How to become a nurse in Tennessee

female nurse in mask pulling on gloves
female nurse in mask pulling on gloves

Tennessee may be known as the beating heart of the country music scene, but it’s also a great place to pursue a nursing career. The Tennessee Board of Nursing regulates nurse licensure in the state, which is also a member of the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC).

“The nursing landscape in Tennessee could be described as ‘ripe for the picking’ or that ‘the sky is the limit.’ The demand for nurses in all areas of practice and in all roles mirrors the national shortage of nurses both currently and as projected over the next 10 years,” wrote Dr. Brad Harrell, clinical professor and Assistant Dean of Nursing at Lambuth in the Loewenberg College of Nursing at the University of Memphis.

6 steps to become a nurse in Tennessee

Complete an approved nursing program.

female nurse walking down busy hospital corridor

To become an RN in the state, you must graduate from a nursing program approved by the Tennessee Board of Nursing. For most new nurses that don’t already have a degree, this should be either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN). An accelerated bachelor’s of science in nursing (ABSN) or LPN-to-ADN program are also acceptable paths to licensure.

“All RN preparation programs require a mix of on-campus classes, learning and simulation labs, and clinical practicum experience. Prior to program entry, prerequisite courses typically involve a focus on the biological and human sciences in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, nutrition, and psychology. There are general education courses required to complete a degree including English, history, math and social sciences,” Harrell said. “After admission to the nursing program, most of the schools require a presence on campus and at clinical sites close to the school’s location to complete these learning activities after acceptance into the professional nursing program.”

Complete a fingerprint criminal background check.

nurse getting fingerprinted for state files

The Board recommends that you complete a criminal background check via fingerprinting approximately six weeks prior to graduating from your nursing program.

Apply for RN licensure.

female nurse working with patient and taking vitals

Once you’ve got your fingerprints done, you should apply for an RN license through the Board of Nursing’s online portal. This should be done approximately four weeks prior to graduating. In the online application, you must include a current photograph of yourself, a declaration of citizenship form and a copy of a current unexpired driver’s license.

Register for the NCLEX.

About two weeks before graduating, you must register for the NCLEX-RN exam through Pearson Vue. This requires paying an associated fee as well. 

Pass the NCLEX.

happy male nurse with stethoscope around neck

Once the Board verifies that you have applied for an RN license online with all supporting documents, completed a background check, registered for the NCLEX and graduated from your nursing program, Pearson Vue will issue you an authorization to test (ATT) for the NCLEX exam. You must take the test within the time allotted. Upon passing the NCLEX, the Board will issue you an RN license.

Keep up your continuing education requirements.

smiling nurse working on laptop

Nurses in Tennessee must maintain evidence of completing at least two items from the Board’s approved list for each two-year renewal cycle. You only need to submit these items if they are specifically requested by the Board.

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

Becoming a nurse in Tennessee begins with a solid nursing education. New nurses must graduate from either an associate or bachelor’s program in nursing to qualify for an RN license. Your program should be approved by the Board of Nursing or have an equivalent curriculum if you go to school outside of Tennessee.

An associate degree program typically takes about two years of full-time study to complete, and a bachelor’s degree generally takes four. Both programs prepare students for the NCLEX-RN exam. The degree you choose is the biggest factor in determining how long it takes to become a nurse. 

“Forty-eight colleges and universities across Tennessee offer entry programs into the nursing profession with either an associate or bachelor’s degree. Studies point to the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) as the preferred entry into practice with those graduates practicing to the extent that care outcomes are highest. However, community colleges offering the associate degree as a supply for licensed RNs continue to be critical, especially in more rural areas of the state,” Harrell said. “Graduate nursing degrees remain available in the larger universities in the population centers around Memphis, Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville areas. Recruiting and matriculating students in rural locations and them returning to those locations to work remains a challenge for both academia and the workforce.

The Tennessee Board of Nursing suggest that you complete the following items at various times leading up to graduation:

  • Six weeks before graduation: Complete a criminal background check through IdentoGO.
  • Four weeks before graduation: Apply for an RN license through the Board’s online portal. In your application, you must include a current photograph of yourself (signed and dated on the front), a declaration of citizenship form and a copy of a current unexpired driver’s license.
  • Two weeks before graduation: Register for the NCLEX exam through Pearson Vue and pay the appropriate fee.

The Board says to allow six weeks from graduation for them to review your application. Presuming there aren’t any deficiencies in your application, Pearson Vue will issue you an authorization to test (ATT) once the Board verifies that your application is complete and that you have graduated from your nursing program.  You must take the NCLEX within the time specified (typically 90 days).

Once the Board has confirmed that you have passed the NCLEX, you will receive your RN license. If you followed the timeline above, you could have your license a few months after graduating.

Requirements for foreign-educated nurses

Nurses that were educated outside of the United States or its jurisdictions must still obtain a nursing license in Tennessee by examination (i.e., taking the NCLEX). The process is practically the same but has an additional step.

In order to be eligible to take the NCLEX, applicants must obtain a CGFNS certificate (with the exception of Canada and Puerto Rico).

Canadian graduates that were taught in English must have a CES Professional Report from CGFNS instead. If the education and exam was taught in French, then you need the CGFNS certificate.  

Puerto Rican graduates must have a CES Professional Report.

