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Become a Nurse in California: Requirements, Licensing, and Employment Outlook

NurseJournal Staff
Updated September 22, 2023
    Considering getting a California nursing license? This guide offers all you need to know about salaries, employment outlook, and licensure requirements for nursing in California.
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    Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

    Credit: Carola Zweifel / EyeEm / Getty Images

    Degree Required

    Degree RequiredADN or BSN

    License Required

    License RequiredRegistered Nursing License


    FeesLicense: ($300)
    Renewal: ($190)

    Job Outlook

    Job Outlook16.7% growth from 2019-2029

    Registered nurses (RNs) in California can look forward to bright professional futures. California has the highest number of employed RNs and the highest average salaries in the U.S. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the job growth for RNs in the state to reach 7% between 2019-2029, faster than the national average.

    However, in order to legally work as an RN in California, you need to earn registered nursing licensure from the state. The licensure process ensures candidates meet the proper education, supervised experience, and examination requirements. This guide clearly outlines the steps needed to earn a California nursing license.

    How to Become a Nurse in California

    The path to pursuing nursing in California starts with education. Aspiring RNs need to earn an accredited degree to qualify for licensure, as accreditation ensures that academic programs provide students with a quality education. The California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN) only considers candidates with accredited degrees.

    A nursing degree can take anywhere from 2-4 years to complete, possibly longer for part-time students. Upon graduating, candidates must sit for the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX). After passing this exam, candidates can apply for BRN licensure.

    Apply to an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) program.

    The path to becoming an RN begins with earning a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Although both allow graduates to apply for RN licensure, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) encourages students to earn a BSN, as these graduates enter the workforce better equipped to handle the challenges of nursing.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive RN licensure.

    After earning an ADN or BSN, RN candidates must pass the NCLEX-RN, which tests a candidate’s knowledge of nursing. Candidates take the exam on a computer, usually at a testing center. The BRN recommends that test-takers schedule the exam shortly after they graduate, instead of waiting a few months.

    Apply for jobs at local hospitals.

    When deciding where to apply, nurses should consider their desired role, salary, and benefits. Learn more about hospitals in California.

    Advance your career with a graduate degree or certification.

    The best way to advance a nursing career professionally or financially is by earning an advanced degree or becoming certified in a specialty. Either of these options will provide additional opportunities within the nursing field.

    Maintain and renew licensure and certifications.

    In order to maintain an active license in California, nurses must complete 30 hours of continuing education, which is required starting in their third year of nursing. Nurses must also pass a full background check; details regarding the process can be found on the BRN website.

    Popular Online RN-to-BSN Programs

    Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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    California Board of Nursing

    The BRN is the state body that licenses and regulates nurses. It is their responsibility to protect the health and safety of patients by ensuring the quality of the state’s nurses. The board also has the authority to investigate any grievances and take disciplinary action if appropriate.

    Furthermore, the BRN aids nurses who have suffered due to substance abuse or mental illness by providing support. The BRN is also responsible for providing appropriate resources for new and out-of-state nurses to become licensed within California through examination or endorsement. The board provides a pathway for nurses to renew their license so they can continue to practice in the state.

    How to Get Your Nursing License in California

    There are two licensing options for nurses who wish to work in California: licensure by examination and licensure by endorsement. Licensure by examination requires nursing applicants to pass the NCLEX-RN. Those who want to practice in California need to pass the exam, even if they have been employed in other states, as not all states require nurses to take the exam. In order to earn licensure by endorsement, applicants must have an active license from another state and pass the NCLEX-RN.

    California also requires educational prerequisites including six semester or nine quarter hours of courses that develop communication skills (e.g., oral, written, and/or group). Applicants must also have at least 16 semester or 24 quarter hours related to the natural sciences (e.g., anatomy, physiology, microbiology, behavioral sciences, and/or social sciences).

    How to Renew Your Nursing License in California

    Nurses are required to renew their license and complete additional requirements to continue practicing every two years; upon renewal, applicants pay a $10 fee that goes toward the RN Education Fund. Licenses can be renewed electronically through BreEZe Online Services.


    • Continuing Education: In California, RNs are required to complete at least 30 hours of continuing education prior to each renewal except within their first two licensed years. The educational provider must be approved by the BRN.
    • Fingerprints: Renewal applicants must submit a full set of fingerprints to the DOJ and FBI.
    • Discipline/Convictions: At the time of renewal, the applicant must disclose any discipline issues or if they have been convicted of a crime.

    The cost of a license renewal varies depending upon nursing specializations. To renew as an RN, the fee is $190. However, fees for specializations can cost upwards of $750 if paid on time, whereas delinquent fees can range from $187-$1,125.

