5 Steps to Getting Your Nursing License

licensed registered nurse enjoying a quick break

The nursing profession is known for offering strong earning potential, diverse employment opportunities, and meaningful work that makes a difference in people’s lives. With so many possible benefits, it’s no wonder nursing is a popular field for those looking to start or change their careers.

Preparing to work as a nurse takes planning and dedication, but the hard work you put in is sure to pay off in the end. From completing your education to passing the national exam, follow these 5 steps for earning your nursing license and kick-starting your career.

Complete an Accredited Nursing Program

The first step to getting your license is to graduate from a program that’s approved by your state’s Board of Nursing. Approval by your Board is a requirement if you wish to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to get your legal license.

There are 2 main types of entry-level nursing programs available, depending on what kind of license you want to earn.

LPN vs. RN

When you’re just starting out, you have the option to pursue a license as either an LPN or an RN. These have different requirements for education and prepare you for distinct levels of responsibility.

  • Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) work under the supervision of RNs and handle tasks such as taking vital signs, collecting samples, and administering medication. LPNs must hold at least a certificate or a diploma from a community college, vocational school, or hospital. These programs typically take around 12 months to complete, though some are as short as 7 while others are as long as 24.

  • Registered nurses (RNs), on the other hand, handle issues related to more critical patient care while also supervising LPNs and nursing assistants. They need to have at least a 2-year associate’s degree in nursing, though 4-year bachelor’s degrees are becoming a common essential for employers. Some states may even require nurses with an associate’s degree to eventually earn a bachelor’s in order to maintain their license.

As you consider what option is best for you, keep in mind that your level of education will affect the options you have for your career growth and future education. If you ultimately plan to earn a master’s degree and work as an advanced practice nurse, you’ll first need to be an RN.


Whether you choose to become an LPN or RN, it’s important to consider attending a program that’s accredited. Though it’s not a requirement for earning your license, accreditation proves that a program meets the quality standards laid out by the U.S. Department of Education. If you wish to pursue federal or state-funded financial aid, your program will also need to be accredited.

There are 2 national organizations that accredit entry-level nursing programs. The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) oversees both LPN and RN programs, while the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredits at the bachelor’s level and higher.

Apply for a License with Your State Board

When you’re about to graduate or have completed your education, you’ll need to apply for a license with your state’s Board of Nursing. The actual paperwork might vary from state to state but in general, you’ll be asked to submit an application form, provide transcripts that show you’ve earned the necessary education, and pay the application and licensure fees.

Register for the NCLEX Exam

After applying for your license, you’ll need to register for the NCLEX exam through Pearson VUE. Depending on the license you seek, you’ll either register for the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN exam, each of which costs $200. Your application will then be reviewed and, if eligible, you’ll receive an Authorization to Test (ATT). You typically have a period of around 90 days to schedule your test before your ATT is no longer valid.

Take & Pass the NCLEX

Between the time you receive your ATT and you take the exam, it’s recommended that you take advantage of the practice tests that are sold by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Practice packets give you access to 2 separate computerized tests which are designed to provide the look and feel of the real exam.

On the day of the test, aspiring LPNs will have 5 hours to complete the exam, while RNs will have 6. The NCLEX is administered using computerized adaptive testing, meaning that the questions you receive will change depending on your perceived level of ability. There’s a minimum and maximum number of questions you can receive, but the exact number relies on your answers. The test will continue until 1 of 3 things happens: the exam determines with 95% confidence that you’ve either passed or failed, you hit the maximum number of questions, or you run out of time.

You won’t find out your results on the same day as the test, however some states let you buy unofficial results on the Pearson VUE website a few days later. Your official score will be sent to you from your state’s regulatory board about 6 weeks after the test.

If you don’t pass the exam, you’ll receive a report that gives a general overview of how you performed in each section. This can help you understand what areas you should focus on if you plan to take the test again. You’re allowed to take the exam up to 8 times every year.

Complete Additional State Requirements

If you passed the exam, congratulations—you only have a few more steps to getting your license. Though requirements vary by state, expect to submit to a criminal background check. And if you’re a foreign-educated nurse, you’ll have other requirements as well. Some states might also ask for a character reference or an English proficiency exam. When you’ve completed all additional requirements and received your license, you can immediately begin practicing as a nurse.

Ready to Find a Nursing Program?

If your goal is to earn your nursing license, it all begins with the right education. With hundreds of nursing programs available, selecting a school isn’t always an easy decision, but we’re here to help. Use our guide on How to Choose the Right Nursing School for 8 simple steps to help you along the way.

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