Travel nursing
Travel Nursing

Preparing Your License for Travel Nursing Jobs

Guide to Travel Nursing and Licenses

As I get ready to travel, I am now at the stage where I must start applying for my licensure. I am hoping to start an assignment in the middle of September. It is actually a bit early to apply but I like to be prepared. And, I have some really busy months ahead of me (including a 3 week’s vacation to California, which really makes an impact on my time management and is something I have to plan around.)

As nurses, we are lucky enough to be able to transfer our license from state to state, with associated costs, of course. And if you live in a nurse licensure compact state, you are even luckier because you have way fewer paperwork requirements in over half of the US states.

Having a License Before Application

Many facilities require you to have your state license in hand to apply. Some may let you interview beforehand, but you often cannot sign a contract without an actual license (this is when states with temporary license options and walk-through states can be handy if you are in a rush…). Relative to other professions, we actually have it quite easy, but it still involves some organization and pre-planning.

Ideally, my roommate and I would like to secure jobs by the time we leave Albany at the end of July. We would like to be able to enjoy our road trip without having to stress about job searching and onboarding. So, there is a bit of pressure for us to get our stuff together here and make all the pieces fall into place. But, this is a great lesson — you must look forward and take into consideration your other life plans when you are applying to ensure everything is completed in a timely fashion.

Our top choice of location for September is Colorado (mostly because my brother is living there and that is where I am leaving my daily driver car while we road trip, so it’s convenient, and it also doesn’t hurt that the state is beautiful). Colorado is a compact state, although, I do not hold a compact license.

Travel Nursing and Compact State License

In accordance with the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)- a nurse that has a compact license can practice in any other compact license state without obtaining an additional license. This map is taken from the NCSBN website and is an easy-to-read key for states in the Enhanced Nursing License Compact (eNLC).

NLC Map 2022
Nurse Licensure Compact Map 2022

Understanding NLC Rules as a Travel Nurse

There are some guidelines to the eNLC that are important to know!

  1. You cannot hold a compact license if your primary state of residence is not in the compact. For example- my home state is New York. When I apply for Colorado I have to apply for a single-state license. This does not mean that I now have a ‘compact license’ because Colorado is in the eNLC. For my next assignment, if I choose to go to another compact state I will have to again apply for a single license- I cannot use the Colorado license as a compact license.
  2. You must continue to maintain your home state licensure in order to continue working in eNLC states as you travel. If you lose your active licensure status in your primary state of residence, you will be required to obtain single-state licensure in this state. I don’t recommend letting a compact license lapse- it is much easier to just maintain an active status.

Your “primary state of residence” will be your tax home. Another post will cover the tax logistics of travel nursing, but know that the two must be in the same state.

Single State License and Travel Nursing

For all purposes from this point forward, I will use ‘licensure’ to mean obtaining a single-state license. This requires the most paperwork and advance planning, so I want to make sure I cover it thoroughly. I know that this process stresses nurses out. My roommate has been a nurse longer than, I but she has never traveled. I have been helping her make sense of the overwhelming amount of information. I found some simple ways to keep the information straight as you move forward.

Keeping Organized while You Apply for Travel Nurse Licenses

As I am applying for licensure, I make a written list of all that is required and in which order documentation should be submitted. Many states have online checklists to help aid you. Make sure you search for ‘licensure by endorsement’ followed by the state to which you are applying when first starting out. Endorsement means that you don’t have to take another NCLEX (because that would be terrifying!) in order to get your license. You can certainly just use the pre-made checklists, but I am a fan of writing lists because it provides a better structure for me. I wrote mine in my planner (one of my favorite possessions!) and can check things off/add notes as I go.

Deciding Which State(s) You Want to Work in as a Travel Nurse

My initial instinct was to apply for TWO licenses, just in case I can’t find a job in Colorado (a hot spot for travel nursing!). But, I started to discover that both Colorado and Washington, my backup state, had some strict renewal periods that would make it almost pointless to get both licenses….and quite expensive.

The Washington Board of Nursing renews licenses according to birthdays and even/odd years. So if my roommate and I applied to that state, her license would expire in December 2019, and mine would expire in March 2019….and my plan is to stay in Colorado until March….so getting that license would be pointless if I am able to obtain a Colorado job, and I am optimist 😉 I couldn’t justify spending almost $400 in the next year to fulfill what is only a backup plan.  We changed our approach and are now considering walk-through states as an alternative (see below).

Potential Pitfalls to be Aware of as a Travel Nurse

This process can seem overwhelming and confusing for anyone. And, to make matters more complicated, each state has different background check/fingerprint rules and systems, methods of applying, and documentation required to complete an application. Some states also have some confusing renewal rules and if you aren’t careful, your license could expire 4 months after you obtain it. Timing is everything.

After re-reading the application checklist 30 times I realized that Colorado has a “renewal period” that occurs on September 30th.  I am glad I discovered this.  If we applied too early we would have had to renew our licenses in September (immediately after we start the contract), which seems silly. Thankfully, there is a grace period of 120 days prior that lets you extend the renewal period to two years. READ THE RULES CAREFULLY. This is also important when it comes to fingerprinting and background checks.

Travel Nursing Info on Background Checks and Fingerprinting

Each state has different requirements for background checks and fingerprints. Almost all states require some sort of background check, and the processing time varies greatly. Be sure to do some research and ensure you have enough time for this to be completed prior to obtaining a license. Only some states require fingerprinting.

