How to Become a Travel Nurse in 7 Easy Steps

How to Become a Travel Nurse in 7 Easy Steps

Health Carousel Travel Nursing
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The travel nursing industry has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Many healthcare facilities are turning to travel nurses to help fill in the gaps of nursing shortages throughout the United States. Are you a new or experienced nurse and interested in starting a travel healthcare career? Below we detail the travel nurse job description and some career differences compared to a staff nurse. We also outline the steps to becoming a travel nurse.

What Does a Travel Nurse Do?

With the demand for experienced nurses increasing by the day, many hospitals are relying on less conventional methods of acquiring nursing talent. Staffing strategies like international travel nurse recruiters are growing in popularity, but the use of travel nurses is regaining its seat as the No. 1 trick of the human resources trade. In fact, according to reputable analysts in the industry, travel nursing demand has reached a 20-year high.

This means real opportunity for nurses considering life on the road.

The travel nurse job description is the same as a staff nurse. Depending on the unit and specialty, travel nurses perform assessments, patient care duties, and charts in electronic medical records. You can be a certified critical care nurse, certified pediatric nurse, or certified emergency nurse and work as a travel nurse. So, if you work in the intensive care unit with acutely/critically ill adult patients, travel nurses perform the same duties and work as critical care travel nurses.

However, travel nurses aren't permanent staff at the healthcare facilities they work at. They are contracted through travel nurse staffing agencies in areas with nursing shortages. Thus, travel nurses are paid through travel nursing contracts, which outline an entire travel nursing pay package, including travel nursing pay, stipends, etc. Travel nurse staffing agencies have varying assignments and locations that travel nurses can accept.

How Is a Travel Nurse Career Different?

There are some key differences between a staff nurse and a travel nurse which are important to highlight. First, on average, travel nurse compensation is higher than staff nurses. Travel nurse compensation isn't just based on a higher hourly rate. Travel nursing pay packages include tax-free stipends, reimbursements, and other expected expenses. Travel nursing pay packages will vary based on your specialty, location, and current demand.

Besides the high travel nurse salaries or travel nursing pay, a travel nurse staffing agency offers flexible travel nursing contracts to their nurse. A travel nurse works with a travel nurse recruiter at an agency to find available assignments. Travel nursing contracts and assignments are usually around 13 weeks but can be more or less. Shortly before a travel assignment ends, a travel nurse works with their travel nurse recruiter to find another assignment. Thus, travel nursing allows nurses to travel throughout the United States while working. It’s a good life. And if you want a piece of it, the following are seven easy steps to becoming a travel nurse:

Step 1: Get Educated

You’ll need a high school diploma or a GED to get started. Once secured, you can opt for an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) – either will qualify you to sit for The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Both would take you about two-three years, depending on your program.

For those wanting to continue their education, you can complete a four-year degree and earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). It’s more expensive and demands more time, but it may be necessary to work at certain facilities or in certain nursing specialties. Many healthcare facilities are now requiring that nurses have a BSN degree.

Consider which route you want to pursue, because your road to registered nursing may depend on several variables. Where are you located? Are you in a bigger city, or somewhere near one or multiple nursing schools? Depending on the demand for nursing in your area, you may need to get that BSN and make yourself more marketable than other nurses competing for the same jobs.

Step 2: Pass NCLEX

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc (NCSBN) administers the National Council Licensure Exam NCLEX, which you must pass to get licensed in the US as an RN or Licensed Practical Nurse (PN). For more questions on the exam, visit the NCSBN’s FAQ section on their website.

According to data from the NCBSN, just over 71 percent of NCLEX-takers have passed so far in 2015. For US-educated new BSN graduates, the number climbs to just over 88 percent, and 82 percent for those with an Associate’s degree.

Two surefire ways to succeed at this test are getting an NCLEX-prep book and enrolling in an NCLEX prep course. The NCLEX-prep book will familiarize you with how NCLEX questions are worded, while the prep course will teach you best practices in NCLEX success. Many prep courses offer reimbursement if you fail the NCLEX, so if your program isn’t offering this, turn to Google and find one that does.

Step 3: Get Experience

Remember those travel nursing education requirements mentioned in Step 1 about location and nursing schools in your vicinity? They come back into play when it’s time to get the experience you need. First, know this: for travel nursing purposes, you won’t be considered without at least two years of recent nursing experience in your specialty. For example, you'll need two years of recent nursing experience in the intensive care unit working with acutely/critically ill adult patients before working as a critical care travel nurse. Chief Nursing Officers (CNOs) expect travel nurses to walk right in and assimilate. You aren’t doing that as a new grad. So, you need to get your experience.

If you’re in a bigger city with more than one nursing school nearby, this is easier said than done. But that’s why the travel nursing education requirements were the first step because, based on where you are, you’ll know what you need to do to get hired where you live.

