How to Become a Travel Nurse
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Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?
Are you interested in a financially rewarding nursing career that offers the flexibility to take short-term assignments across the country and abroad? The nursing shortage has increased the demand for travel nurses in every type of healthcare setting, often in underserved communities in both urban and rural locations. Employers offer higher pay and more generous benefits to travel nurses with specialties, such as ICU or neonatal nursing, or those holding advanced practice registered nursing licenses.
Keep reading to learn how to become a travel nurse, what kind of license and certifications you need to enter the field, and what to expect on the job.
How Long to Become
ADN or BSN
Average Weekly Salary
Source: Vivian, October 2023
What Is a Travel Nurse?
A travel nurse is a skilled nursing professional willing to take short-term assignments both across the U.S. and internationally, lasting from a few weeks to several months. Instead of seeking permanent positions in healthcare facilities, these licensed and registered nurses findtemporary placements using the services of staffing agencies that specialize in travel nursing. Travel nurse contracts outline the start and end dates for the placement, total compensation for the duration of the assignment, and work expectations.
The demand for registered nurses has increased throughout the healthcare industry, along with critical nursing shortages in some geographic locations and in high-demand specializations. Travel nurses have stepped in to fill these gaps. According to the 2022 National Nursing Workforce Survey, 6% of RNs work as travel nurses.
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Steps to Becoming a Travel Nurse
A travel nurse must meet the same educational and clinical requirements as all registered nurses (RNs). You must first earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Once you earn your degree, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam and acquire your state nursing license. Because employers expect travel nurses to immediately begin working, travel nurse staffing agencies typically look for applicants with at least one year of clinical experience. Specializations and certifications can give you an advantage.
Earn an ADN or BSN Degree From an Accredited Program.
Travel nurses must earn an ADN or a BSN to qualify for RN licensure. An ADN offers the fastest pathway to an RN nursing career. However, a BSN, which typically takes four years to complete, provides graduates with a higher level of training and clinical experience, leading to broader employment opportunities. The major travel nurse staffing agencies and large healthcare systems prefer to hire RNs with a BSN degree.
Pass the NCLEX Exam to Receive RN Licensure.
You need to pass the National Council Licensure Exam for RNs (NCLEX-RN) to earn an RN license. This computer-adaptive test takes up to six hours and covers nursing practice, conditions and treatments, how the healthcare system works, legal and ethical issues, and patient communication and education.
Gain Clinical Nursing Experience.
The more clinical experience you have, the more likely you will find a placement. Most agencies only consider applicants with a minimum of one year of experience. However, some healthcare contracts require two years or more of clinical experience. Travel nurses must have the skills and background to jump into assignments without on-the-job training or orientations, adjusting to new environments, staff, and procedures.
Find a Travel Nursing Agency.
Nurse staffing agencies have grown in popularity, filling the nursing shortage gap resulting from RNs who retire or leave the workforce. Consequently, many agencies have emerged that specialize in travel nurse staffing. Travel nurse agencies advertise for specific positions, often recruiting at nursing school career offices, professional associations, and online. Before working with a travel nurse agency, it is important to research its reputation. When evaluating agencies, you should compare if the contracts they offer meet your expectations about available locations, types of assignments, salary and benefits, and travel and housing arrangements.
Begin Your First Travel Nursing Assignment.
Because travel nurses work inmultiple settings with varied patient populations, duties and responsibilities differ for each new assignment. In most cases, you will receive little on-the-job training. Depending on the employer, your first shift may begin with a full orientation or just a brief introduction to the facility's procedures and policies. You may be paired with a nurse for your first few days, but then you will be expected to work independently soon after.
While some travel staffing agencies handle housing arrangements to help you settle into your new environment, you may decide to find your own accommodations to save on living expenses.
Travel Nurse Education
Different employers and positions have different travel nurse requirements. Generally, it takes at least two years to earn an ADN, the minimum requirement to become an RN.
Most travel nurse positions require a BSN, but some nurses start with an ADN, which takes two years to complete rather than the four years required for a BSN. Many BSN programs offer RN-to-BSN bridge programs.
ADN programs require a high school diploma or GED certificate, and many look for passing grades in math and science programs, particularly biology and chemistry.
The ADN curriculum includes nursing practice, the basics of evidence-based practice, administering tests and monitoring patients, and patient education and communication. It also includes clinical hours developing skills in a healthcare setting.
Time to Complete
Most students complete an ADN in two years. Students with Advanced Placement (AP) course credits or transferable college credits may complete the course sooner. Part-time students working full-time may take longer.
Graduates of an ADN course can perform testing and monitoring, such as taking blood pressure and other vital signs, safely lift and move patients, communicate effectively with patients, understand the healthcare delivery system, and address legal and ethical aspects of nursing.
