Nursing Licensure Guide: How to Get Your Nursing License 

Written by: Applied Nursing Research Editorial Team   •  May 19, 2024

How to Get Your Nursing License

Nursing is not just a profession; it’s a calling. But to answer this calling, one must adhere to certain criteria, the most crucial of which is obtaining a nursing license. This article serves as a comprehensive guide to understanding what it takes to become a licensed nurse, the steps involved, and why this licensure is critical for both the healthcare system and for your career. From educational requirements to salary expectations, we will delve into every facet of the journey to becoming a licensed nurse.

What Is a Licensed Nurse?

A licensed nurse is a healthcare professional who has successfully completed a nursing program and obtained state licensure to practice nursing. Licensure ensures that nurses meet a minimum standard of knowledge and competence before they interact with patients.

Nurses play a pivotal role in the healthcare system, often serving as the first point of contact for patients. They are crucial in carrying out physician orders, coordinating care, and providing emotional support to patients and their families. Being a licensed nurse ensures that you are qualified to perform these tasks safely and effectively, thus ensuring quality patient care.

While nurses often work in teams with other healthcare providers like doctors, physical therapists, and social workers, they have a unique role. Nurses focus on holistic patient care, taking into consideration not just the medical needs but also the emotional and psychological needs of the patient. The license confirms that the nurse has the necessary training to fulfill this multifaceted role.

What Does a Licensed Nurse Do?

Daily Responsibilities

A typical day for a licensed nurse can be extremely varied depending on the healthcare setting. In a hospital, nurses often administer medication, update medical records, conduct basic diagnostic tests, and assist doctors in medical procedures. In a community setting, they might focus more on patient education, preventive healthcare, and follow-up care.

Types of Care Provided

Nurses offer a wide range of care, from basic wound dressing to administering intravenous medication. They can also specialize in fields like pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, and surgical nursing to offer more targeted care.

Work Environment and Typical Shifts

Licensed nurses can work in an array of environments, including hospitals, private practices, nursing homes, and even in patient homes for home healthcare services. Shift lengths can vary, but 12-hour shifts are common in hospitals, while 8-hour shifts might be more typical in a clinic setting.

Licensed Nurse Job Description

Typical Tasks of a licensed nurse include:

  • Administering medications

  • Conducting physical assessments

  • Assisting with diagnostic tests

  • Providing post-operative care

  • Educating patients and their families about their conditions and care requirements

Some of the required skills of a licensed nurse are:

  • Clinical skills: proficiency in performing healthcare tasks

  • Communication skills: ability to convey complex medical information simply

  • Empathy: understanding and sharing the feelings of patients

  • Critical thinking: capacity to make sound judgments in high-pressure situations

The expected qualifications of a licensed nurse are as follows:

  • Complete an accredited nursing program (LPN, ADN, or BSN)

  • Pass the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN exam

  • Obtain state licensure

  • Complete a certain number of clinical hours, as required by your state

What Is Required for Nurse Licensure?

Minimum Educational Requirements

Before you can become a licensed nurse, you must first complete a nursing education program. The most common types of programs include Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The type of program you choose will affect the level of nursing at which you can practice.

Clinical Experience Needed

Clinical experience is an integral part of nursing education. Regardless of the type of nursing program you enroll in, you’ll be required to complete a specific number of clinical hours. This hands-on training is essential for applying the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom and for developing practical nursing skills.

Background Checks and Other Prerequisites

Most states require background checks for nursing licensure to ensure patient safety. This may include fingerprinting and queries into criminal and financial records. Some states also require drug tests and proof of immunizations.

How to Get a Nursing License

1. Complete an Accredited Nursing Program: The first step is to graduate from a nursing program that is accredited by organizations like the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

2. Apply for Licensure: Submit an application to the nursing board in the state where you wish to practice. You’ll need to provide proof of your education and other prerequisites.

3. Take the NCLEX-RN Exam: The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is a standardized exam that tests your nursing knowledge and skills.

4. Receive the License: After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you’ll receive your nursing license and can legally practice in your state.

Required Documentation

  • Academic transcripts

  • Identification proof, like a passport or driver’s license

  • Application fees

  • Background check results

  • Proof of completed clinical hours

Fingerprinting and Background Check Process

You’ll generally be required to submit fingerprints as part of the background check process. These are used to verify your identity and to check for criminal records at both the state and federal levels.

