Overview of Nursing License Requirements

Oct 20, 2021

All nurses are required to be licensed by the state. They must complete an approved training program and then pass an exam as well as meet any other licensing requirements. Once they are licensed, they must complete the required continuing education in order to maintain their license.

Essential Information

Registered nurses (RN) work under the supervision of physicians in healthcare facilities, such as community health centers and hospitals. Nurses are often responsible for helping treat, diagnose and educate patients about their health. To gain RN licensure, prospective nurses must complete an approved training program and pass a state exam. Continuing education requirements must be met every few years in order to maintain licensure.

Required Education Associate's or bachelor's degree; diploma programs occasionally available
Required Skills Medical terminology, core nursing techniques, knowledge of medical treatments and diagnostic tests
Exam Requirements Passing score on the NCLEX-RN
Projected Job Growth (2019-2029) 7%*
Median Salary (2020) $75,330*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)


A nurse cannot apply for his or her license unless he or she has attained the proper education and has a degree from an accredited school. Aspiring registered nurses (RNs) may earn their associate's- or bachelor's-level nursing degree at a junior college or university, respectively. The school should be accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC).

Students may also earn their nursing diploma in a program given by a hospital. These programs, though comparatively rare, will be more clinically based, though they'll still allow graduates to take the licensing exam when complete.


In order to obtain a nursing license, a graduate must pass the NCLEX. The NCLEX required for a prospective registered nurse is the NCLEX-RN exam. There is also an NCLEX-PN exam for aspiring licensed practical nurses or licensed vocational nurses (LPNs or LVNs); a practical nurse is a lower-level position than an RN.


The questions on the NCLEX-RN focus on the potential nurse's ability to make the correct decisions in scenarios regarding patient care, often under conditions of critical importance. Some subjects that candidates should review for the test include muscles, medical terminology, scientific and healthcare definitions, pharmacology, laboratory techniques and safety.


Candidates may apply for the exam through e-mail, through a mail-in application or over the telephone. Students registering online may do so through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) website (www.ncsbn.org). Those registering through the mail may contact their state board of nursing through an application found on the NCSBN site, which also lists the pertinent phone numbers.

Passing the Test

The NCLEX-RN is a multiple choice test that can last up to six hours. The exam is administered by computer. Results are available one month after the testing has been completed, and scores are mailed out to test-takers through their state boards of nursing. Assuming all of the necessary application materials have been submitted, a passing score qualifies a candidate to become licensed as an RN in his or her state.

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

In May 2020, the BLS reported that registered nurses in the 90th percentile or higher earned $116,230 or more per year, whereas the bottom 10th percentile earned $53,410 or less per year. Employment opportunities in the field are expected to grow faster than the national average from 2019-2029.

Registered nurses typically complete an associate's or bachelor's degree program in nursing. They then apply for and complete the NCLEX-RN exam. They receive their license once they meet the educational and other requirements of their state and pass the exam.

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