    Salary and Employment Outlook for Nurses in California

    According to BLS data, California employs over 300,000 registered nurses, making it the state with the highest employment of RNs in the country. Additionally, California ranks as the top-paying state for registered nurses. BLS data shows that RNs in the state make an annual mean wage of $120,560 — much higher than the national mean wage of $80,010.

    In fact, the top 10 highest-paying metro areas for RNs in the U.S. are located in California. San Jose ranked as the best paying city with registered nurses earning a mean pay of about $155,980.

    Top-Paying Metropolitan Areas for RNs
    Metropolitan AreaMean Annual Salary
    San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara$155,980
    San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward$155,170
    Source: BLS

    Popular Online RN-to-BSN Programs

    Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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    Best Hospitals to Work as Nurse in California

    The following hospitals come from U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best hospitals in California. When calculating these rankings, the publication considers factors including patient outcomes, patient experience, expert opinions, and other care-related indicators like nurse staffing and patient volume.

    • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

      Nearly 2,400 nurses work at the Los Angeles-based Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The hospital has 886 hospital beds and admits over 50,000 patients per year. Cedars-Sinai treats patients for diseases and illnesses within departments such as oncology, womens health, pediatrics, and orthopaedics.
    • University of California, San Francisco Medical Center

      The 2,500 nurses who work at UCSF Health help the 30,000 patients admitted to the hospital and 750,000 patients who visit each year. In fact, UCSF Health holds the well-respected Magnet designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. The medical center operates from several specialty clinics and two childrens hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland.
    • Scripps La Jolla Hospitals

      With locations in San Diego and La Jolla, this hospital network operates as a $2.9 billion nonprofit medical center. Scripps offers services at 60 medical and surgical specialties, four emergency rooms, three urgent care centers, and a same-day walk-in express center. About 15,000 employees work at these many locations.
    • University of California Davis Medical Center

      Located in Sacramento, the UC Davis Medical Center serves 33 counties and six million residents in the state. This teaching hospital sees one million visits and 30,000 patient admissions each year. About 1,800 nurses and nurse practitioners work at UC Davis Health. According to the medical centers 2019 nurse report, about 9% of employed nurses held an ADN, 71% a BSN, and 18% an MSN. Additionally, about 57% of nurses hold a specialty certification.
    • MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center

      With locations in Long Beach, Laguna Hills, and Fountain Valley, MemorialCare offers services in joint replacement, weight loss surgery, imaging and radiology. About 4,000 RNs work at this medical center, and about half of them hold BSNs.

    Resources for Nurses in California

    • California Nurses Association (CNA)

      As the largest professional association of registered nurses, the CNA advocates for increased health care rights and works toward negotiating collective bargaining agreements for RNs.
    • United Nurses Association of California (UNAC)

      The UNAC fights for universal health coverage in order to provide immediate care for those who are suffering yet cannot afford medical care. Members of the UNAC volunteer their time to aid those who are susceptible to diseases in an attempt to improve community health outside of hospitals.
    • California Nursing Students Association (CNSA)

      As a part of the National Student Nursing Association, the CNSA provides assistance to those who are searching for additional educational opportunities in order to develop their professional growth in various healthcare settings. The CNSA provides membership meetings and an annual convention in order to help those looking for additional professional growth.
    • Association of California Nurse Leaders (ACNL)

      The ACNL comprises leaders within the nursing community such as managers, directors, chief officers, and educators. The association provides continuing educational development as well as scholarship opportunities through their philanthropic program Circles of Giving.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How long does it take to become a nurse in California?

    The length of time it takes to become a licensed nurse in California can vary depending on where an individual is in the process. Initially, it takes 2-3 years to earn an associate degree and 4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree. For those who have earned their bachelor’s and want to complete a master’s program, it takes an additional 1-2 years. After earning a degree and becoming eligible to apply for a license in California, it typically takes 10-12 weeks to process the application.

    What is the fastest way to become a nurse in California?

    Those interested in becoming a nurse in California in the shortest amount of time should pursue an associate degree in nursing, as this can be completed within a two-year timeframe. Upon completion of the program, passing the NCLEX-RN and applying for a license can take an additional 10-12 weeks.

    Can a nurse live comfortably in California?

    Despite the cost of living in California being rather high, the BLS identifies the mean wage for an RN in the state to be approximately $120,560. However, in choosing to live away from pricier areas such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, nurses can live comfortably in a state that offers one of the highest average salaries within the profession.

    Are nurses in demand in California?

    According to Projections Central, which analyzes state employment projections, registered nursing positions in California are predicted to increase by 16.7% between 2019-2029. This projected demand places California as one of the top states for nursing employment.

    Top Nursing Programs in California

    Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

    Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.