How to Become a Travel Nurse

Overview

Reviewed By Holli Sowerby, EdD, RN

It’s true: there is a job that enables you to travel the country in a high-paying position while also helping people – that of the travel nurse. Travel nurses work as temporary fill-ins for people on sick or maternity leave. They also assist during local emergencies or nursing staff shortages. To become a travel nurse, you must be a registered nurse with a year or more of work experience. The job qualifications correspond with the area of a nurse’s specialty – essentially the same duties the nurse would have within a healthcare establishment closer to home.

It is also possible to work outside of the United States, although in general nurses tend to make significantly more money within the United States. Whether at home or abroad, travel nursing has excellent benefits, including the chance to gain useful and unique professional experience while seeing new places, and meeting new people.

Work Environment

The duties and responsibilities of a travel nurse depend upon the nurse’s specialty. A travel nurse who has operating room experience will assist in surgery, while a travel nurse specializing in cardiac care will work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or on the cardiac care floor. Travel assignments can range from 8 to 52 weeks, although 13 weeks is a common period of time for assignments. Housing for a travel nurse is generally part of the hiring package, along with medical insurance and a guaranteed number of hours per week. Meal subsidies and bonuses can also be part of a hiring package that is sometimes handled through a separate agency.

Requirements

Education

A travel nurse must have an RN degree. There are three pathways to becoming a registered nurse:

  • A hospital-based nursing school, which are becoming less common and usually take four years to complete
  • An associate degree in nursing, which generally takes two years after completing prerequisite courses (followed by another 1-2 years of schooling for a bachelor’s degree)
  • A bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN), which generally takes four years

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) considers a bachelor’s degree to be the minimum requirement for any career in nursing. 

After becoming an RN (and passing the NCLEX-RN exam), an individual can choose to specialize in an area of interest such as acute care, surgery, pediatrics or cardiac care through work experience or by getting a master’s degree in nursing (MSN).

Training

Most travel nursing agencies require applicants to have at least one year of hands-on experience in the applicant’s chosen area of nursing. Many travel nursing agencies also require a bachelor’s degree in nursing, as that is the minimum requirement for employment as an RN in some states.

Licensing and/or Certification

The NCLEX-RN certification exam, also referred to as the nursing boards, must be passed in order to receive licensure. A multistate licensure agreement known as the Nurse Licensure Compact allows licensed RNs interested in becoming travel nurses to work in other states that have agreed to the compact, as long as their licenses and continuing education credits are up to date. Specific state requirements vary so check the Nurse Licensure Compact regarding the state where you'd like to work. Most travel nursing agencies assist you in obtaining the required licensure for the assignment.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Flexibility and the ability to work in a variety of locations and settings are two qualities that are important in travel nursing. Excellent communication skills are a must, as travel nurses need to understand both the medical and social needs of patients. Travel nurses need to be able to adapt quickly to a new environment and be skilled at learning new technology systems. As with all nurses, travel nurses should be detail oriented and skilled in analysis. Additionally, it is advantageous to understand the local language if international travel is desired.

Opportunities for Advancement

Travel nursing, like all fields of nursing, offers many opportunities for advancement and continuing education. Nurses who choose to continue their education can become nurse practitioners or nurse educators. If they want more variety, they can gain additional certification in their current specialty or seek training in another specialty. In all cases, the unique résumé of the travel nurse opens new opportunities in clinical, educational or management careers.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a travel nurse, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

Interactive Map of Income and Job Growth Projections

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median salary for RNs is currently $66,640. The top 10% earn an average salary of $98,880. Because travel nurses are often hired for critical needs, a travel nurse often earns significantly more than the median. In addition, there is usually an attractive benefits package that includes housing, medical and/or dental coverage, meal subsidies, retirement savings plans, bonuses and other perks. Travel RNs are usually guaranteed a minimum number of hours for every assignment.

There is a shortage of RNs in all areas of nursing. Advances in technology that allow people to live longer, along with the increasing age of the baby boomer generation, have increased the need for nurses. Because of this, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the job growth outlook for registered nurses will be around 16% between 2012 and 2022, which is faster than average. Travel nurses can expect a comparable rate of growth. There has been an increase of RNs entering the job market so in general, nurses with a bachelor’s degree will have better prospects.

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