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How to Become a Cruise Ship Nurse

Janice Monti, Ph.D.
Updated January 11, 2023
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If you like to travel, consider becoming a cruise ship nurse, where you can provide healthcare for guests and crew members. Learn how to become a cruise ship nurse and more in this guide.
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How Long to Become

2-4 years

Degree Required


Job Outlook

6% growth from 2021-2031
(For all RNs)

If you have a passion for travel and meeting people from all over the world, a career as a cruise ship nurse may be just what you are looking for. These registered nurses (RNs) provide healthcare for passengers and crew members.

Cruise ship nursing offers competitive salaries and generous benefits, including paid living expenses, long- and short-term contracts, and a unique work environment. Discover what steps you need to take to become a cruise ship nurse and what to expect in this unconventional nursing role.

What Is a Cruise Ship Nurse?

A career as a cruise ship nurseoffers RNs the unique opportunity to live at sea and travel the world while earning an attractive salary and saving on living expenses. These nurses work with small healthcare teams to provide an array of services, like routine wellness checks and emergency management.

Most of the time, cruise ship nurses provide general nursing care similar to their roles in a hospital or clinical setting, such as administering first aid, assessing symptoms, and monitoring patient recovery. These RNs routinely treat patients with a lot of different conditions, including seasickness, sunburn, food poisoning, and cardiac arrest.

Cruise ship nurses must have the skills and temperament to handle unexpected situations. These might be disease outbreaks, injuries from accidents, and the occasional life-threatening emergency that requires an airlift to transfer patients onshore to medical facilities.

Steps to Becoming a Cruise Ship Nurse

Cruise lines generally hire nurses with at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and a valid RN license. Most employers also require certification in basic life support and sometimes in advanced cardiac life support.

Don’t expect to enter this field right after finishing nursing school. Most cruise lines require two or more years of clinical experience and some employers only hire RNs with at least one year of experience in acute care or emergency settings. Advanced practice nurses with a master’s degree and specialty certifications will find more prospects.

  1. 1

    Earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or BSN degree from an accredited program.

    While you can become an RN after earning a two-year ADN and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN), most cruise lines hire RNs with at least a four-year BSN degree.For RNs who already have their ADN, many schools offer RN-to-BSN degree programs that take two years or less to complete.

    If you have a bachelor’s in a field other than nursing but want to pursue a nursing career, you may be able to transfer some of your previously earned college credits into an accelerated BSN.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX Exam to receive RN licensure.

    Once you complete your nursing degree, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to apply for state RN licensure. The test determines if you have the necessary skills and knowledge to practice nursing. This computer-adaptive exam covers topics such as fundamental nursing principles, safe and effective care environments, health promotion and maintenance, and legal and ethical issues.

  3. 3

    Gain experience as a registered nurse.

    Major cruise lines require their RNs to have 2-3 years of acute care or critical care experience in hospital settings rather than outpatient clinics. Many employers prefer to hire RNs who have experience working in emergency rooms and intensive care units, where they have become accustomed to long shifts and irregular hours.

  4. 4

    Consider becoming a certified cruise ship nurse.

    While the American Nurses Credentialing Center does not offer specialty certifications designed for cruise ship nurses, you can increase your chances of landing a cruise ship job by earning a master’s degree in nursing and certification as a nurse practitioner (NP).

    NPs make good candidates for cruise ship nursing jobs. They perform many of the same functions as doctors and, depending on their state jurisdiction, may practice without a doctor’s supervision. NPs with certifications in emergency or acute care will have an edge over other RNs.

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Cruise Ship Nurse Education

Earning an ADN and passing the NCLEX-RN exam offers the quickest pathway to entering the nursing field, but it may not be enough to launch your career as a cruise ship nurse. Most cruise line employers hire RNs with at least a BSN degree. NPs with graduate training in advanced practice nursing and specialty nursing certifications in acute care, emergency, and intensive care nursing will increase their earning potential and marketability.

ADN Degree

The ADN prepares you for nursing practice in two years or less. The degree is the minimum requirement for the NCLEX-RN exam and state licensure. Because many healthcare employers prefer to hire BSN-trained nurses, RNs with associate degrees often choose to continue their education in RN-to BSN programs, applying prior college credits toward their bachelor’s degree.

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    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or equivalent; minimum 2.5 GPA; placement tests in math and writing

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    Program Curriculum

    Around 60 credits including coursework in psychology, human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and biology; clinical placements

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    Time to Complete

    1-2 years

  • check-circle

    Skills Learned

    Nursing fundamentals and principles; emergency and critical care procedures; population health; ethics; critical thinking and communication

BSN Degree

The BSN degree, which typically takes four years to complete, has become the preferred educational credential for most cruise ship RN positions. This credential serves as the minimum prerequisite for admission to graduate nursing programs or certification in advanced practice nursing roles.

