How to become a nurse in California

The opportunities to start your nursing career are plentiful, and that’s especially true in California. The most populated state in the U.S. has so many exciting nursing opportunities to choose from. 

We’ll explain exactly what you need to know and do to become a nurse in California so you can make more informed career choices and help provide care where it’s greatly needed. 

“In the state of California, just know that you’re in one of the best places to be a nurse,” said Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, CFNP, a nurse practitioner at Stanford Health Care in California. “The system is set up to support you and we are well-respected here.”

5 steps to becoming a nurse in California

To become a nurse in California, you’ll need to have a solid educational background before you can apply for licensure. Once you’re licensed, you’ll need to complete continuing education courses every two years in order to keep your credentials current.

Choose the degree path that’s right for you.

photo of graduation cap posed on top of a stethoscope

There are several different paths of study available to you if you want to become a nurse in California. You can earn:

• An associate degree in nursing (typically takes 2-3 years)
• A bachelor’s degree in nursing (4 years)
• LVN 30 Unit (for vocational nurses who want to become registered nurses; takes 18-24 months)

Before you enroll in any program, make sure that it meets the California Board of Nursing standards. Otherwise, you won’t be able to apply for licensure. 

Brook said there are many things to consider when choosing which degree program is right for you. An ADN, for example, can be valuable because it takes less time to complete, it costs less and you don’t have to take all the liberal arts courses that would be expected of a BSN program.

“If you’re the kind of person who thinks, ‘I may want to work in administration one day,’ or ‘I may want to work in a teaching hospital with a Magnet designation,’ or ‘I may want to get my master’s at some point and become a teacher or a nurse practitioner or CRNA,’ well then you’ve got to start with a bachelor’s degree,” Brook said.

Apply for and earn your license.

close-up of nurse applying for her license

After earning your degree, you’ll need to complete the following steps, which differ in order to be licensed to practice nursing: 

Certified nursing assistant

To earn a Certified Nursing Assistant state license, you need to:  

1. Be at least 16 years old
2. Successfully complete a state-approved training program
3. Fill out an online application through the California Department of Public Health
4. Pass a criminal background check 
5. Get fingerprinted
6. Pass a competency exam 

If you’re already a CNA in another state, to get a California certification, you’ll need to: 

1. Submit a reciprocity application through the California Department of Public Health
2. Get fingerprinted
3. Submit a copy of your current license
4. Submit proof of work that you’ve worked as a nurse or in nursing-related settings within the past 2 years.

Registered nurse

To become a registered nurse in California, you need to: 

1. for a license online through the California Board of registered nursing; ideally 6-8 weeks before graduating from a nursing education program
2. Send your nursing school transcripts to the state board (your school may do this for you)
3. Get fingerprinted and complete a background check
4. Take and pass the NCLEX exam

If you hold a license from a different state, territory, or if you hold a Canadian license, you can get a California license if you:  
1. Hold a degree from a program that meets California’s education standards
2. Take and pass either the NCLEX or the SBTPE exam
3. Apply for licensure

Find a nursing job in California.

close-up of nurse with stethoscope typing on her laptop

Nurses in California can work in a variety of different environments, which include but are not limited to: 

• Assisted living facilities
• Corporations
• Clinics
• Hospitals 
• Military bases
• Non-profits
• Nursing homes
• Private Practices
• Schools

To kick off your job search in California, we recommend looking for work in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area. This area has the highest employment level in the state. However, the Bay Area metro areas (San Jose and San Francisco) have the highest annual mean wages for registered nurses in the state.

“Remember that this is a field with a lot of options—you can reinvent yourself over and over. You can’t do that as a doctor,” Brook said. She also emphasized that when looking for a job that you take the time to find one that’s the right fit for you. “Maybe that means not taking the first job that comes your way but looking around because you can be picky. You have to remind yourself that you’re valuable, you’re well-trained, and you can be picky. You don’t get extra points for being miserable at work.”

Renew your license.

group of nurses talking and walking down the hallway

California requires you to renew your license every two years on your birthday. You’ll need to make sure you either complete the required amount of learning hours in the timespan leading up to two birthdays from now.

Keep up with continuing education.

nursing student posing with stethoscope and text books

In addition to renewing your license, California requires practicing nurses to keep up with continuing education requirements in order to retain your license.

These continuing education courses not only are important to retain your license, but to maintain any certifications you might have as well.

How long does it take to become a nurse in California?

The amount of time it takes to become a licensed nurse varies from state to state. In California, the below timeline is an approximation: 

  • Earn a degree from an accredited program: 2-6 years. Nurses can earn an associate’s, bachelor degree, or masters. Earning a more advanced degree may make you more marketable to employers. 
  • Apply for licensure: A few hours. You can apply for a California nursing license online in an hour or two. The state board recommends doing so 6-8 weeks before graduation from your nursing degree program. 
  • Wait for feedback: 10-12 weeks. You’ll receive approval to take the NCLEX exam within 10-12 weeks of submitting your application. It could be sooner, but it depends on the type of license you’re applying for. Applications are processed in the order they’re received. 
  • Take your required exam (if any): As soon as possible. After you get approval to take the NCLEX exam, it’s recommended that you take it as soon as possible to have a better chance at passing. 
  • Get fingerprinted: You must get fingerprinted after you’ve sent in your application. You can either get them scanned at a Live Scan site in California, or get your fingerprints manually scanned if you reside in another state. 
  • Get notified that you passed the NCLEX: 6 weeks. Official test results typically arrive six weeks after you’ve taken the exam. You might be able to see if you’ve passed within two days after taking it, but these results are unofficial.  
  • Receive your license: A few days to a few weeks. If you requested and paid for an interim permit, you’ll receive it in as little as 24 hours after you’ve passed. If not, you’ll receive your license a few weeks after you’ve passed the NCLEX. 

