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RN License Requirements and Exam Information

Licensure is a required credential for registered nurses. Get some quick facts about the education and experience necessary to qualify to be a registered nurse.

While there are several education paths open to you in order to become a registered nurse, every state, territory and the District of Columbia mandates that you complete an accredited nursing program and become licensed by passing a national exam.

Essential Information

An RN license is a prerequisite for registered nurses to practice anywhere in the United States. Registered nurses must complete an associate or bachelor level nursing program before applying for licensure. The nursing licensure process for new RNs includes a computer-based exam called the NCLEX-RN. Special requirements govern license recognition between multiple states.

Required Education Associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing or a diploma from an approved nursing program
Exam Requirements National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN)
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 16%
Annual Median Salary (2015)* $67,490

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

License Requirements for Registered Nurses

In each state of the U.S.A., a state board of nursing sets the rules for nursing practice within the state, including RN licensure. These rules, often called a Nursing Practice Act, determine what care registered nurses can provide and set procedures for investigating and penalizing misconduct by nurses. All state boards of nursing in the country will license only people who have graduated from a nursing educational program approved by the board.

Nursing Education

The most common programs for nurses are associate degrees and bachelor's degrees. Typical degree names include the Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Associate Degree in Nursing and Associate of Applied Science in Nursing. Some master's degree programs are available for college graduates who want to change careers and become nurses.

Licensure Process

After graduation, the nursing student should apply for licensure with the state board of nursing in the state where she or he wants to live and practice. Students should have the school send their final transcripts to the board. The next step is to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses, abbreviated as NCLEX-RN. The NCLEX-RN is overseen by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

NCLEX-RN Exam Information

Applying for the Exam

When preparing for the NCLEX-RN, nursing school graduates send an exam application and a fee to Pearson VUE, the testing company. Pearson VUE consults the appropriate state board of nursing to see whether the applicant holds an approved nursing degree. When the state board confirms this (having received the student's transcript), the exam company sends the student an Authorization to Test (ATT) form.

The Authorization to Test is valid for a time period determined by the state board. Students must call the testing firm to schedule a test date that falls within this time period, or else they will have to reapply. Test-takers need to bring the ATT form to the test center.

Exam Format

The nursing licensure exam uses computerized adaptive testing that gives each person a customized exam, explains the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. When a question is answered correctly, the next question is harder. If a question is answered wrong, the next question is easier. The NCLEX-RN test can last up to six hours, but it might stop earlier if the computer has already determined whether or not the candidate is qualified to become a registered nurse.

It isn't necessary to answer all questions right in order to pass the NCLEX-RN. The computer presents very hard questions to successful examinees, seeking the difficulty level at which each candidate gets half the questions right. Some NCLEX questions are multiple-choice, but some use other formats. All questions have only one right answer, with no partial credit. There are special procedures for judging RN candidates who run out of time or answer all questions without a clear decision from the computer.

License Transfer Between States

When a registered nurse moves to a different state or takes a job across state lines, she or he can practice nursing in the new state under one of two procedures. Some states have a nursing licensure compact with one another. A state in such a compact agrees to recognize the RN license of a nurse who lives in the other state. In exchange, the nurse agrees to follow the nursing practice laws of the state where she or he is working.

If two states do not have a nursing licensure compact, the procedure for transferring a nursing license is called endorsement. Typically, the nurse sends an application, with nursing school transcripts and license verification from the old state, to the new state's board of nursing. Over 45 states provide data to Nursys.com for RN license verification. The nurse also might need to submit fingerprints or proof of identity.

By earning a diploma, associate's degree or bachelor's degree in nursing, you may qualify to sit for the NCLEX-RN, which every state requires that you pass. This comprehensive exam can last up to six hours. Every state has its own requirements for licensure, and you can learn about reciprocity of nursing licenses between states through the NCSBN Licensure Verification site.


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