A Short Guide To Multi-State RN Licensing
By Kathleen Gaines BSN, RN, BA, CBC
Travel nursing is an exciting opportunity to travel the country while working in the nation’s top hospitals, but figuring out nursing license requirements for each state can be overwhelming.
The good news: The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) developed the Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC), which is an agreement between states that allows nurses to have one license and the ability to practice in all the states that participate in the program.
Compact state license (eNLC) breakdown
The Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC) has been around since 2000, but was updated in 2018 to the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact (eNLC) and includes standards for licensure, which the original compact license lacked. The eNLC allows nurses to hold one license to practice in participating states without having to pay additional licensing fees.
Currently, 30 states participate in the eNLC. In order to be eligible for a multi-state nursing license a nurse must have:
- Met the requirements for licensure in their state of residency,
- Graduated from a board-approved education program OR have graduated from an international education program (approved by the authorized accrediting body in the applicable country and verified by an independent credentials review agency),
- Passed an English proficiency exam (applies to graduates of an international education program not taught English or if English is not the individual’s native language),
- Passed the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN examination or predecessor exam,
- Eligibility for or holds an active, unencumbered license,
- Submitted to state and federal fingerprint-based criminal background checks,
- No state or federal felony convictions,
- No misdemeanor convictions related to the practice of nursing,
- No current participation in an alternative program (nurses are required to self-disclose current participation in an alternative program), and
- A valid United States Social Security number.
Current eNLC nursing compact states and status
What is the primary residence requirement for multi-state licensing?
You must claim residency in an eNLC participating state in order to apply for a compact license. (Your primary residence refers to the state where you file your tax returns, vote, and/or have a driver’s license.) As a non-resident of an eNLC state, you can apply for licensure by endorsement, but will only be issued a single-state license instead of the compact license. Nurses can hold multiple single-state licenses.
This may be confusing, so here are a couple examples:
Example #1: A nurse has primary residence and obtained their license in the state of Colorado, but wants to take a travel nursing job in Arizona. Because Colorado and Arizona both participate in the eNLC, there is no need to obtain an additional nursing license — the nurse can start the position in Arizona immediately. (The nurse’s current licensing information is confirmed by the employer from a national database known as Nursys and the nurse is required to complete a criminal background check and fingerprinting for the state of Arizona.)
Example #2: A nurse has primary residence and licensure in Kentucky, but wants to take a travel nursing job in Alaska. Kentucky participates in the eNLC, but Alaska does not. The nurse must obtain a single-state license for Alaska before starting their assignment.
Utilizing temporary licenses
Pro tip: If you know the specific state you’d like to travel to, then visit its state board of nursing website or ask your recruiter about licensing in that state specifically.
Travel nurse staffing agencies may refer to some states as “walk-through states,” which refers to states that issue licensure by endorsement or “temporary licenses.” Temporary licenses are mainly used for nurses who are looking to move to another state or have accepted a job and are waiting for their permanent licensing application to be processed. These types of licenses are often used during nursing strikes too. For example, obtaining a license in California can take several months, but temporary licenses are processed more quickly, so demand for nurses during strikes can be met.
Read more: Crossing the Picket Line as a Travel Nurse
Temporary licenses are typically good for 30 days to six months. If the nursing assignment is longer than the length of the temporary license, then a permanent license is required. Temporary licenses can only be obtained once per state and not all states allow temporary licenses.
Current “walk-through” states include:
- District of Columbia
- New York
- South Carolina
Nursing license fees and requirements
The licensing fee and requirements for licensure by endorsement and permanent licensing are similar. Those fees and requirements include:
- A licensing fee that ranges from $100 to $400,
- A criminal background check and fingerprinting,
- No disciplinary actions or encumbrances against your primary license,
- Meet the continuing education requirements for each permanent state license you hold, and
- Copy of driver’s license and social security card.
Note: Some states also require two letters of reference and proof of work history when applying for licensure by endorsement.
Travel nursing agencies typically do not pay for nursing licenses or license renewals. They will often assist in the process though, and may even submit the paperwork.
A quick note on certifications
While individual state nursing boards do not require certifications such as Basic Life Support (BLS) and Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS), hospitals do require nurses have these certifications. That means travel nurse staffing agencies will require that these certifications be up to date before submitting your travel nurse contract to a hospital.
How do licensing fees and requirements work in non-compact states?
The cost of licenses can add up quickly for travel nurses especially when working in states that don’t participate in the eNLC.
Pro tip: Somes states allow nurses to suspend their license for a nominal fee; to reinstate the license, it’s another small fee.
For example, if a nurse holds a primary nursing license in Washington and wants to take a travel nursing assignment in Oregon (neither of which participate in the eNLC), then they must apply for a permanent license in Oregon. To obtain a single-state license, the nurse must fill out an application, pay the licensing fees, and complete a background check and fingerprinting — this process may take several weeks.
If the same nurse wants to renew their Oregon license after two years, then they must complete the required continuing education hours and pay the renewal fees. Technically, this nurse should also maintain their Washington nursing license too as it’s their primary residence. This means paying the renewal fees and completing any continuing education requirements for Washington as well.
How long does it take to get your nursing license for a non-compact state?
Obtaining a nursing license can be as quick as two days in states like Hawaii or as long as six months in California or Ohio. (California and Ohio currently have the longest wait times for a permanent license.) Travel nurses may have to take contracts in other states while they wait for their license to be approved. It’s important to plan ahead if there are non-compact states on your desired list of places to travel. Typical wait times for nursing licenses for non-compact states:
- Alaska — 8 weeks
- California — 3-6 months
- Hawaii — 2-15 days
- Nevada — 2-4 weeks
- New York — 6-8 weeks
- Ohio — 4-6 months
- Oregon — 3-6 weeks
- Rhode Island — 4+ weeks
- Vermont — 4-6 weeks
- Washington — 3-4 weeks
Ready to start travel nursing?
If working as a travel nurse and figuring out licensing still seems daunting, don’t fret. Travel nurse agencies and recruiters are knowledgeable on the topic and in some states can help nurses expedite the licensing process.
Nurses with compact licenses have increased flexibility and can start new contracts immediately in other compact states with minimal paperwork and fees. This opens the door for more employment opportunities for nurses. The impact of the eNLC extends beyond the flexibility for nurses, though. It also increases the access to care for patients and allows hospitals to hire the best nurses for a position by removing the limitation of geographical licensures.
If you’re considering travel nursing, then ensure your license is up to date and get ready for your next adventure.
Kathleen is currently a Pediatric ICU nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Shriners Hospital for Children-Philadelphia. As a nurse for 10 years specializing in ICU care, she has an extensive ICU background having worked in the CICU and NICU at several major children’s hospitals in the Philadelphia region. Nursing is a second career after working as a journalist for many years and becoming nationally published. She is Trauma certified and a Certified Breastfeeding Counselor. Kathleen lives with her husband and two German Shepherds, and is enrolled in the MSN-Education program at Loyola University of New Orleans.