Registered Nurse Certification in How to Become an RN in California: Nursing License Application and Renewal Guide

To become a registered nurse (RN) in California, you must first obtain a degree, then complete the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), and finally apply for a license through the state board. This process can take as little as two years or upwards of six years, depending on the type of degree you wish to pursue.

Nationally, the nursing industry is projected to grow 12% by 2028, which is much faster than any other industry in the U.S. Additionally, as of 2019, the national average salary of RNs was $73,300 per year, which is much higher than the national average wage index. The average salary for RNs in California was estimated at $106,950 in 2018.

Although there are more than 400,000 RNs in the state, California, like many other states, is facing nursing shortages in many regions. This suggests the demand for nurses will increase in the next decade.

To obtain an RN license, applicants must:

  • Be 18 years of age;
  • Submit all application materials, fees, and a passport-size photo;
  • Submit a fingerprint report and criminal background check;
  • Provide a U.S. Social Security number;
  • Request school transcripts;
  • And request the Breakdown of Educational Programs for obtaining International Nursing Programs form (if applicable).

Becoming an RN in California might seem overwhelming, however, you can simply follow the process below to understand the requirements.

California State Board of Nursing

The California State Board of Nursing handles licensing in the state, enforces regulations, and approves accredited education programs. The Board also hosts a job board to connect graduates with career opportunities.

To contact the Board, you can dial 916-322-3350, email applicant services, or visit their physical address at:

Board of Registered Nursing
1747 N. Market Blvd., Suite 150
Sacramento, CA 95834-1924.

Registered Nurse Education Requirements

To acquire an RN certification, all applicants must obtain a degree from an accredited school. Due to unprecedented demand in the industry, more students are enrolling in RN schools now than ever before. California offers a variety of RN programs to enroll in as well as varying degree options. These degree options include:

  • ADN (Associate Degree in Nursing): This program takes two to three years to finish and prepares students to provide nursing care in varied settings.
  • BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing): This program takes four years to complete and is also referred to as a baccalaureate degree. It prepares students to move to different administrative and leadership positions.
  • ELM (Entry-Level Master’s in Nursing Program): Applicants who have a BSN degree and desire to become a registered nurse can apply for this degree. It takes one to two years to complete the program depending on the nursing courses the student has already taken.

There are also requirements that a candidate must fulfill, including:

  • The applicant must be 18 years or older;
  • The student must complete the basic education (high school or GED);
  • It is mandatory for all applicants to take the drug test and criminal background check;
  • A photo ID must be provided by the applicant;
  • The applicant’s score in the English language must be at least 75% and in math, it should be 80% or above;
  • The applicant must provide their Social Security number;
  • And the applicant must provide a level-one fingerprint clearance card.

RN Licensure by Examination

This is the licensure by exam process for graduates and all new applicants; those licensed as RNs in another state or jurisdiction may need to follow the endorsement process detailed below. To obtain a license, applicants must:

  • Complete and notarize an application form using the online portal;
  • Submit a recent passport-sized photograph with signature and date;
  • Submit transcripts (for out-of-state programs only) to the Board;
  • And pay application fees with a valid credit card.

Fingerprinting and Background Checks

Applicants must submit fingerprints for a criminal history record check. There are two methods available:

  • Live Scan: Applicants may visit Live Scan locations to electronically scan and transmit fingerprints for immediate processing.
  • Manual fingerprint processing: Applicants must obtain a fingerprint card from the Board using a fingerprint request form.

The second method is mainly used by those outside of California or those who are unable to access Live Scan.

Approved Exams

Nurses are required to pass the NCLEX before applying for their license. This test is used by every state’s board of nursing to determine the nurse’s preparedness. Practice tests are available to prepare for the exam.  

Applying to Take a Certification Exam

To take the NCLEX, you must first apply for licensure with the California State Board of Nurses. Then, you must register with Pearson VUE, which requires a $200 registration fee. Pearson VUE is an online testing site that hosts the NCLEX. Make sure you choose the test that is specific to RNs.

After registering, you will receive an Authorization to Test (ATT) letter. This letter will have important testing information that is needed to schedule your exam. After receiving the ATT, you can schedule your test on the Pearson VUE website.

Testing Vendors and Proctors

There are many testing centers in California. By inputting an address, you can find the closest center for convenience. 

Additional Requirements for Certification

As stated above, you must have your ATT to take the test. You should also bring a valid form of ID when going to the testing site, as the NCLEX has many security measures to discourage cheating.

Applying for Licensure

After taking the exam, you must then download and complete the application packet to receive your license. Those waiting for licenses can expect to wait for a period of 10 to 12 weeks.

RN Licensure by Endorsement (Out-of-State Applicants)

If you are an RN licensed in another state, you can obtain a California license by endorsement. To gain a license through this process, applicants:

  • Must be a graduate holding a degree, certificate, or diploma and meet California educational requirements;
  • Must be licensed by examination, in English, in another U.S. state or territory;
  • Must have successfully completed the NCLEX-RN exam or the State Board Test Pool Examination (SBTPE);
  • Must be issued a U.S. Social Security number.
  • And they must have a license verification from the state or territory where the original license was issued.

RN License Renewal

All first RN licenses in California expire every other year. To renew, RNs have until the last day of the month following their birth date. After the first renewal, all licenses expire every two years.

You’ll receive a renewal notice in the mail approximately three months before the renewal date; you can renew your license online and pay for it with a credit card. Applicants must also submit updated fingerprint cards.

Continuing Education Requirements

Currently, all RNs in California wishing to keep their licenses active must participate in 30 hours of continuing education programs that are recognized by the Board.

California Nursing License Verification

To verify an RN license in California, you can use the online verification tool provided by the California State Board of Nursing.

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