How to Become a Nurse in California

As an important liaison between patients and doctors, nurses work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics, physician's offices, schools and even people’s private homes. There are many paths to becoming a nurse in California, with several nursing specialties and degrees, including registered nurse (RN), certified nursing assistant (CNA), licensed practical nurse (LPN) and advanced practice nurse.

With 545,852 people currently licensed by the California Board of Registered Nursing, this state leads the country in individuals holding an active nursing license. California also leads as the top paying state: RNs earn an average mean salary of $102,700, while NPs earn $126,770. LPNs can earn an average of $53,600 (the second highest LPN salary in the country after Texas).

How to Get Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certification in California

A CNA works under the supervision of an RN or LPN to assist patients with daily activities or other health needs. Commonly referred to as a nursing assistant, CNAs perform such duties as bathing patients, turning or repositioning patients, preparing rooms for admission, and much more.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) oversees the rules and regulations regarding CNA certifications. To obtain a California CNA certificate, applicants must first graduate from an approved CNA training program and pass an examination to test their knowledge and skills of basic patient care services. The training program consists of at least 60 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of supervised training and can be completed at a local Red Cross or other approved location. The minimum required age is 16. The next step is submitting an application form for enrollment in the CDPH training program as well as submitting a copy of the Request for Live Scan Service form (for fingerprinting and background checking) to the CDPH.

Upon completion of the CDPH-approved training program, the applicant must successfully pass the CNA certification exam, known as the Competency Evaluation Examination. Candidates are expected to pass the examination within two years of completing the training program.

CNA certification is valid for two years. Individuals must complete 48 hours of In-Service Training/Continuing Education Units (CEUs) within the two-year certification period to renew their certificate. A minimum of 12 of the 48 hours must be completed in each year of the two-year certification period. A maximum of 24 of the 48 hours may be obtained only through a CDPH-approved online computer training program.

How to Get a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) License in California

In California, licensed practical nurses are called licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) and are overseen by the Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians. An LVN is involved in providing basic patient care (such as dressing, bathing, eating, etc.) as well as performing other duties, such as taking and recording vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, and temperature), administering certain medications, and performing other duties under the supervision of an RN or physician. The process of getting a California LVN license begins by completing an accredited vocational nursing certificate program. This program typically takes 12-14 months to complete (when attending full-time) and is offered at many community colleges. In addition to taking courses in biology, pharmacology, and nursing, students will also receive hands-on experience in a clinical setting.

Once students graduate from their vocational nursing program approved by the state, they will receive their certificate in practical nursing. According to the California Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians, to obtain a license, the following requirements must be met:

  • Must be at least 17 years of age
  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Complete and sign the "Application for Vocational Nurse Licensure" form
  • Complete and sign the "Record of Conviction" form
  • Complete required fingerprint background check
  • Pass the National Council Licensing Examination for Practical (Vocational) Nursing (NCLEX) or the National League for Nursing Test Pool Practical Nursing Examination (NLN)

It takes approximately four to six weeks to process an LPN license. LPNs are required to renew their license every two years. They must complete 30 hours of continuing education within the two years prior to their renewal date.

How to Get a Registered Nursing (RN) License in California

An RN provides a wide range of patient services—from hands-on critical care to educating patients on the management of their condition and providing emotional support. Being licensed by the California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN) is a requirement to practice as an RN in the state. To obtain a California RN license, an applicant must earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or Entry-Level Master's in Nursing (ELM) from an accredited program.

According to the BRN, the steps for receiving a California nursing license include:

  • Applying online or obtaining an application packet and detailed instructions from the BRN website
  • Forwarding school transcripts to the BRN
  • Completing a fingerprint background check
  • Taking and passing the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX)

Applying for an interim permit is possible for those who wish to work while awaiting the results of their examination.

Applications are processed in order of date received. The average processing time to receive a permanent license is 10-12 weeks. An interim permit will be issued within 24-48 hours after an individual’s exam application has been approved.

An RN license is valid for two years. To renew a license, an individual must complete 30 hours of continuing education through a continuing education provider recognized by the BRN.

How to Get an Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) License in California

As the title implies, an APN is an RN who has completed advanced clinical and educational requirements. Individuals may also choose to specialize in a certain area of medicine. The state of California recognizes six different classifications of advanced practice nursing: nurse practitioner, certified nurse-midwife, clinical nurse specialist, psychiatric/mental health nurse, public health nurse and certified registered nurse anesthetist. They serve many roles in a healthcare setting and work closely with physicians to order diagnostic tests, determine certain types of treatment plans, prescribe medication, provide patient education, and manage preventive care.

The BRN certifies APNs. According to the BRN, to receive a California APN license, an individual must also be licensed as an RN. The first step is earning a master’s degree (at minimum) in an advanced practice nursing specialty from an accredited school approved by the BRN.

Individuals should also earn national certification in one of the six different classifications of advanced practice nursing. These independent national certification agencies set their own education, experience, and examination requirements for certification.

To receive an APN certificate from the state of California, individuals must submit an application for their specific field. There are different certification application packets for each specialty. Application forms are available for download from the BRN website. All applicants for APN certification must also submit fingerprints (done through LiveScan) for a background check.

APNs are not required to do additional continuing education hours beyond the 30 hours required for renewal of their RN license.