How to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse

How to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse
Job growth for LPNs is expected to increase by 12 percent by 2026, while employment for RNs is projected to increase by 15 percent, meaning that both types of nursing professionals will be in higher demand than many other workers, including high school teachers and lawyers. Image from Unsplash
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Ann Votaw August 14, 2019

Licensed practical nursing is a rapid entry point to the medical profession; you can train for the job in just three semesters. For some, it's a stepping stone to other medical roles, but for many others, it's a calling and a career.

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Depending on where you’re located, a practical nurse might be called a licensed practical nurse (LPN), a licensed vocational nurse (LVN), or a registered practical nurse (RPN). No matter what you call them, practical nurses provide essential services to patients and their fellow health care professionals, working closely with challenging patients and hazardous materials. “If they got rid of the LPN,” warns one practical nurse, “who do you think will have to take on those responsibilities? Everyone else!”

In Texas and California, practical nurses are called licensed vocational nurses, and there are lots of them: 72,030 employed in Texas and 64,000 in California, constituting the two largest practical nursing workforces in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In the remaining 48 states, practical nurses are called LPNs, and in the Canadian province of Ontario they are called RPNs. The titles are the primary difference, as the qualifications and duties for all three are pretty much the same.

How long does it take to become a licensed practical nurse?

For the aspiring nurse, becoming an LPN is the quickest route into the workforce. In as little as one to two years, you can earn a diploma or certificate from an accredited LPN program at a vocational school or community college.

The final step is to pass the National Council Licensure Examination-Practical Nurse (NCLEX-PN).

In contrast, RNs typically spend two to five years in school, either graduating from a four-year college with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or an associate’s degree in nursing (ASN) supplemented by two-to-three years of additional nursing education, according to Nurse Journal.

How much do licensed practical nurses earn?

LPNs earn a median annual income of $46,240. Registered nurses (RNs), in contrast, earn $71,730 a year.

Job growth for LPNs is expected to increase by 12 percent by 2026, while employment for RNs is projected to increase by 15 percent, meaning that both types of nursing professionals will be in higher demand than many other workers, including high school teachers and lawyers.

Pros and cons of becoming a licensed practical nurse


  • It’s a fairly easy transition to become an RN or to further your skills with your current license. Depending on your state’s regulations, additional LPN certifications may include gerontology and IV therapy certifications through the National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (NALPN).
  • Strong employment prospects mean you will most likely find full-time work. By 2026, the BLS predicts 813,400 available LPN jobs. You should find the highest annual pay in California ($69,930), Massachusetts ($68,170), Alaska ($66,710), Rhode Island ($66,770), and Washington ($69,950), according to the BLS.
  • There’s a national trend toward more comfortable and home-like facilities, meaning more accommodating work environments for LPNs; many LPNs currently perform primary care in nursing homes, according to a 2014 study in Journal of Housing for the Elderly
  • You might become more valuable…in the near future. Because of nursing shortages and strained patient-to-nurse ratios, some hospitals may be reconsidering LPNs as important members of collaborative teams that include physicians and RNs.


  • You’re likely to work “unsociable hours“__ that include nights and weekends, in shifts that may last longer than eight hours, according to the BLS. Get some cool and stylish nursing shoes and be the envy of all your friends.
  • You may sustain job injuries from lifting patients.
    Burnout is a real possibility, as it is in many types of nursing.
  • Raise? There is not as much opportunity for a pay increase… unless you decide to become an RN.
  • No respect? LPNs have many of the same duties as RNs, including monitoring patients, performing CPR in emergencies, checking vitals, and collecting specimens. Yet they often answer to RNs and other medical professionals who have more education. LPNs often receive less credit than their RN colleagues.

Educational commitment to become a licensed practical nurse

To become an LPN, you first need a high school diploma or a GED.

To apply to an accredited education program, you will probably first have to go through a:

  • Background check
  • Drug test
  • Tuberculosis test
  • Physical

Length of study should include three semesters of online and/or on-campus courses. Pursuing your training at a community college should keep your costs low; students at Charlotte Technical College pay about $7,000, including tuition, fees, books, uniform, and various tests.

Why is accreditation important?

Attending an accredited certificate/diploma school is important because you can’t earn an LPN license without it. State boards generally list approved programs and may have warnings about unauthorized organizations. Community for Accredited Schools Online lists its top 100 picks here.

