Nursing school is (supposed to be) the hard part; getting licensed to start your career shouldn’t be. Here are all the things to keep in mind as you navigate the logistics of starting your nursing career off on the right foot.
From licensure to Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to other necessary documentation, we’ve got you covered. You’ll be up and running in no time and thanking yourself later for having your ducks in a row from day one!
Obtaining Your License
Determine Where You'll Be Working
The first step in obtaining a nursing license is deciding where you’ll get licensed. While all registered nurses must pass a national exam (NCLEX) for initial licensure by examination, actual licensing to practice is done at the state level.
This part can be tricky. The process can feel a little bit backward because you’re not sure where you’ll be working, since you don’t yet have job prospects and haven’t gotten licensed to even be considered for a position.
Nursing can vary greatly geographically, which is important to take into account when considering where you wish to start your nursing career. Most new grads decide to apply for initial licensure either in their home state or in the state they attended nursing school.
This is typically because it's where they have the most relationships and greatest opportunities for employment. Other new grads prefer to apply outside of their home state with the intent of relocating entirely. The beauty of the profession is that nurses are needed consistently pretty much everywhere.
Note that a new grad can only submit an application for licensure by examination to one state.
Any subsequent licenses will be acquired by endorsement of this primary license. It’s important to ensure you’re applying for your initial license in the state for which you commit to obtaining your first job.
Applying for Licensure
So you’ve decided which state you’ll be applying to for initial licensure. Now what? The next step is to apply for licensure with the board of nursing for the state in which you’ve decided to obtain your initial license.
Trusted's Licensure Guide provides both high-level and in-depth information on how to get licensed in every U.S. state, including a breakdown of the documents required for your application, fees, timeline, and additional resources needed.
However, there are some important things to know about licensing in general, such as general requirements and license types, depending on your state.
There are two types of RN licenses:
- Compact (also known as the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), now entitled the Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (eNLC); also known as a multi-state license.
- Non-compact (also known as single-state licensure).
A compact license allows any nurse whose primary state of residence is one of the 32 participating compact states to practice with a multi-state license in any of the states forming the compact state alliance. Holding an active multi-state or compact license means that you don’t need to apply for any additional licenses to work in another compact state.
Conversely, a single-state license allows a nurse to practice only within that state. If your primary residence is in a non-compact state, but you still wish to practice in a compact state, you can apply for a single-state license with the corresponding board of nursing.
We’ve done our best to make navigating this process as easy as possible with our interactive Trusted Guide to Licensure! It allows you to compare the requirements and processes entailed for each state, whether you’re still deciding on which you’ll apply for or planning ahead to see what licensure by endorsement might entail once you’ve secured that first license.
License Documentation & Process Requirements
As covered in our licensure guide, actual qualifications vary by state. However, below are the common requirements for the application process:
- Disclosure of legal & professional history
(Note: if you have a history of any offenses, it’s important to ensure you have all proper documentation and guidance on communication of details from a qualified professional; it’s important that you comply and properly disclose everything required to prevent any delay in licensing.)
- Criminal background check, with fingerprinting
- Passport-type photograph
- Official transcripts
Continuing Education Units (CEUs)
Nursing school doesn’t last forever, but education never ends! You will find your feet under you and feel confident in your clinical skills, judgement, and critical thinking. You will know a lot -- and usually enough -- but you will never know everything.
There will always be more to learn. Every day is another opportunity to learn something new, determine an alternative solution, or discover a different way of thinking.
Continuing Education Units (CEUs) as a requirement are a guarantee that you continue to learn and stay up to date. Beyond the requirement, the key to a fulfilling and progressive career is a perpetual hunger for learning and nursing education. The requirement is just another flame in your fire to become the most knowledgeable professional possible.
You know what they say about death and taxes? Well, if you’re a nurse, add nursing CEUs to that list! Health care is an ever-changing industry. It’s also an industry where evidence-based practice is not only the gold standard, it's the expectation. When thinking about CEUs, try to adopt this mindset:
“It’s my duty as a clinician to be as educated and knowledgeable as I can in order to deliver the safest and highest quality of care to my patients. Being informed and educated enables me to practice responsibly and efficiently.”
CEUs are not unique to nurses, as they’re also utilized for doctors, engineers, lawyers, certified public accountants, real estate agents, various types of financial advisers, and other professions. They may also be referred to as Continuing Competence Requirements (CCRs).
Various regulatory bodies require that these professionals earn a specific number of CEUs every year or other year to ensure that they are compliant with current practices, meet at least minimum standards for safe practice, and maintain sufficient relevance in order to renew a license. The actual number of CEUs required per license or certification renewal can vary by state, license, and profession. Some states don’t even require them at all!
CEUs may be a requirement, but as mentioned above, they’re also at the core of personal career growth as a knowledgeable and modern professional. The Trusted Guide to CEUs has got you covered on everything you need to know about requirements by state for initial and ongoing licensure.
Scan/take a picture of your diploma and keep it digital. Sure, get a beautiful frame, but you’ll want and need a digital copy handy as that is how you’ll store and submit it for credentialing and compliance during pre-employment.
Request unofficial transcripts in addition to official transcripts. You’ll want to keep a digital copy of these on-hand for many years. It’s often not as seamless of a process to obtain them years later, so getting them at this point might save you time and trouble down the line when applying for licensure by endorsement to new states.
Many healthcare facilities also require a copy during the credentialing phase of employment.
Obtain your health records from your university’s Student Health Center and any additional pediatric records you have. You want to be the owner of your records and data, and it can much more difficult to obtain records years after the fact.
Use a credentialing record system, like Trusted Credentials, to store, monitor, and track the expiration of these documents for quick access and continued compliance.
Letters of Recommendation
Request letters of recommendation from your advisor, faculty, or clinical instructors as soon as possible. While some jobs later on might require those letters to be specific to the position, you can have them adjusted later on. Some references may even ask you to write them on your behalf for them to edit - don’t be surprised if this happens!
But remember no matter how eager a reference might be to write a recommendation on your behalf, recency can make the process easier on them and will likely increase the quality of it with more tangible and real examples.