Nursing Licensure by State

Each state has its own set of rules and requirements for nursing licensure. While the NCLEX-RN is a national exam, states may have additional requirements, such as jurisprudence exams or additional clinical hours.

State-specific Requirements

It’s crucial to research the specific requirements of the state in which you plan to practice. For instance, some states require continuing education for license renewal, while others do not.

Reciprocity and License Transfer

Many states are part of the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), which allows nurses to practice in multiple states without having to obtain individual licenses. If you’re licensed in an NLC state and are moving to another NLC state, transferring your license is generally easier.

Certainly! Below is the content for the next three sections, which cover the NCLEX-RN exam, the length of nursing licensure programs, and the path to becoming a Registered Nurse (RN).

NCLEX-RN Exam Guide

The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is a standardized exam that serves as the final hurdle before becoming a licensed nurse. The exam is developed and administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) and is designed to assess your abilities to provide safe, effective nursing care.

Structure and Format

The NCLEX-RN employs a unique adaptive testing format, meaning the questions adjust in difficulty based on your responses. You’ll encounter a variety of question types, including multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and hotspot questions. The number of questions can range from 75 to 145, depending on how you’re performing.

Subjects Covered

The NCLEX-RN covers four major categories:

1. Safe and Effective Care Environment

2. Health Promotion and Maintenance

3. Psychosocial Integrity

4. Physiological Integrity

Within these categories, you’ll find questions related to pharmacology, patient care, disease management, and ethical/legal considerations, among other topics.

How Long Is a Nurse Licensure Program?

The length of a nursing licensure program depends on the type of program you choose:

LPN Programs: These generally last around 12 to 18 months.

ADN Programs: Typically, these are two-year programs, although accelerated options may be available.

BSN Programs: These are four-year degree programs, but accelerated paths can reduce this to as little as 15 to 20 months for those who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field.

Variables That Could Extend the Timeframe

Factors that could lengthen the time required to complete a nursing program include part-time enrollment, prerequisite courses, and delays due to clinical placements. Make sure to plan accordingly to accommodate these variables.

How to Become a Licensed RN

1. Choose a Nursing Program: Select a nursing education pathway that suits your career goals. Options include LPN, ADN, and BSN programs.

2. Complete Educational Requirements: Successfully graduate from the chosen program, including all clinical hours.

3. Apply for State Licensure: Submit an application to the nursing board of the state where you plan to work.

4. Prepare for and Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam: Enroll in an NCLEX-RN review course and take practice tests to prepare.

5. Receive Your RN License: Once you pass the NCLEX-RN, you will receive your RN license from the state nursing board.

Alternative Pathways

If you’re already a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or have a degree in another field, there are bridge programs like LPN-to-RN and second-degree BSN programs that provide accelerated pathways to becoming an RN.

How Long Does It Take to Become an RN?

LPN Program: Approximately 1 to 1.5 years

ADN Program: Approximately 2 years

BSN Program: Approximately 4 years

Note: These durations can vary based on the program’s specific requirements and whether you’re attending full-time or part-time.

Time Frame for Alternative Pathways

LPN-to-RN Bridge Programs: These can shave about a year off the traditional path, usually taking 1 to 2 years.

Accelerated BSN Programs: For those with a bachelor’s degree in another field, these can take as little as 15 to 20 months.

Total Time Investment

Including prerequisites, application periods, and potential waiting times for clinical placements, the total time to become an RN could range from 2 to 5 years or more, depending on your specific path.

Licensed Nurse Salary and Job Outlook

How Much Does an RN Make?

As of 2022, the median annual wage for registered nurses in the United States was about $81,220, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, this figure can vary significantly based on geographic location, specialty, and experience.

RN Job Outlook

The job outlook for RNs is generally positive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that employment for registered nurses would grow by 6% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. Factors contributing to this growth include an aging population, increased emphasis on preventive care, and healthcare services expanding outside of the traditional hospital setting.

Types of Licensed Nurse Careers

 Different Types of Nursing Roles

1. Clinical Nurse Specialists: Focus on a specific type of care or condition.

2. Nurse Practitioners: Can diagnose and treat illnesses; some can prescribe medication.

3. Nurse Anesthetists: Specialize in administering anesthesia.

4. Nurse Midwives: Specialize in pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum care.

5. Pediatric Nurses: Focus on the care of children and adolescents.

6. Geriatric Nurses: Specialize in the care of older adults.

 Specialized Fields and Settings

  • Hospital Nursing: Includes roles in emergency rooms, ICUs, and surgical centers.

