varies depending on the student’s level and version of karate he’s practicing. The examination may include oral and written requirements, as well as physical demonstrations. With respect to physical skills, students must generally display the required level of proficiency in karate basics, form and sparring ability.

Black Belt Test

Depending on the school in which a student is participating, the black belt examination may include a written statement of the student’s martial arts philosophy and goals, a description of her past achievements and an outline of the karate forms she plans to demonstrate. The candidate must also demonstrate required forms and self-defense techniques.

Black Belt Timeline

There is no firm timetable for achieving a black belt. The time it takes a successful student to earn a black belt depends on the student’s ability, dedication and the version of karate he’s practicing. The Karate Institute of America, for example, requires students to be in continuous training for at least three years before they can take the first degree black belt examination. Students must also be at least 16 years old and must have finished among the top three at five tournaments since their previous brown belt test. Go-Kan-Ryu karate requires a minimum of 18 weeks of study to achieve an orange belt, another 38 months to become a black belt student, plus a further 12 months to take the first degree black belt test, for a total of almost five years. Shotokan karate typically requires a minimum of 38 months to progress from white to third degree brown belt, plus another six months until the student may try to earn a black belt.