Your Guide to Licensing

Articles | Nurse Practitioner Programs

With so many options to consider, nursing students will likely want to begin exploring career possibilities as early as possible during their educational pursuits. Doing so ensures that students understand which path to follow toward their ideal career as well as the numerous steps they will need to take along the way.

Discover what health care professionals can do with a nursing license, how to obtain one, and best practices to streamline the process in this guide to licensing:

What Can a Licensed Nurse Do?

A medical professional with her patient.
Image via Flickr by World Bank Photo Collection

Graduate students pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing tend to be qualified candidates for advanced practice nursing careers, and many have an interest in obtaining licensure. Before going down this path, however, students may find it helpful to understand the difference between licensed and non-licensed nurses.

Without a license, health care professionals cannot practice nursing. As the Houston Chronicle explains, those with a nursing degree may choose not to pursue a license if they intend to work as home health care aides, medical assistants, or medical lab technologists or technicians. Nursing school graduates may also become medical records technicians without a professional license. While all of these careers enable candidates to work closely with patients in clinical or administrative settings, none of them allow for nursing practice.

Health care professionals who want to become registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), or advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) must obtain a license. With a license, Practical Nursing explains, LPNs and LVNs can take vital signs, dress wounds, administer medications, and give feedings. They typically work under the supervision of RNs, who coordinate patient care plans, make decisions about treatments, provide health-related education, and conduct patient-related research.

As the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) states, APRNs may be either certified nurse practitioners (CNPs) or clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). Both provide advanced health care services and may diagnose, treat, and manage diseases.

According to the NCSBN, by obtaining a license, nurses demonstrate that they meet national and state standards and that they have the ability to provide high-quality health care. Licensed nurses may work in physicians’ offices, hospitals, clinics, and other settings. Some may even opt to specialize in certain areas of medicine, such as emergency care, psychiatry, and more.

How to Obtain a Nursing License

Licensure can open many doors in the health care industry, but nurses must complete several steps before obtaining a license. First, they should complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing to build a foundation and gain essential experience in clinical settings.

Next, many nurses opt to pursue a graduate degree in nursing in order to further their academic background and gain even more experience treating patients, working in the field, or doing research. Completing a Master of Science in Nursing degree may help candidates pursue higher-level positions, including leadership roles.

Since nurses with graduate degrees tend to be driven, accomplished professionals, they often find employment in the health care industry while working toward a degree. Many aspiring licensed nurses prefer to pursue an online MSN degree. Some online programs do not have residency requirements, while others do. This option allows for much greater flexibility in terms of both location and schedule, which may enable students to keep rewarding jobs while working toward a graduate degree.

Aspiring nurses may apply for a license upon completing a nursing program. Candidates should consult with their state’s Board of Nursing (BON) to confirm local requirements. Each state has its own BON, and some have separate bodies to evaluate RNs, LPNs, LVNs, or APRNs. In each state, the BON evaluates applications to ensure that all nurses meet the stated criteria, and the board also issues and renews licenses.

To obtain a license, all nurses must pass either the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN exam. As Nurse Journal explains, this nationwide exam includes four main categories: safe and effective care, coping and adaptation, health maintenance and promotion, and physiological integrity.

Passing the exam is not the only barrier to getting a license, however. While individual requirements vary by state, most candidates must also complete a criminal background check, prove that they are proficient in the English language, and demonstrate that they are in good physical and mental health. Once candidates have met all of the necessary requirements and paid the appropriate fee, the BON will grant licensure. Though the specific number of years a license is valid depends on each state’s BON requirements, the license will need to be renewed every 2 years in many states.

Tips and Best Practices to Prepare for a Nursing License

Getting a professional license is a major accomplishment in any nurse’s career. To make the process as smooth as possible and avoid unnecessary surprises or setbacks, aspiring nurses should take the following tips and best practices into account.

It’s extremely important to understand your state’s licensing requirements to ensure that you do not leave out any key components. Though the licensing process might be similar from state to state, every jurisdiction does not have the same requirements. For instance, some require a fingerprint check, and others ask applicants to provide a notary signature.

Nurses who relocate from one state to another should strive to learn about the licensing process in their future home as early as possible during the moving process. Most states allow for licensure by endorsement, which means that nurses can effectively transfer a license to another state. However, they may have to complete a new background check or submit additional paperwork to obtain the new license. Since having an active license can affect employment opportunities, nurses should not delay the endorsement process.

Nurses who want to be at the top of their field may also consider obtaining additional professional credentials. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers a number of competency-based examinations that assess applicants’ knowledge in specialized areas. With additional credentials, licensed professionals may be better equipped to pursue and excel in specialized nursing roles.

Obtaining a license and completing a graduate program are important steps for professionals who want to pursue advanced roles in nursing. Aspiring nurses should make note of the licensing process and best practices to prepare for each step of this rewarding career path. To learn more about your educational options, visit the Maryville University Online Master of Science in Nursing degree program.


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