Both of these documents require passing an English language proficiency exam, however, you are exempt from the language proficiency requirement if you were taught in:

  • Australia
  • Barbados
  • Canada (except Quebec)
  • Ireland
  • Jamaica
  • New Zealand
  • South Aftrca
  • Trinidad/Tobago
  • United Kingdom
  • United States (except Puerto Rico)

Continuing education for Tennessee nurses

Nurses in Tennessee have a lot of options when it comes to their continuing education requirements. They do not have to submit evidence of completing these items unless the Board of Nursing specifically requests it, which can happen at any time. Nurses should always maintain evidence of their compliance in case they get asked to submit proof to the Board.

RNs (and LPNs) must compete at least two items on the Board of Nursing’s Continued Competence Requirements list every two years to be compliant. The list includes items such as a copy of a satisfactory employer evaluation, evidence of a current national certification, copy of a published article relevant to nursing, taking a nurse refresher course and much more.

“Licensed RNs in the state of Tennessee are not required to complete continuing education as part of their license renewal every two years. However, the state instead requires ‘continuing competence requirements’ and provides a list of items from which the RN may choose how to provide evidence of that continued competence. Continuing education contact hours are one of the items on that list of 15 to choose from,” Harrell said.

Is Tennessee a compact state?

Yes, Tennessee is a participating state in the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). Nurses that are changing their primary residence to Tennessee still need to apply for a Tennessee license by endorsement, but they won’t need to retake the NCLEX.

Nurse job outlook

The employment of nurses across the nation is expected to grow approximately 5.6% through 2032 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is about as fast as average for all occupations.

Approximately one-third of all nurses in Tennessee (62,250) worked in the Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin metropolitan area (20,850) in 2021. Other areas with a large share of nurses in the state include Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“Health systems across the state have shortages of RN staff with some indicating vacancies into the hundreds of RN positions. These vacancies and staffing needs exist across large, integrated health systems, privately owned health systems, large hospitals, smaller hospitals, federal and state government facilities, prisons, mental health facilities, private practice offices and home health agencies in both urban and rural locations,” Harrell said.

Harrell said that after obtaining initial RN licensure and then with any APRN or advanced nursing education, the sky really is the limit across the state, nation, and globe for dedicating yourself as a nursing professional to the care and wellness of others. “To remind ourselves of this incredible commitment of service to others, I sometimes ask my students to hold out their hands with their palms facing up and then to point at that palm with their other hand. I then ask them to think about how the health, life, death, joys, concerns, vulnerabilities, and celebrations of many people in their care will pass through that hand. I ask them, and any nurse, to reflect on that and realize that every moment of every day – and to think about how special it is to be trained, licensed and dedicated to a profession with such a noble and special duty to humanity.”

Median salaries

The annual mean wage for nurses in Tennessee is $65,800 according to the BLS. The annual mean wage remains fairly consistent when you look at metropolitan areas across the state, with all areas earning a place in the same wage bracket with only two exceptions: the Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin metropolitan area ($74,090) and the Memphis metro area ($71,290).

Although the annual mean wage for nurses in Tennessee is not as high as other states such as California, it’s important to remember that Tennessee tends to have a much lower cost of living by comparison.

“The variety of compensation, including salaries, for both RNs and APRNs is as vast as the various roles in which individuals may work. Generally, the highest paid RN positions are in tertiary care hospital systems caring for acutely ill patients. Because of this, the population centers in urban areas across the state generally have the highest paid positions,” Harrell said. “Pay also depends on the shifts worked with shift differentials added to a base pay amount for working second, third, and weekend shifts. Overtime pay is generally 1.5 to two times the base pay. Some employers offer a crisis pay where RNs work on short notice, work in a critically understaffed area, or work with very high acuity patients.”

Registered Nurses
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Median Hourly Wage$32

Job growth5.6%

Total Employment60,840

Metro area Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Cleveland, TN $76,620 $49,660 $94,650
Nashville-Davidson--Murfreesboro--Franklin, TN $74,090 $53,080 $106,510
Memphis, TN-MS-AR $71,290 $51,550 $101,480
Clarksville, TN-KY $66,350 $48,460 $95,040
Knoxville, TN $65,020 $48,790 $80,200
Jackson, TN $64,320 $55,490 $78,680
Johnson City, TN $64,030 $48,160 $96,450
Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, TN-VA $63,980 $48,180 $82,280
Chattanooga, TN-GA $63,680 $50,680 $81,760
Morristown, TN $62,390 $47,020 $77,220

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.

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:

Resources for becoming a nurse in Tennessee

The Tennessee Board of Nursing is responsible for issuing and regulating nursing licenses in the state, as well as approving nursing programs. Check with them for any questions you may have about licensure, nursing education, continuing education and more.

The Tennessee Nurses Association (TNA) is an affiliate of the American Nurses Association (ANA). According to their website, they are the only nursing organization in the state of Tennessee offering distinctive nursing representation at the local level. Members who join this organization receive special benefits and an automatic membership with the ANA.

The Tennessee Hospital Association has numerous affiliate organizations, including the American Organization for Nursing Leadership – Tennessee (AONL-TN). Full members are RNs in Tennessee who have administrative and/or management roles, but it is open to students enrolled in a nursing administration degree program as well. 

The Tennessee Student Nurses Association (TSNA) is run by and for student nurses within the state. They aim to support students who are preparing for initial RN licensure and advocate for quality health care and health care education on behalf of student nurses.

kendall upton

Written and reported by:

Kendall Upton

Staff Writer

With professional insights from:

Dr. Brad Harrell

Clinical Professor and Assistant Dean of Nursing, Lambuth in the Loewenberg College of Nursing, University of Memphis