All travel nurses must be licensed RNs by earning an undergraduate nursing degree, either a BSN or an ADN, and passing the NCLEX-RN examination. However, many employers require or strongly prefer a BSN.
SN programs usually require at least a 3.0 high school GPA and passing grades in math, science, and English. They also require recommendations from teachers or counselors.
The BSN curriculum includes prevention and health promotion,evidence-based nursing practice, statistics/research methods, healthcare systems and management, community health, and communicating with and educating patients. It also includes clinical experience in healthcare settings.
Time to Complete
Most BSN courses take four years to complete. Students who attend part time may need more time, usually up to six years in total. Students with an ADN degree, transferable college credits, or AP passing scores can finish a BSN in 2-3 years.
BSN graduates can administer tests and monitor patient health, educate patients on health promotion, care for pediatric and adult patients, assist with surgeries and other medical procedures, and work as part of a healthcare team.
Travel Nurse Licensure
If you plan on becoming a travel nurse, you must have a valid nursing license in the state where you intend to practice. If the state where you earned your initial RN license participates in the Nurse Licensure Compact(NLC), you do not need to apply for another license to work in any other NLC state. However, not all states are NLC members. If your intended travel nurse assignment is located in a non-NLC state, you must apply for a license in that specific state before starting your contract. Some states have expedited processes for temporary licenses, and certain staffing agencies can assist you with the application process.
Maintaining an active license as a travel nurse is no different than for other RNs. You need to renew your RN license periodically, meeting the specific requirements for contact hours and continuing education units in your home state. If you are working in a non-NLC state, you must meet the renewal requirements for that jurisdiction.
Travel Nursing Certification and Specialization
RNs often choose to earn specialty nurse certifications in a variety of areas, including emergency care, pediatrics, obstetrics, and infection control. While earning a certification may not be required for a certain position, a specialization helps distinguish you from other job applicants and may boost your salary.
According to a 2019 travel nurse compensation report, the demand for travel nurses is highest for those with specializations in ICU, medical-surgical, operating room, and emergency room nursing. ICU nurses, the most in-demand travel nurse specialty, accounts for 16.5% of all travel nurses. Healthcare employers and staffing agencies often look for travel nurses with specialties in particular patient populations, including neonatal nursing and pediatrics, or those with experience in specific types of services, such as emergency and critical care nursing.
Working as a Travel Nurse
Travel nurses fill temporary assignments wherever nurses are needed. They may find placements in hospitals and clinics facing nursing shortages, community health facilities, and healthcare organizations in the U.S. and abroad that must respond to public health crises, disease outbreaks, and other medical emergencies. The average travel nurse contract lasts between 13 and 26 weeks, but hours and shifts vary widely depending on the assignment.
Travel nurse salaries also vary by setting, location, and specialization. According to Vivian, a major healthcare hiring service, the average weekly pay for travel nurses is $2,200, or $61.20 an hour, compared to $42.80 per hour for RNs overall, as noted by the BLS. However, earnings can range from $1,764 weekly for the lowest paid travel nurses to $2,703 for the top-earners. While travel nurses tend to make higher salaries than the average RN, they sometimes have to pay out of pocket for healthcare benefits, housing, and other work-related expenses not covered in their contract.
Although working as a travel nurse has many benefits, there are some potential downsides. Travel nurses may be required to complete onboarding for each new contract they begin, even if they have already previously worked at a facility. This process can require time-consuming steps, such as providing proof of vaccination, fingerprinting, and documentation of your medical history, which can delay your start date.
Some travel nurses have difficulty finding affordable housing options for the duration of their contract. You can review a travel agency's benefits to determine if they may provide assistance.
Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Travel Nurse
Do travel nurses get benefits?
In addition to the attractive salaries, some travel nurse placements offer benefits. These may include medical and dental coverage, 401K contributions, sign-on bonuses, and stipends for housing, travel and per-diem living expenses.
Can travel nurses choose where they work?
One of the major perks of working as a travel nurse is the flexibility to choose when and where to work. However, your ability to choose your placement depends on the demand for your particular specialty or the number of available positions in the location where you want to work.
What is the best degree to become a travel nurse?
Many staffing agencies prefer to hire travel nurses who have completed a bachelor of science in nursing. A BSN equips nurses with a solid foundation of nursing knowledge and skills. This can prepare them for a travel nursing role, where they may need to transition between healthcare facilities and effectively adapt to diverse patient populations and settings.
How do I find a travel nurse staffing agency?
Travel nurse staffing agencies may recruit at nursing schools, through referrals, or through advertisements for specific positions or general placements. You can also look online for travel nurse staffing agencies or discover agencies through networking. Be sure to double check references and the agency's reputation.
Page last reviewed on November 2, 2023
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