How to Become a Travel Nurse: Mapping Out What It Takes
You’re fairly certain that nursing is the right career path for you. The chance to earn a living while directly helping others is certainly appealing. Now that you’re really starting to dig into the details of a nursing career, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by the possibility of working as a travel nurse. After all, how many careers offer the ability to scratch that wanderlust itch with relative ease?
So, what does it take to become a travel nurse? You’re in the right place to find out. Read on to learn more about the steps you’ll need to take to become eligible for travel nursing work and some of the important considerations you’ll want to weigh before getting started.
What is a travel nurse?
A travel nurse is a licensed nurse who works in temporary nursing roles in hospitals and other medical facilities. Through agencies and recruiters, these nurses are hired for relatively short stints that typically last anywhere from a few weeks to half a year. Travel nurses are important for filling staffing gaps due to unexpected or planned leaves of absence, parental leave and other forms of staffing fluctuation.
Typically, there is a steady need for travel nurses in the emergency room, operating room, progressive care, medical-surgical (med-surg) units and intensive care units.1 Even so, travel nurses aren’t confined to these specialties.
These nurses are often paid a premium for their work, with many employers providing living stipends and/or higher base pay to attract workers to nonpermanent positions. Travel nurses have the opportunity to seek these positions out as often or as infrequently as they desire, providing an appealing way to see new places, make new connections and develop a diverse base of nursing skills.
How to become a travel nurse: The steps you’ll need to take
Now that you know a little more about how travel nursing positions work, let’s dive into the steps you’ll need to take to become a registered nurse.
1. Find the right program and gain entrance
The first step for any prospective travel nurse is to find the right nursing program for the role. Nursing has a variety of credential levels, including licensed practical nurse (LPN), registered nurse (RN) and advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). If you are interested in becoming a travel nurse, your best bet for starting out is to pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and become a registered nurse.
Make sure to research programs and consider the entrance requirements and exams, class schedule, program length and cost. Depending on the school and program, you may need to meet certain criteria or complete general education courses prior to starting your nursing education.
2. Pass classes and graduate
Once you’re in, it’s time to put in the work and take on your nursing courses with confidence. During this time, you will learn how to work on a healthcare team, how the human body systems work and other essential skills for patient care. This includes learning in classrooms and simulation labs as well through direct, hands-on experience during clinicals.
3. Prepare for—and pass—the NCLEX-RN® and earn state licensure
After graduation, the focus for would-be travel nurses will turn to earning state licensure. While the details will vary somewhat depending on the state you live in, most will also require a background check, immunization records and proof of successful completion of the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX)®, a standardized proficiency test for nurses. This is a rigorous exam that requires significant preparation time and is the key to working as a nurse—so don’t take preparation lightly.
Licensure is an especially important factor to pay attention to for travel nurses who plan on working in multiple states, as licensure is not universally recognized across all states.
4. Build experience and find a travel nursing agency or recruiter
Barring extreme circumstances, new graduate nurses should not expect to jump directly into a travel nursing position. Most travel nurses have two or more years of nursing practice prior, but it will depend on your experience and the agency you go through.2
When seeking out an agency or recruiter for travel nursing roles, you’ll want to do your due diligence. Be wary of groups that don’t provide direct answers to questions regarding compensation or other key details of available roles.
5. Travel as a nurse
Once you have an agency or recruiter lined up, they will typically provide you with a pool of opportunities for you to choose from. You just have to log into the portal, see the job listings and fill out any additional forms. According to Kerrie Lee, BSN, RN, EMT-P, when you are accepted into a position, agencies take care of legalities such as “drug screens, physicals and contracts.” Once you’ve got the job and made sure you’ve met the licensure requirements, you can begin your new position!
How does state nursing licensure work for travel nurses?
By now, you know that to work as a nurse, you’ll need to obtain state licensure. State legislatures have the power to define the scope of nursing practice in their state, and each state or territory has its own Board of Nursing for setting licensure standards.
Because each state defines its scope of nursing differently, it’s possible that a travel nurse will have to hold multiple licenses or get a temporary license for a period of work. However, this is not true of all states. Currently, 39 states operate through a mutual licensure recognition “compact” that allows licensed nurses in these states to practice in other “compact” nursing license states.3 That said, most non-compact licensure states offer a relatively streamlined path for nurses in good standing to obtain state licensure and practice.
Is travel nursing right for me? Important considerations
Travel nursing can be a rewarding job, but it’s not the right fit for everyone. Here are some other things to consider when deciding whether travel nursing is right for you:
Do you easily get homesick?
If your answer is a resounding “yes!”, you may want to reconsider whether travel nursing, in the long or short term, is right for you. It is also worth pondering whether the benefits of travel and experiencing new places or practices offset the possibility of missing home. Being comfortable adapting to unfamiliar environments and stepping outside your comfort zone are essential skills for travel nursing.
Travel nurses obviously change locations frequently, so your willingness to forge connections, participate in the community and engage with your coworkers might make (or break) your experience. If you are more of the adventurous type, don’t mind changing things up and want more exposure to various realms of nursing, becoming a travel nurse might fit the bill.
Are you okay with less desirable hours?
Because travel nurses are temporary positions made to fill in staffing gaps, it’s likely that you’ll be working hours that are less desirable.3 For example, you may work nights or weekends. However, you might have more free time during the week or during the day. It’s not guaranteed you’ll have undesirable hours, but it is something to reflect on, especially as a travel nurse.
Something else to note is that most travel nurses do not get paid time off (PTO) because of the flexibility inherent in the job. Remember, travel nurses get to choose when they want to sign a contract for work, so they can take breaks between jobs if they please. For some, this freedom can outweigh the cost of having no PTO while on assignment.
Are you organized?
Chances are if you’ve made it this far, you have a solid foundation for organizational skills. Feeling confident in organization will help you stay on top of changing hours and managing licensures, taxes, housing and other contracts.3 This seems like a small variable, but organizational skills are a must if you’re frequently changing locations throughout the year.
Are you seeking variety in your work?
On top of seeing the country, discovering the ins and outs of nursing across state lines and having the option to contract with a variety of nursing specialties, travel nurses are also likely to be exposed to other units via being a “float” nurse.3 For example, if you sign a contract with the ICU at a hospital but the pediatrics unit is understaffed, as a travel nurse, you will likely be the first pick to be sent to pediatrics in comparison to other ICU nurses who are permanently working in that hospital.
Where can a nursing degree take you?
Now that you know more about travel nursing roles and the steps you’ll need to take in order to make it happen, are you ready to get started? You can learn more about what it’s like to attend nursing school with our article “How Hard Is Nursing School? Students Tell All.”
1“What is a Travel Nurse?,” TravelNursing.com, AMN Healthcare, [accessed August 2022], https://www.travelnursing.com/what-is-travel-nursing/what-is-a-travel-nurse/.
2Kathleen Gaines, “Career Guide Series: Travel Nurse,” Nurse.org, March 28, 2022, [accessed August 2022], https://nurse.org/resources/travel-nurse-career-guide/.
3“Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC),” National Council of State Boards of Nursing, February 1, 2022, [accessed August 2022], https://www.ncsbn.org/nurse-licensure-compact.htm.
NCLEX and NCLEX-RN are registered trademarks of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.