Nurse Practitioner

Requirements to Be a Travel Nurse

Requirements to Be a Travel Nurse
Travel nurses provide high-quality essential nursing services to understaffed healthcare facilities, hospitals, residential care facilities, outpatient care centers, and government facilities. Image from Pexels
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland November 21, 2022

You need to have an RN license and have several years of experience to sign on with most travel nursing placement agencies. Travel roles are also available for nurse practitioners.

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With demand for nurses outstripping supply in medical facilities nationwide, healthcare providers are turning to travel nurses to address the shortfall. It’s a crisis that’s been a long time coming—for years, retirements have exceeded new nurses even as demand has grown—but the COVID-19 pandemic exacrebated the situation considerably, ratcheting up demand for travel nurses to assist in short-term stints as critical care nurses in intensive care units (ICU) and emergency rooms.

The pandemic certainly didn’t help. According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), 92 percent of nurses surveyed believe the pandemic depleted nurses at their hospitals. 66 percent say the pandemic has caused them to consider leaving their nursing careers behind. Apparently, the Great Resignation did not just impact white-collar employees. Many front-line workers, including healthcare professionals, have called it quits in recent years due to burnout, poor working conditions, safety concerns, rising patient ratios, and a lack of work-life balance.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates about 203,200 registered nurse job openings per year over the coming decade, stemming from nurses who have shifted careers or retired. This will make it more difficult for healthcare providers—particularly those in remote rural settings—to find new full-time nurses. They may have to rely on travel nurses to staff their facilities.

For nurses seeking work-life balance and flexibility, travel nurse positions booked through travel nurse agencies are the go-to option to meet their needs. Travel nurses cite flexibility, experiencing a new city, and higher incomes as key reasons to opt for leaving their full-time roles. What are the requirements to be a travel nurse? This article answers that question by discussing:

  • What is a travel nurse?
  • How travel nursing works
  • Travel nurse: job requirements
  • How much do travel nurses make?

What is a travel nurse?

Travel nurses provide high-quality essential nursing services to understaffed healthcare facilities, hospitals, residential care facilities, outpatient care centers, and government facilities. These establishments may seek short-term assistance from a travel nurse to fill in for a nurse on leave or fill a temporary gap in staffing where there’s limited time to hire, train, and onboard a new staff member. Typical duties fulfilled by travel nurses include:

  • Administering medications and treatments
  • Monitoring patient vitals, such as blood pressure and pulse
  • Working alongside physicians and staff members
  • Explaining treatment and care plans to patients and families
  • Providing patient care and educating patients on self-care practices
  • Maintaining accurate patient records

Many of these tasks are similar to the duties of full-time nursing staff, such as registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs). Travel nurses differ in that they are employed through nurse staffing agencies on a temporary contract; depending on the need, some travel nurse assignments can be extended. Most travel nurses are versatile RNs, but nurse practitioners (NPs) also serve as travel nurses for more specialized focus areas, including family care, neonatal care, or adult gerontology.

Travel nurses receive limited onboarding and orientation in their interim roles. Consequently, they must be well-experienced and hit the ground running shortly after their start date.


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How travel nursing works

Travel nurses utilize nurse staffing agencies to book short-term positions to fill nursing shortage gaps, pursuing travel assignments as they become available. These temporary positions typically last 13 weeks, with possible continuations depending on need. Some travel nurse assignments may even convert to permanent positions. Regardless, travel nurses enjoy the flexibility to accept extensions, take a break in between gigs, or decline placements that don’t appeal to them.

Travel nurses must live further than 50 miles from the facility to qualify for assignments and receive housing stipends. Recruiters can assist with logistics and accommodations for travel nurses who request that their family or pets stay with them during their term.

Nursing agencies vary, but travel nurses commonly receive the following perks:

  • Higher salaries than staff nurses
  • Tax-free housing stipends or agency-provided housing
  • Tax-free per diems
  • Travel reimbursements
  • Signing bonuses
  • A benefits package with health insurance and a 401(k)

Recruiters serve as liaisons, matching assignments based on the hospital or facility’s needs and the nurses’ expertise and years of clinical experience. Nursing specialties in high demand include:

  • Operating room
  • Emergency room
  • Women’s health (neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)), labor and delivery
  • Intensive care units
  • Medical surgery
  • Psychiatric

Travel nursing offers flexibility for nurses seeking to bring their experience to fill shortage gaps, earn higher compensation packages, avoid office politics, and even travel to new destinations to enjoy when off the clock.

Travel nurse: job requirements

Nurses must fulfill standard requirements to land their first travel nursing assignment. Here’s a rundown of travel nurse requirements from education, experience, certifications, and specialties to maintaining an active RN license,.

  • Education requirements. A travel nurse should have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution. Alternatively, some agencies may accept nursing school graduates from approved Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) programs. However, most recruiters prefer RNs to have a BSN degree, as it opens more opportunities for job placements.
  • Pass the NCLEX-RN exam. After receiving an associate’s or bachelor’s in nursing degree or completing an approved nursing program, post-graduates can sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). This exam assesses the skills and competencies required to work as a registered nurse (RN).
  • Apply for your nursing license. After passing the exam, apply for a nursing license in the state in which you wish to practice. For travel nurses who accept assignments out of their home state, licensing requirements vary by state. Only some states fall under the multistate license through the Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC). Top travel destination sites such as California and Hawaii require an additional state license which may prolong the process.
  • Gain professional experience as an RN. Most staffing agencies require travel nurses to have at least two years of professional RN and bedside experience. Due to limited orientation hours, recruiters and healthcare facilities find experienced nurses more desirable to fill travel nursing assignments.
  • Explore additional certifications. Some facilities require travel nurses to carry nursing certifications, such as Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS). In addition, Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN), Certified Critical Care Nurse (CCRN), and Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN) certifications can land experienced nurses at the top of the call list for more senior or specialized roles.

Most travel nurses have prior experience as registered nurses. However, nurse practitioners (NPs) or advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) can also serve as travel nurses in specialty roles. These roles typically require additional years of nursing experience and advanced education through a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Travel nurses who meet these qualifications can earn even higher wages on the road than their RN counterparts. States vary in the degree of practice autonomy they afford NPs, limiting their roles in some locations.

How much do travel nurses make?

Travel nursing perks include experiencing new destinations, having flexible work schedules, and earning higher incomes. For instance, full-time registered nurses earn a median wage of $77,600 or $37.31 hourly. In contrast, traveling RNs average about $3,500 per week or more, which can balance out to six-figure salaries depending on the frequency of assignments. Some traveling nurses earned as much as $10,000 per week during the height of the pandemic.

While salaries were at their peak as traveling nurses assisted in ICU and emergency rooms during the pandemic, post-pandemic wages remain rather lucrative. The highest-paying cities for travel nurses include:

  • New York, NY
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • San Diego, CA
  • Denver, CO
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Orlando, FL
  • San Antonio, TX

While travel nurse salaries rate much higher than full-time staff nurses, it’s important to consider housing costs and other living expenses when selecting assignments. For example, destinations such as California and New York typically pay higher wages. However, the cost of living for housing and food can eat away at those additional earnings.

Travel nursing continues to boom as more full-time nurses consider this option to achieve work-life balance through short-term assignments and flexible schedules. Before reaching out to a nurse staffing agency and resigning from your full-time role, be sure to meet the education, experience, and certification requirements. Nursing in any capacity is a commitment to lifelong learning. Therefore, maintaining an active RN license and becoming certified in hard-to-fill specialties may help you land steady assignments in high-demand areas.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024).

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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