Some board-approved LPN programs include:

  • Charlotte Technical College in Florida, where students must pass courses in practical nursing foundations, medical surgical nursing, and comprehensive nursing and transitional skills. Graduates of the school will apply to the Florida Board of Nursing to take the NCLEX-PN exam.
  • College of Eastern Idaho, where students learn to administer medications, collect lab samples, perform CPR, change wound dressings, take vital signs, and assess patients.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming a licensed practical nurse

Upon completion of your studies, you will need to take the NCLEX-PN, the national licensure exam provided by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), often referred to as “the boards” or “state boards.” The NCLEX-PN is designed to measure whether you can safely perform practical nursing.

To apply, you must submit an application to your state’s nursing regulatory body, which will confirm your eligibility. Second, you must register and pay the $200 fee.

Once you are confirmed as eligible, you will receive an Authorization to Test (ATT) email explaining when and where to take the NCLEX-PN. You have 5 hours to take the computerized PN exam that is mostly multiple choice.

Where do licensed practical nurses typically work?

Most LPNs work in long-term care facilities in such roles as supervising nurse assistants (NAs); their opportunities for advancementare likely to be limited. According to the BLS, 38 percent of LPNs work in nursing and residential care facilities. Smaller percentages are employed in hospitals, offices of physicians, home health care services, and government facilities. Average annual earnings range from $42,520 (in physicians’ offices) to $48,050 (at government facilities).

Some LPNs provide acute care on a more short-term basis in faster-paced environments that include emergency rooms or trauma intensive care units. However, between 1984 and 2005, the number of LPNs in hospitals fell by 47 percent while the total number of LPNs in the country grew by 18 percent, according to AFSCME, a public service union.

Depending on the state, practical nurses have varying scopes of practice. In California, for example, the Nursing Practice Act (NPA) prohibits LVNs from starting intravenous fluids (IV) without obtaining specific licensure. In other states, IV therapy is part of the LPN’s initial education or available through certification programs.

Career paths for licensed practical nurses

The benefit of becoming an LPN is that you can see what sticks as far as your interests and skills. Especially if you’re new to the workforce, exploration can inform you on what type of nurse you’d like to be.

A common assumption is that LPNs really want to be RNs, but that’s not always true. Many practical nurses like their current responsibilities and understand their value to their patients.

Yet others do eventually chose LPN-to-RN bridge programs, not just to advance in their profession but to widen their scope of practice, which varies from state to state and can be confusing.

“The toughest part some of my LPN colleagues have is knowing where the line is drawn in what we can legally do,” writes one happy LPN on her way to becoming an RN.

For working LPNs, bridge courses may take 18 months or longer to finish, with the final result being an associate degree in nursing (ADN).

Example online courses include:

  • Microbiology and human anatomy
  • 200 to 500 hours of clinical experience with real people—no more armless, legless dummies. Call it hands-on training.

The goal is for graduates to pass the NCLEX-RN for licensure. The curriculum starts where the LPN training ended.

“I found the RN program to be much easier than the LPN because most of it is material that is reinforced, not new,” writes one registered nurse in an online forum. ” … If you can survive the LPN, the RN will be a breeze.”

LPNs may follow the LPN-to-BSN route to earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which may take three to six years to complete. Study is more rigorous for the BSN programs than the associate degree programs, but higher credentials may set candidates up for better-paying jobs and advanced degrees.

Other possibilities include:

Resources for becoming a licensed practical nurse

American Nurses Association (ANA)__

Founded in 1896, the ANA represents the nation’s four million RNs. This large organization should boost your networking opportunities with its career center and conferences. Members receive the monthly American Nurse Today and free quarterly webinars to keep their knowledge current.

National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (NALPN)__

NALPN is the national professional organization for LPNs and LVNs and students. Individual membership is $120 and includes invitations to attend national conferences, wonderful for networking. In addition, NALPN offers certificates in IV and gerontology.

National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)__

Founded March 15, 1978, the NCSBN helps state governments and nursing regulatory bodies (NRBs) collaborate. Not only does the NCSBN administer the NCLEX licensure exams for LPNs and RNs, but the organization also manages the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), which allows nurses to practice in one home state in addition to dozens of other NLC states.

National Student Nurses’ Association (NSNA)__

When you become a member of NSNA, you receive an annual subscription to Imprint Magazine, study help for the NCLEX, and discounts on liability insurance, office supplies, and uniforms.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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