Registered nurses who earn a bachelor’s degree program in nursing tend to take the NCLEX exam within 45 days after graduating, no matter what state they’re trying to earn a license in. This means it typically takes four years and three months to earn a nursing license in most states, including California. 

Continuing education for nurses in California

California requires registered nurses to take 30 hours worth of continuing education every two years in order to keep their licenses in active status. You must take courses that are given by a board-recognized continuing education provider in order for your coursework to count. 

College courses are acceptable so long as they are at an advanced level. For example, taking an advanced course in physical or social sciences will most likely count toward your 30 hours. 

Compared to other states, California gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility in terms of what courses to take during your renewal period. Generally, you can take any course that’s directly related to the practice of nursing in a technical or scientific way. You can’t take more than one course about the same topic, however, and expect to receive credit for both—each course you take must be on a unique topic. 

Is California a compact state?

Unfortunately, California is not a compact state. This means you cannot practice in California even if you have a license from one of the 23 compact states.  

Useful organizations to know for prospective California nurses

Registered nurse licenses are given out by the California Board of Registered Nursing. The California Board of Public Health, which is a separate organization, certifies nursing assistants. 

California also has many organizations that you can join, some of which are general and some of which are aimed at a specific area of nursing: 

Find out how to become a nurse in your state

The process of becoming a nurse is different depending on the state in which you are seeking licensure. Each state has different requirements and standards that you should be aware of.

Here are some of the top nursing states in the U.S. and the steps to become a nurse in each:

Job outlook

Nurses are currently in high demand in California. The most populous state in the U.S. needs an adequate number of healthcare professionals to meet demands. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a shortage of nursing in the state that is expected to continue through 2026

In general, the number of registered nurses nationwide is expected to grow 5.6% through 2032, which is roughly the average across all occupations according to the BLS.

“Always look for ways to continue to learn because things are always changing,” Brook said. “And you can continue to learn and grow in your field, you can get more education or certifications—you don’t have to get a degree necessarily—but there are so many different things that you can learn that make you more valuable as an employee, more marketable, that keep you stimulated.”

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Median salary

California is the top-paying state in the country for registered nurses. The average yearly salary for a registered nurse in California is $124,000.

Here are some median RN salaries by metropolitan areas in the state:

Registered Nurses
hero-widget-desktop-graph hero-widget-desktop-graph






Median Hourly Wage$64

Job growth5.6%

Total Employment325,620

Metro area Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA $175,350 $97,070 $176,530
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $173,510 $106,760 $216,250
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $164,960 $101,530 $212,630
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $163,070 $107,370 $214,700
Santa Rosa, CA $156,250 $102,470 $214,220
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $137,940 $97,850 $190,430
Napa, CA $137,260 $101,880 $200,540
Redding, CA $135,220 $83,550 $155,050
Yuba City, CA $134,930 $83,390 $143,580
Modesto, CA $134,250 $95,320 $177,390

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2022 median salary; projected job growth through 2032. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Requirements for foreign-educated nurses

If you attend nursing school or earned your registered nursing license outside of the United States, there are a couple of extra steps to practicing in the state of California.

In addition to applying for your license and passing the NCLEX, you will need to pass an English-language competency exam—you may be exempt if you fit certain criteria—and possess the required curriculum. In particular, you need to have taken instruction in the following content areas:

  • Medical-surgical
  • Obstetrics
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Psychiatric-Mental health

Make sure and check California’s requirements for international nurses to ensure you meet all of the requirements.

Useful resources

Fortunately, there are many incredible resources you can take advantage of if you’re looking to become a nurse in California. Here are some great ones to get you started on the right path: 

California Nurses Association: An affiliate of National Nurses United, meet other nursing professionals and advocate as a group for better working conditions and healthcare policies across California and the nation. 

List of accredited nursing programs in California accredited by the California Board of Registered Nursing: If you’re looking to earn a degree in California, the state board lists all of the accredited programs located in the state for your convenience. 

California Nursing Students’ Association: An offshoot of the National Student Nursing Association, this organization lets you connect with other future nurses, provides career development opportunities, and more. 

California Nursing Students’ Association: An offshoot of the National Student Nursing Association, this organization lets you connect with other future nurses, provides career development opportunities, and more. 

mimi polner

Written and reported by:

Emily Polner

Contributing Writer

nancy brook

With professional insights from:

Nancy Brook, MSN, RN, CFNP

Nurse Practitioner 1V, Stanford Health Care