How Long Does it Take to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Registered nurses are in-demand medical professionals. Learn more about how long it takes to become an RN and start your new career.

[Featured Image] Registered nurse wearing scrubs and a stethoscope

It can take anywhere from 18 months to four years to become a registered nurse (RN). That includes the time it takes to gain the required training and experience to join the profession. How long it takes you, though, will depend on your current qualifications, professional goals, and the nursing program you choose. 

A nursing career offers the prospect of job security and a higher than average salary alongside the ability to help others. In this article, you’ll learn how long it will take you to become a registered nurse, the different programs you can complete to prepare for the job, and what concrete steps you need to take to become an RN. 

How long does it take to become a registered nurse? 

The time it takes you to become a registered nurse varies based on the type of nursing program you enroll in to prepare for the profession. While a bachelor’s of nursing degree can take up to four years to complete, an associate degree in nursing (ADN) can take as little as two. 

Below, you’ll find out more about how long it will take to complete each of these programs and how each of them prepares you for a career in the professional world. 

Nursing diploma

An RN nursing diploma takes approximately two to three years to complete. 

Historically, diploma programs were the primary path to becoming a registered nurse. While specifics vary from program to program, generally each one introduces students to core health care concepts and provides hands-on clinical experience through partnerships with hospitals and other health care providers. 

While nursing diplomas prepare students for the NCLEX-RN, which they must pass to practice professionally, they are becoming less common. Today, the bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) is becoming the industry standard. However, currently practicing RNs can gain BSNs through special RN to BSN programs that can take as little as 18 months to complete. 

Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree

An Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree takes approximately two to three years to complete. 

Typically, ASN degrees are offered by community and city colleges and focus on preparing students to take the NCLEX-RN, the exam you must complete to become a licensed nurse. ASN programs prepare students by introducing them to core health care concepts, such as anatomy, health science, and pharmacology, and also provides hands-on clincal experience. 

Associate Degrees in Nursing (ADN) are similar to ASN degrees but often require fewer clinical hours.  

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree

A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree takes approximately four years to complete. In some cases, students can obtain their BSN in as short as three years, depending on the program requirements and their course load. 

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in nursing introduces students to core nursing topics, provides a set number of clinical hours, and also requires them to take further courses in other non-major related subjects. 

While a BSN program may take longer than an associate degree program, it is usually required if you want to pursue more advanced educational programs, such as a master of science in nursing (MSN), which is required to become a nurse practitioner (NP). Furthermore, BSNs are becoming increasingly standard in nursing and some employers may prefer candidates with BSNs over those with less advanced degrees. 

Read more: How to Get Into Nursing School: Your Guide to a Degree

What’s the job outlook and salary for registered nurses?

The job outlook for registered nurses is positive. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for registered nurses is projected to grow by nine percent between 2020 and 2030 with approximately 194,500 new job openings each year. With high demand comes a higher than average salary. In 2021, for example, the median annual salary for RNs was $77,600 [1]. 


How to become a registered nurse

While different nursing programs require different time commitments, the steps that need to be taken to become a registered nurse are the same for everyone. These are: 

1. Attend a nursing program.

In order to become a registered nurse, you must first attend a nursing program that not only prepares you for the nursing profession but also the exam you must pass to legally practice. As outlined above, the amount of time it takes you to become a nurse will largely depend on the nursing program you attend. 

2. Take (and pass) the NCLEX-RN.  

Once you have completed your nursing program, you will be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN, the professional exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) that you must pass to be eligible for state licensure. 

Unlike most other medical tests, which typically focus strictly on knowledge, the NCLEX-RN is an integrative exam that tests your ability to make nursing judgments in a variety of different medical scenarios. In effect, there are four main categories that NCLEX-RN tests: 

  • Providing a safe and effective care environment

  • Health promotion and maintenance

  • Physiological integrity

  • Psychosocial integrity

You must have a strong grasp of each of these subjects and how they relate to one another in order to pass the NCLEX-RN. 

3. Get licensed.

After you have passed the NCLEX-RN, you will now be eligible for state licensure. The exact requirements for obtaining an RN license vary from state to state, so make sure to check with your state nursing board for clarification. Furthermore, state licenses only permit you to practice in the awarding state, meaning you will need to pursue another license if you wish to practice somewhere else. 

Get ready with Coursera

As medical professionals tasked with some of the most impactful – and sensitive – responsibilities, RNs need to have a comprehensive understanding of the human body, health, and the health care system. 

If you are considering a career as an RN, then you might benefit from taking an online course to prepare for your future career. The University of Michigan’s Anatomy Specialization will introduce you to the foundations of human anatomy, including the major organs, their functions, and their relationships within the body.

The University of Minnesota’s Integrative Nursing Specialization, meanwhile, teaches a patient-centered, relationship-based approach to nursing that utilizes a variety of integrative healing modalities.

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Article sources

1. BLS. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses,” Accessed June 16, 2022.

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