Working as a registered nurse is equal parts exciting and fulfilling, making it a popular career choice for anyone looking to enter the healthcare field. The 2018 median salary for RNs was $71,730 per year, allowing you to make a comfortable living while helping others with their health needs. Additionally, due to both the nursing shortage and the aging population, the job outlook for RNs is very promising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects this profession to grow much faster than average, with over 200,000 new RN positions opening up annually until 2028.
Before you launch your career, it’s important to learn more about the steps you need to take to start your nursing career, especially when it comes to proper certification — doing so will help ensure that you have all of the credentials and knowledge you need to succeed as an RN.
What Is a Certified Nurse?
The term “certified nurse” can be used to refer to two different things: board-certified nurses and specialty certified nurses, also known as clinical nurse specialists. Board certification means that a nurse has met the requirements to pursue state licensure. In other words, if you’re a board-certified nurse, you have met all the criteria and qualifications you need to legally work as a nurse in a given state. This guide will focus specifically on board certification for nurses.
Clinical nurse specialists, on the other hand, have received advanced training in a specific area of nursing or in a certain medical specialty. Examples of specialty certifications include anesthesiology and pediatrics, but these are just a handful of many different specialty certifications you can pursue as a registered nurse. Most specialist certifications have their own unique educational requirements, training criteria, and examinations you have to meet that differ from board certification.
Licensure vs. Certification in Nursing
Similarly, a certified nurse is not the same as a licensed nurse. Licensure and certification go hand in hand — and both are important, even essential, for registered nurses to obtain — but they do not refer to the same process.
Licensure ensures you are legally authorized to work as a nurse in your state. You have to get approval from your state’s licensing board to receive your nursing license, and because licensure occurs at this level, the process and requirements for licensure can vary from state to state. Certification, on the other hand, indicates you have met the minimum requirements for licensure. Because national and international nursing organizations typically oversee certification, it is a more standardized process that remains the same from state to state.
Additionally, there are different maintenance requirements for certification and licensure, which can vary between states as well as employers. Many states require nurses to take a certain amount of continuing education each year (or every several years) in order to keep a license active and valid. Others do not require continuing education, but do require nurses to renew their licenses every other year. Regardless of your state’s requirements, you may still need to complete continuing education to maintain your certification. Similarly, employers may have their own mandates about continuing education or maintaining certification. You have to have your license to work as a nurse, but your employer may also require valid certification, depending on either their own or the state’s policies.
Benefits of Nursing Certification
There are a number of benefits that come from getting your nursing certification, not only for you, but also for patients:
- Boosted Income: With either board or specialty certification, you can increase your salary as an RN. Depending on what state you live in and what type of clinical environment you work in, getting certified may increase your current income, as well as your future earning potential, by a significant amount.
- Career Advancement: Because it requires you to demonstrate your skills as a nurse, certification is a simple, convenient way to universally communicate your knowledge and abilities to current and future employers. This can provide a greater number of career opportunities and make it easier to step into these new roles. It can pave the way for you to take on more specialized or advanced roles, such as becoming a nurse practitioner, specializing in a specific type of nursing, or going back to school to further your nursing education.
- Greater Trust: Certification also communicates your expertise to your patients and their family members. A majority of Americans already believe nurses to be the most trustworthy professionals, both in and out of healthcare. Getting certified can further solidify your patients’ trust in your ability to care for them or their loved ones.
- Improved Patient Outcomes: A growing body of research highlights the link between the nursing certification and improved patient outcomes. It’s also thought to improve patients’ satisfaction with their care.
- Increased Confidence: Professional certification validates your own knowledge and abilities as a nurse to other people and to yourself. The Value of Certification Survey discovered that over 88% of nurses felt more personal confidence in their clinical abilities after certification.
- Professional Opportunities: Certification can also provide a greater number of professional opportunities — such as participating in panel discussions, attending conferences or workshops, and engaging with your industry and community — that can be highly enriching for your daily work as a nurse and the overall trajectory of your career.
How Nursing Certification Works
The process of getting certified as a nurse is fairly straightforward. Further, many of the steps you need to take to your education and state-issued license do align with those you need for certification. Here’s how getting certified as a nurse typically works:
- Get Your Education: Before anything else, you need to get your nursing degree from an accredited program. Whether you want to pursue an RN, BSN, or stay in school to earn an advanced degree, it’s important to have the knowledge and training you need to be able to perform the duties of a nurse in a clinical setting. Keep in mind that getting a degree or graduating from an accredited program is not the same as becoming certified, unless certification is built into your program.