Many nurses will benefit from living in a compact state. Many states participate in the Nurse Licensure Compact. So, if you get licensed in a participating state, that license is good in other states that participate! Unfortunately, you have to be a resident of the compact state, so this option isn’t plausible for all. Click the link to see if your state participates.

A compact license is a huge advantage, particularly in the travel market, because hospitals need verification of your valid state nursing license before they’ll even interview you. And as a travel nurse, that’s a no-brainer.

Step 4: Find a Good Travel Nurse Agency

As soon as you start filling out applications and make your intentions of travel nursing known, get ready! Your inbox and voicemail are about to incur a stampede of correspondence from travel nurse recruiters. And that’s awesome – who doesn’t like feeling wanted? But now it’s on you to vet these travel nursing companies and find the best one.

There are plenty of reviews out there on almost any travel nursing company, but take reviews with a pinch of salt. Many reviews are left by dissatisfied former travel nurse contractors and it’s really hard to understand all sides of the situation — and in the case of travel nursing, there are three — the agency, the nurse, and the hospital to which they were assigned. Conversely, many travel nursing companies solicit their best nurses to leave sterling reviews. And while there may be a degree of truth to them, it’s ultimately not helpful to the person who wants an honest depiction of the agency.

Do your due diligence about the travel nursing pay packages they offer. In addition to the travel nursing pay, check out the bonuses offered and if they offer travel nurse housing. Also, inquire about insurance packages – these will vary by agency, so be sure to press hard and find out everything you need to make the best decision. Some insurance packages cost very little but cover very little if anything should go wrong — these are sometimes referred to as catastrophic plans.

We recommend building a short list of reputable travel nursing companies and then going from there. And if Health Carousel Travel Nursing doesn’t make the list – I thought we were friends? But really, we’ll be here if and when you decide to look elsewhere.

Step 5: Create a Travel Nursing Submission Profile

Application, skills checklist, clinical references – you’ll need all three every single time you apply with a new travel nurse agency. Speak to any travel nurse and they’ll likely tell you the same – the paperwork upfront when applying to a new agency is ridiculous. It’s long, it’s redundant and it’s cumbersome, but it’s absolutely necessary.

For recommendations on creating a good travel nursing job tips about your resume see our previous blog post Eight Resume Secrets for Travel Nurses.

Veteran travel nurses save all of their materials in a zip drive that’s routinely updated. So when it’s time to apply elsewhere, you have everything in one spot and ready to send.

Step 6: Herd Your Paperwork

It’s virtually an extension of step 5, but this refers to the other documentation you’ll need to become a travel nurse. That includes medical records, licenses, and certifications. Certifications should also include up-to-date basic life support (BLS), advanced cardiac life support (ACLS), or other relevant certifications you hold to your specialty. If you work in a specialty area, you'll want to consider obtaining an additional certification as well. For example, consider becoming a certified pediatric nurse or certified emergency nurse. In travel nursing, timing is critical. That open job you found in the perfect destination isn’t staying open forever, and when you’re competing with other qualified nurses, it’s often the quickest draw that lands the assignment. Know what you’ll need, have it accessible, and the paperwork will go a lot smoother.

Step 7: Accept a Position, Hit the Road 

By the time you finish loading your car, there should be no doubt about your decision. You’ve done everything you can to become a great nurse. You’ve researched all the travel nursing agencies and have chosen one that you genuinely feel has your best interest in mind (like HCTN). Now it’s time to begin your journey, taking care of hospitals with patients most in need of it.

There are some tax issues you’ll want to nail down. Establishing your Tax Home will be critical to receiving tax-free stipends, such as travel nurse housing and meals. You’ll want those because most travel nursing companies offer some form of untaxed compensation that Uncle Sam will want to talk about.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a traveling nurse?

First, you'll need to graduate from nursing school and take and pass your N-CLEX exam. After working for two years as a staff nurse, you can consider applying for travel nursing positions.

Is it hard to be a travel nurse?

Travel nursing offers nurses the opportunity to work and travel throughout the country. As a travel nurse, you'll need to be flexible, adapt quickly to change, and move every couple of months. It sometimes comes with hard work, just like any other nursing job.

Can you become a travel nurse right out of college?

Almost all travel nursing agencies require that you have at least two years of nursing experience. Since you are covering gaps in nursing shortages, you'll be expected to be proficient in your specialty. This means understanding best practices, workflows, and charting in electronic medical records.

Learn More about Health Carousel

Want to learn more about becoming a travel nurse or travel nursing job tips? Read more on our travel nursing blog. Start your travel healthcare career with HCTN. Search our many assignments through our job board or our On Demand platform.

Health Carousel Travel Nursing has many great benefits for our travel nurses. Unsure how to utilize your benefits or want to learn more about what they offer? Visit our Full Circle of Support.


Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.

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Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.

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Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.


Land your dream job faster when you travel with us. Get started with top local and national travel nurse jobs in On Demand.

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