How to Become a Travel Nurse

Janice Monti, Ph.D.
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Updated May 16, 2024
Edited by
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Find out how to become a travel nurse, including education, experience, and licensure requirements.
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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 certain 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

2-4 years

Degree Required

ADN or BSN

Average Annual Salary

$83,386

Source: Payscale, May 2024

What Is a Travel Nurse?

A travel nurse is a skilled nursing professional willing to take short-term assignments locally, across the U.S., and even internationally. These assignments can last from a few weeks to several months. Instead of seeking permanent positions in healthcare facilities, these nursing professionals find temporary 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 data compiled by Zippia, there are 1,733,502 traveling nurses currently employed in the United States. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that as of 2023 there were about 3.2 million registered nurses (RN) employed in the U.S.

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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). According to the Zippia data, 47% of travel nurses have a BSN degree, more than any other degree type.

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.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    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.

  3. 3

    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.

  4. 4

    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.

  5. 5

    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.

ADN Degree

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.

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    Admission Materials

    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.
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    Program Curriculum

    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.
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    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.
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    Skills Learned

    Graduates of an ADN course can perform testing and monitoring, such as taking blood pressure and other vital signs, safely lifting and moving patients, communicating effectively with patients, understanding the healthcare delivery system, and addressing legal and ethical aspects of nursing.

BSN Degree

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.

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    Admission Materials

    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.
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    Program Curriculum

    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.
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    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.
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    Skills Learned

    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 $2,104 or $44.79 an hour, compared to $42.80 per hour for RNs overall, according to BLS data. However, earnings can range from $458 weekly for the lowest-paid travel nurses to $6,419 for the top earners, and some travel nurses may be given a housing/relocation stipend.

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

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Page last reviewed on April 7, 2024

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