RNs with BSN degrees or higher can expect more career opportunities and better compensation than nurses with ADN degrees.

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    Admission Requirements

    High school diploma or its equivalent, or an ADN degree; minimum 2.5 GPA; letters of reference

  • check-circle

    Program Curriculum

    Evidence-based nursing practice; medical-surgical nursing; diagnosis and assessment; medical technology; clinical placements

  • check-circle

    Time to Complete

    2-4 years

  • check-circle

    Skills Learned

    Medical-surgical procedures; knowledge of surgical technology and machines; patient care plans; patient-family education; population health; ethics; critical thinking and communication

Cruise Ship Nurse Licensure and Certification

Cruise ship nurses must hold a valid RN license to practice. While licensing requirements differ across the states, all nurses are responsible for keeping their licenses current. Depending on the state, RNs typically renew their licenses every two years. Renewal requirements include earning continuing education units for nurses to refresh and improve skills, completing a specific number of clinical practice hours, and submitting renewal fees to the state board of nursing that issued the original license.

Cruise ship nurses, like all RNs, must have basic life support certification as part of their training. Not all cruise lines require the advanced cardiovascular life support certification, but this credential and the pediatric advanced life support certification increase your job prospects. You need to pass a multiple-choice exam and fulfill practice requirements to get these certifications. You must renew all life support certifications every two years.

While cruise ship nurses do not need specialty certifications, the major cruise lines pay higher salaries for NPs with certifications in areas like coronary care and emergency and intensive care nursing.

Working as a Cruise Ship Nurse

You should check out cruise line websites to look for job openings, making sure your educational and work experience matches the specific position requirements.

You can also contact employment agencies that specialize in placing cruise ship medical personnel. Employers are particularly interested in hiring RNs with experience in emergency medicine, intensive care, or other acute care settings. Speaking a language in addition to English will boost your chances to land a position.

Your daily responsibilities will depend on the type and size of the ship. The average passenger capacity for a cruise ship is 3,000 guests, with the largest ocean liners hosting close to 7,000 passengers with a crew of 2,000.

Cruise ship nurses perform basic first aid and make triage decisions. They also handle injuries and medical emergencies. Although shifts can last 10-12 hours, most cruise ship nurses work in rotation with other healthcare staff, with scheduled time off on board and offshore.

RNs employed on river cruises have similar duties but with some differences in scheduling and workload. River cruise lines, which run 7-10 days on major waterways in the U.S., Europe, and other destinations, book between 100-250 passengers for each trip. River cruise RNs work with smaller healthcare teams for the entire length of the trip without scheduled time off.

Very experienced RNs may find staff positions on privately owned luxury yachts, meeting the healthcare needs of a small number of guests. While salaries tend to run higher than cruise ship nursing, nurses working on yachts may have to perform supplemental duties as stewards, housekeepers, or deckhands.

As a cruise ship nurse, your compensation will depend on the type of ship, your job responsibilities, and your work experience and specialties. Nurse staffing agencies report that cruise ship nurses can earn between $4,000-$5,000 a month.

Cruise nurse salaries fall below the average annual income of $82,750 for all RNs reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Keep in mind, however, that cruise lines provide other kinds of compensation, including free transportation for getting to and from your home base and all living expenses while working at sea. Some employers offer cruise discounts for friends and family members.

If you choose cruise ship nursing for the opportunity to travel, you can visit new destinations at each port of call and enjoy several days or weeks off between contracts.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Cruise Ship Nurse

question-mark-circleHow many years does it take to become a cruise ship nurse?

Earning a nursing degree, passing the NCLEX-RN exam, and getting licensed can take between 2-4 years. Most cruise ships require RNs to complete at least two years of clinical experience after receiving their nursing degree. Some employers only hire nurses with two or more years experience in acute care and emergency care settings.

question-mark-circleWhat is the quickest way to become a cruise ship nurse?

Although RNs can enter nursing practice with a two-year ADN degree, employers generally hire nurses who have completed at least a bachelor degree. Most BSNs take between 2-4 years, depending on the type of program and number of credits transferred from previous college courses.

question-mark-circleHow hard is it to become a cruise ship nurse?

Becoming an RN can be challenging, requiring good study skills and time management. Once you have earned your nursing degree and RN license, you will need to get at least two years of clinical experience before applying for cruise ship nursing positions. As the cruise industry recovers from the COVID-19 shutdown, more cruise ship positions will become available.

question-mark-circleDo cruise ship nurses get paid well?

Depending on the employer, cruise ship nurses can make up to $5,000 a month. The larger cruise lines typically pay much more. RNs with advanced degrees and specialties and those in leadership positions \ can earn higher salaries. These nurses also receive other benefits such as paid transportation, lodging, and living expenses. They also get ample time off to travel.

Page last reviewed September 23, 2022

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