Fingerprinting can often be done in two different forms: hard copy on an FBI or DOH (Department of Health) card, or visiting an agency that processes digital fingerprints. If you go the digital path, each state often has stipulations about which agencies can be used, and there is a processing code you must obtain prior to scheduling an appointment. You can get that code from the board of nursing in the state that you are applying to. Occasionally it can be found online, sometimes a phone call is necessary, and if you are lucky the fingerprinting agency will have a system for you to look it up.

Some states won’t allow you to apply with digital fingerprints if you are out of state. If you do need to complete a card for this or any other reason (maybe you are way too far from a digital agency), please go to the police station to be printed. The police have the most experience and will increase your likelihood of acceptance. I have never had a card rejected, but I have heard stories of 2-3 cards needing to be submitted before acceptance.

Timing Your Application with Potential Travel Nursing Jobs

Digital prints and background checks are good for an average of 60 days. Meaning, you need to complete the application with the state within 60 days of fulfilling the requirements. (This is a bit tricky for me. I need to time my prints appointed so that they are still valid when I apply. But I also need to make sure I obtain licensure within the 120 days before the renewal period- this is why planning and prep are important!!)

Each board of nursing has clear rules about when your fingerprints and background check need to be submitted and how long the documentation is good for. If you submit a hard copy of your fingerprints- make sure to check when exactly you should apply afterward. Make sure you fill out the correct card (FBI vs DOH). It is best to get the card sent directly from the board of nursing in the state that you are applying to. If at all possible- stick with the digital fingerprints. They have a far lower rate of rejection.

Lastly, on this topic, you will need a state-issued driver’s license or international passport with a name that matches the name on your application to complete this step. Be sure to bring this to the appointment with you. Additionally, for a background check you usually need to know your last 3 addresses if you have not lived at your current address for a period of time (most commonly, 1-2 years, but it depends on the state).

Required Documentation for Travel Nursing Licensing

In case you haven’t figured it out, each state is different in its prerequisites and process. Some states’ applications are online, some are on paper, and some you can even walk into the board of nursing office and apply. The documentation you provide needs to be complete. Make sure you double triple check the requirements to ensure that you have fulfilled them all.

If you are a nurse trained outside of the USA many states have very specific instructions on what you will need to apply for your license. Please see the state-specific board of nursing for assistance.

Almost all states require you to verify your current nursing license. Thank you NURSYS inventor! NURSYS is a system that lets you send online verification of your current nursing license to multiple states- for a fee of course.

You are usually only required to send verification of one active license. But, certain states require you to report any and all nursing licenses that you have ever held. I once again forgot this information is needed and ended up spending time looking up my numbers on each website. It would have been useful to have old copies of all licenses in one easy-to-find spot to provide this information easily.

Other possible mandatory documents include transcripts (may need to be official and sealed, be sure to read carefully), a declaration of residence form, and affidavits or proof of education related to infectious and communicable diseases.

Real photo of all of my nursing documentation

Applying for a License in the State Where You Want to Practice Travel Nursing

Oddly enough, sometimes the last step required is the actual application. Many states mandate that you submit all the supporting documentation before completing that online or paper application. This will be stated somewhere in the instructions. If you missed all of my prior warnings…READ THE INSTRUCTIONS FOR APPLICATION CAREFULLY

Travel Nursing Licensing in Walk Through States and Temporary Licensure

Arizona, DC, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Vermont are “walk-through” states. This means that you can arrive in these states and receive a license in just a few days. Often, only a temporary license is awarded, and it is only good for 6 months or less. But, this gives you time to apply for permanent licensure if you plan on staying!
My roommate and I have decided that our two backup states are Arizona and Idaho- for the sole reason that they are walk-through states and won’t require any prior commitment or fees.

You will still need to bring specific documents for the walk-through application process. That information can be found on the state’s board of nursing website.

A limited number of states will let you apply online for temporary licensure. This application usually takes less time to process and is only valid for a short period of time.

Licensure Fees and Travel Companies

I am not going to address specific state fees. The amount it costs to apply varies from state to state and you are going to find the information by searching each specific board of nursing for associated application fees. There are also charges for fingerprints/background checks, license verification, official transcripts, and possibly any required education that you have not completed. Plan for these payments in advance and avoid the hit to your bank account.

But, wait! I have good news! Most agencies will reimburse you for all of the associated costs of obtaining a license. This must be included in your contract. You can negotiate this with your recruiter. You will only be paid back for the state in which you are taking a contract. If your agency isn’t willing to reimburse you, it may be worth finding another recruiter.

Make sure to save the receipts and credit card/bank statements from all of the charges you incur. Sometimes I will take a picture or a screenshot as extra documentation in case I lose any of the paperwork.

A Travel Nursing Dream…

I dream of a system that allows me to have nationwide licensure in every state for one affordable fee!! I think the profession is coming close with the NLC, but we can do better! This whole process could be simplified, and the expensive fees for applications, background checks, and verifications could be avoided.

This part of the process is so exciting for me. Starting to apply for licensure means it’s actually happening. I am taking real steps toward getting on the road.

I’ve got my list, I’ve made my appointment for prints and background checks, and I am compiling all the needed documentation to apply. I researched the other states I am interested in and have a solid backup plan. I know when to apply and am confident I will not need to renew less than 3 months later.

Next step: Updating my resume and finding a helpful recruiter


Rachel Norton BSN, RN

Rachel Norton has been a critical care nurse since 2007. She grew up in the northeast but enjoys every corner of the country. Her passions are people and travel, so travel nursing allows Rachel to both meet amazing people and satisfy her wanderlust - and she loves inspiring other nurses to do the same.

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