  • Community Nursing: Focus on public health initiatives, often outside of hospital settings.

  • Home Health Nursing: Provide nursing services directly in a patient’s home.

  • Travel Nursing: Short-term assignments in various locations, typically 13 to 26 weeks.

Educational Requirements for Specializations

Specialized roles often require additional certifications or educational backgrounds. For instance, becoming a Nurse Practitioner generally requires a Master’s Degree in Nursing and additional certification.

Licensed Nurse FAQ

Should I Become a Licensed Nurse?

Deciding to become a licensed nurse is a significant commitment that requires careful consideration. Nursing is a rewarding career for those who have a passion for healthcare and helping others. It offers a wide range of opportunities for specialization and career advancement. However, it also demands long hours, emotional resilience, and the ability to work under pressure. If these challenges excite you and you’re eager to make a tangible difference in people’s lives, then a career in nursing might be right for you.

Is a Nursing Licensure Worth It?

Obtaining a nursing license is generally considered worthwhile given the job stability, earning potential, and opportunity for career growth it provides. Nurses are in high demand, and the skills you acquire are transferable across various healthcare settings, both domestically and internationally. Additionally, many nurses find the work personally fulfilling, as it provides a chance to have a direct impact on patient care.

Do I Need a License to Work as a Nurse?

Yes, licensure is a legal requirement to practice nursing in all U.S. states. Working without a license can result in criminal charges, fines, and disqualification from ever obtaining a nursing license in the future.

How Difficult Is the NCLEX-RN Exam?

The NCLEX-RN exam is challenging but manageable with proper preparation. It tests both your nursing knowledge and your ability to make sound judgments under pressure. A variety of resources, including practice exams and study guides, are available to help you prepare.

How Can I Best Prepare for the NCLEX-RN Exam?

Preparation for the NCLEX-RN exam should be comprehensive and ideally begin well before the test date. Utilize a combination of study materials, including textbooks, online resources, and practice exams. Many candidates also find NCLEX-RN review courses helpful. Additionally, consider forming a study group with classmates to review material and take practice tests together.

Does the NCLEX-RN Cost Money?

Yes, the NCLEX-RN exam comes with an associated cost, which as of my last update in September 2021, was around $200-$300, depending on the state. This does not include any additional fees that may be imposed by the state nursing board or the cost of preparation materials and review courses.

How Much Does It Cost to Renew a Nursing License?

The cost of renewing a nursing license varies by state but generally ranges from $50 to $200. Some states also require proof of continued education or professional development activities as a condition for renewal.

How Long Does a Nursing License Last?

Nursing licenses typically need to be renewed every two years, although this period can vary by state. Failure to renew your license in a timely manner can result in its expiration and may require you to go through the re-licensing process, which could involve retaking the NCLEX-RN exam.

How Expensive Is a Nursing Licensing Degree?

The cost of a nursing degree varies significantly based on the type of program and the institution. Community college programs are generally less expensive, potentially costing as little as a few thousand dollars. Conversely, degrees from private universities can run upwards of $30,000 to $40,000 per year or more. Financial aid, scholarships, and employer reimbursement programs are often available to help offset these costs.


Choosing a career in nursing is a monumental decision that comes with its own set of challenges and rewards. From the intricacies of nursing licensure programs to the complexities of the NCLEX-RN exam, the journey to becoming a licensed nurse is rigorous but fulfilling. The profession not only offers a stable job market and competitive salaries but also provides an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Understanding the different pathways to licensure, the state-specific requirements, and the scope of nursing roles can help you make an informed decision about entering this dynamic field. With an array of specialties and work settings to choose from, nursing offers unparalleled career flexibility. Whether you’re drawn to the fast-paced environment of an emergency room or the community-focused role of a public health nurse, licensure is the key that unlocks these opportunities.

It’s essential to weigh the financial and time investments against the benefits and job satisfaction to decide if nursing is the right career for you. This guide aims to provide you with a comprehensive overview to assist in that critical decision-making process. From educational prerequisites to salary expectations and FAQs, we hope this Nursing Licensure Guide serves as a valuable resource on your path to becoming a licensed nurse.