Dawn Papandrea
Dawn Papandrea
February 5, 2016 - 4 min read

Time-Proven Tactics to Earning a Nursing License

Those two little letters – RN – have a lot of meaning behind them. It stands for Registered Nurse, but what it really means is that you’re a professional who has earned a nursing license, and therefore can practice as a nurse in your state. As of 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2,751,000 registered nurses in the United States.

Thinking of joining that elite group? If so, read on to learn more about what it takes to get a nursing license and become an RN.

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What is a Registered Nurse License?

First things first, you need to know exactly what a nursing license is. The short answer is that it gives you the right to work as an RN, but there’s more to it than that. Stated more officially by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing: “Licensure is the process by which boards of nursing grant permission to an individual to engage in nursing practice after determining that the applicant has attained the competency necessary to perform a unique scope of practice.”

The key here is that a nursing license shows you’ve got what it takes to make it in this challenging profession because you’ve been educated in nursing courses given by nursing educators, practiced hands-on clinical healthcare settings for the required number of hours, and rigorously tested by a standardized national exam.

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How do you Get an RN License?

To earn your nursing license, you basically have to complete your approved nursing education program of choice, and then pass the national licensing exam called the NCLEX-RN.

School Days

There is actually more than one path you can take in order to begin working as an RN. In fact, there are three: a bachelor’s degree in nursing; an associate degree in nursing; or a diploma program. You must choose a program that is approved by a board of nursing, and complete it in order to sit for the licensing exam.

Obviously a bachelor’s degree is the longest path, taking four years, but the additional education can provide a competitive edge for higher paying or more desirable positions. Still, many people choose the quicker associate or diploma routes so they can start working in the field sooner. Often, these RNs do end up going back to school to continue their education at some point in order to advance their careers.

Test Time

Before you can register for the NCLEX-RN, you have to graduate from your nursing program. As Kaplan, the test preparation company, explains, the exam judges test takers on how they will use their nursing school knowledge and critical thinking skills to make nursing judgments and decisions. It is given as an interactive CAT (computer adaptive test) format, meaning the questions you get are based on your responses you give to prior questions. In other words, no two students will take exactly the same test. The exam results are not scored, but instead it is determined if you  passed or failed. You’ll receive notification of your results within 2-4 weeks from your State Board of Nursing. If you do not pass, you can retake the exam after 45 days.

Once you pass the NCLEX-RN, the final hurdle before receiving your nursing license is that you may have to pass a criminal background check. This requirement will vary by state.

You can find each State Board of Nursing here to learn more about the specific requirements for licensure in your state.

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Working as an RN

Once you earn your nursing license, you can begin working in the state in which it was issued. But what happens if you decide to move, or wish to work in a neighboring state, or as a travel nurse? Even though you passed the NCLEX-RN, which is a national exam, each state board of nursing has its own set of rules called the Nursing Practice Act. Therefore, you may have to transfer your nursing license in order to work in a new state, and/or follow a slightly different set of rules.

Nursing license reciprocity

The good news is that you are not required you to take any additional exams if you already have your nursing license elsewhere since you already passed the nationally recognized exam. Most times, with a valid license and a clean record, you can apply for a new state license. Reciprocity comes into play in that it allows you to practice using a temporary permit (usually 90 days) while you await your new license application to be processed. Note that fees and requirements vary by state, and you’ll be expected to familiarize yourself with the new state’s Nursing Practice Act.

Compact states

This whole process is simplified if your original license was earned in one of the 25 states that adhere to the Nurse Licensure Compact Agreement, and you wish to practice in another compact state. That legislation basically allows nurses to practice in member states without having to recertify. Essentially, you’ll hold a multi-state nursing license, for which all of your information and work history will be kept in a database that can be accessed by anyone hiring nurses in participating states. In other words, less paperwork, red tape, and fees all around for compact state nurses.

If your primary residence or the new state you’d like to work in is not a compact state, however, the application process will be somewhat more lengthy and costly. You can view a list of compact states here.

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Open Doors to your Future

Earning a nursing license does take a lot of work, as it should given the huge amount of responsibility that RNs handle everyday. Once you earn it, however, that accomplishment will open doors for the rest of your nursing career.

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