- Pass the NCLEX-RN Examination: Next, you have to take and pass the NCLEX exam for registered nurses. Offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, this exam is required for nursing licensure in all 50 states. No matter what type of certification you pursue, you will have to study and prepare for this exam in order to work as a nurse in the U.S.
- Select Your Certification: After getting your degree and passing the license exam, you have to pick which certification you want to pursue. There are many different organizations that offer both board and specialty certifications, so take your time to select the right one for your needs and goals. You may have to pay a fee or submit an application before you move forward with the certification exam.
- Pass the Certification Examination: Most, if not all, certifications require candidates to take and pass another exam to prove their knowledge and expertise. Upon passing this exam, you will have both your license and your certification.
- Maintain Your Certification: After getting your certification, you will have to take the necessary steps to maintain it. Depending on the certification, maintenance may involve continuing education, renewing or reapplying for your certification, or periodically re-sitting certification exams.
Certification Bodies and Organizations
Between the board and specialty certifications, there are dozens of different organizations that offer certifications for nurses and nurse practitioners. Some of the most noteworthy certification organizations in the United States include:
- Accreditation Board for Specialty Nursing Certification;
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board;
- American Holistic Nurses Association;
- American Nurses Credentialing Center;
- Association of Clinical Research Professionals;
- Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing;
- Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology;
- Competency & Credentialing Institute;
- Hospice & Palliative Care Credentialing Center;
- Infusion Nurses Certification Corp;
- Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board;
- National Board for Certification of School Nurses;
- National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists;
- National Certification Corporation;
- Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of credentialing bodies, and some of these organizations offer multiple types of certifications. Additionally, there are certification organizations for virtually every branch of medicine and nursing specialty, and you’re sure to find a certification that aligns with your current and future goals as a nurse.
Maintenance of Certification
As discussed above, you will likely have to take certain steps to maintain your certification after successfully receiving it. Depending on the organization and the certification itself, this may be as simple as re-submitting an application or logging into an online portal to renew it. In other cases, you may have to pursue continuing education to keep your certification valid. Continuing education often takes the form of:
- Professional lectures or courses;
- Academic courses;
- Publication of scientific research;
- Practice or supervisory hours;
- Additional testing, examinations, or assessments;
- Professional or volunteer service.
You may have to take these renewal steps annually, every other year, or every few years; it can vary depending on the certification as well as the organization offering it. Make sure you familiarize yourself with these maintenance requirements before getting certified so you know what to expect and are able to keep up with them. Otherwise, your certification could become inactive and you may have to start the process over again.
Nursing Certification Programs
Although getting a degree does not guarantee certification or licensure, there are nursing degree programs from accredited institutions that may integrate those processes into their curriculum. Even schools that don’t incorporate certification or licensure into their nursing programs may still have helpful resources, academic materials, and additional support for interested students.
Whether you’re looking to enroll in an associate’s program or pursue an entry-level master’s degree in nursing, there is no shortage of different nursing degree programs at all levels across the entire country. You’re sure to find an educational experience that suits your needs and prepares you for licensure and certification, whether or not those processes are incorporated into your program.
How to Transfer a Nursing License
Because certifications typically come from national organizations, you don’t have to worry about transferring them between states. However, that isn’t the case for nursing licenses since every state has its own unique laws and licensing requirements. Similarly, transferring your license between two states varies greatly from state to state. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your current and target state’s licensure laws to learn more about that specific transfer process.
If you’re only licensed as a nurse in a single state, you still may be able to work elsewhere without doing a complete transfer thanks to the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). The NLC is an agreement between certain states that allows nurses to practice in other participating states without any additional licensure or paperwork. As of 2020, the following 34 states fully participate in the NLC:
- New Hampshire;
- New Jersey;
- New Mexico;
- North Carolina;
- North Dakota;
- South Carolina;
- South Dakota;
- West Virginia;
The following ten states are either partially participating in the compact or have pending legislation to join:
- New Jersey;
- Rhode Island;
Finally, several states have opted not to join the NLC or don’t have pending legislation to do so, including:
RN License & Certification Verification
There are several ways you can verify someone’s nursing credentials. To verify certification, it’s best to contact the appropriate organization or certifier directly. At the very least, you’ll need the individual’s name, although more information may be necessary; you may also have to pay a verification fee. To verify someone’s nursing license, you should contact the appropriate state nursing board. Many have online search tools that you can use for free.