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10 Things to Know About Nursing Continuing Education

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Updated November 1, 2023
Edited by
    Most states require nursing continuing education for license renewals. Get details on what you need to do, when, and how to choose the right courses.
    Nursing student studying in lecture hall

    Most nurses know the importance of continuing education. Many states require nurses to complete continuing education to renew their licenses and ensure they are current with industry best practices.

    Continuing education requirements for nurses vary among states, and understanding what you must do to maintain licensure can be confusing. We’ve compiled a list of the top 10 questions and answers that registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPNs/LVNs) have about continuing education to help you make sense of the requirements.

    Keep in mind that if you have a graduate degree or work as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), the nursing continuing education requirements are different, and the information below may not apply to you.

    What Nurses Need to Know About Nursing Continuing Education

    All RNs and LPNs/LVNs need to be aware of continuing education and the requirements that apply to them. The following information will help you understand the various types of continuing education credits, how to select continuing education courses and providers, and how to keep track of credits you’ve earned.

    1 | Differences Between Continuing Education Units, Contact Hours, and Continuing Medical Education

    You want your continuing education credits to count. So make sure you understand the difference between continuing education units (CEUs), contact hours, and continuing medical education (CME) hours. Otherwise, you might be out of luck when it comes to keeping your license current.

    CEUs and contact hours are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. State requirements typically list contact hours, while some education providers issue credits in the form of CEUs. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) uses contact hours to count continuing education credits.

    Comparing CEUs vs. contact hours:

    • A contact hour is 50-60 minutes of nursing education.
    • A CEU is equivalent to 10 contact hours.
    • If a course offers one CEU, it provides about 10 hours of instruction.
    • A three-CEU course is a 30-hour course.

    You may also see courses offering continuing medical education (CME) hours. These are courses or events designed for physicians and measure contact hours differently. Some states only allow APRNS to apply CMEs to continuing education requirements, while others may allow certain nurses to use approved credits.

    2 | Complete CE Requirements Before Your License Expires

    In states that require continuing education, you can’t renew your license until you document your CEUs. But you’ll also need to complete your CE requirements within a particular time frame.

    In most states, RNs and LPNs/LVNs must renew their license every two years. That means that if your license expires on September 30, the CEUs you submit for renewal must have been completed between October 1, 2019, and September 29, 2021.

    A handful of states do not use a two-year renewal cycle. In Iowa, for example, RNs have three years to meet CEU requirements. And some states, including Washington and Kentucky, use a one-year cycle.

    If you complete more than the required number of CEUs in any cycle, you cannot apply them to your next license renewal. Also, if you earned credits before your permanent license was issued, they do not count toward license renewal.

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    3 | Nursing CEU Requirements Vary by State

    Every state has different requirements for continuing education for nurses. They can differ in the number of credits and the specific training to be completed. Depending on where you are licensed, expect to complete 8-36 hours of continuing education every 1-3 years.

    Some states offer alternatives to completing CEU courses.

    • North Carolina: Allows nurses to count published work, time spent teaching, or a research project toward their CEU requirements.
    • Alaska: Nurses can earn credit for unpaid volunteer activities.
    • West Virginia: Clinical preceptors receive credit for one-on-one mentorship.

    Other states require classes on specific topics, including:

    • HIV/AIDS
    • Sexual harassment prevention
    • Pain management
    • Other subjects, as determined by your state board of nursing

    You need to carefully check your state’s rules to make sure you meet the CE requirements. And keep in mind that requirements change. For example, before 2021, Washington used a three-year renewal cycle before switching to a yearly renewal.

    4 | Some States Have No CEU Requirements

    Not every state requires continuing education to renew your nursing license. These states do not require nurses to complete any required CE:

    • Arizona
    • Colorado
    • Indiana
    • Maine
    • Maryland
    • Mississippi
    • Missouri
    • South Dakota
    • Vermont
    • Wisconsin

    Although these states do not have any CEU requirements, nurses may need to meet practice hour requirements to renew their licenses. And in every state, nurses should keep their skills up to date. Earning CEUs and completing additional training can help strengthen your resume and career growth.

    5 | For Multistate License Holders, CEU Requirements Are Determined By “Home State”

    Most U.S. states are part of the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). These RN compact states allow licensed nurses from one member state to practice in other states on the same license. These are called “multistate licenses.”

    Your “home state” is the state that issued your license. When your license is up for renewal, be sure to complete the nursing continuing education requirements according to your home state, even if you’re working somewhere else.

    For example, nurses licensed in Maine do not have to meet any CEU requirements for license renewal. If nurses work in New Hampshire under the NLC, they are not required to fulfill New Hampshire’s requirement of 30 contact hours every two years.

    However, if a nurse moves to a different state and establishes residency, they must renew their license in their new home state. Therefore, if that same Maine nurse moves to New Hampshire permanently, they must get a New Hampshire nursing license and complete the CEU requirements every two years.

    6 | CE Must Be Relevant to Nursing Practice

    To be accepted as a CEU, course content must be approved by your state board of nursing. Some states require specific coursework, but all courses must be relevant to nursing practice and accredited by a school, nursing organization, or employer.

    Some examples of content that counts as nursing CE include:

    • Nursing law and ethics and professional conduct
    • Advocacy
    • Clinical practice
    • Communication skills
    • Pharmacology
    • Quality improvement
    • Nursing research and theory

    Any nursing-related college courses you take toward a degree may also count as CEUs. In some states, you can also apply volunteer work, research, or teaching toward CEUs.

    7 | Not All Nursing Courses Are Accepted as CEUs

    Although you may complete certain training or courses to further your career, not all classes can count as CE. For example, renewing your cardiopulmonary resuscitation or basic life support credentials, on-the-job training, and non-nursing-related college courses do not count.

    Some situations are less straightforward. For example, attending a conference or professional meeting will not count for credit, but you might earn CEUs by attending educational or training sessions at the event.

    That means it’s critical to check what counts as CE in your state.

    8 | Contact Hours Must Be Obtained From Approved Providers

    An approved provider must issue CEUs to count toward license renewal. Before providers can offer courses, they must complete an approval process. Your state board of nursing or the ANCC approves providers and issues them a provider number.

    Before taking a CE course, confirm the provider number to ensure your state will accept the CEUs you earn.

    9 | Contact Hours for Certification Renewal Can Be Used for Licensure Renewal

    Contact hours for nursing certifications can also apply to your nursing license. For example, if you have an ANCC certification, such as a pediatric or medical-surgical, you must complete additional nursing continuing education to renew your credential.

    Those certification renewal contact hours also count toward your state nursing license renewal. The ANCC requires nurses to complete a minimum of 75 contact hours in their specialty and at least one of eight additional activities within five years to maintain certification.

    10 | You Have to Keep Records of Your Continuing Education Units

    You are responsible for maintaining detailed records of the CEUs you complete and submit the information to your state. Keep track of the course title, provider name, identification number, the date you completed the course, and the number of CEUs awarded. Keep hard copies or scans of the completion certificates as proof you completed the course.

    You can keep track of your CEUs using any method you choose, but check with your state nursing board to confirm how long you need to keep records. Several apps, including Nurse Backpack and CertAlert+, can help you track your credits and provide automatic reminders of expiration dates.