How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Registered nurses are integral health care professional that provide patients with the care they need. Learn the steps you need to take to join this impactful profession.

[Featured Image]: A woman with curly hair, wearing blue scrubs, a mask and a stethoscope around her neck is reading a chart. Doctors and nurses are in the background.

Demand for health care workers is growing for many reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging baby boomer population. According to Ibis World, Canadian hospitals grew at a rate of 3.2 per cent in 2023 alone [1]. 

Registered nurses (RNs) provide care to patients and assist other health care professionals, such as physicians, to ensure they have the support they need to do their jobs well. Becoming a registered nurse can lead to a fulfilling and well-paid career serving people who need health care. 

Here’s a guide to getting started.

What is a registered nurse (RN)?

Registered nurses care for patients and support doctors and other medical professionals. They can work in various settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, travel clinics, nursing homes, schools, people’s homes, and more.

An RNs typical tasks may involve administering prescribed medications, inserting catheters, monitoring vital signs, creating patient care plans, documenting patient information, and much more.

Where do nurses work?

RNs can work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, travel clinics, nursing homes, schools, and even within airplanes. In effect, there are many different types of RN, including psychiatric nurses who specializing in mental health work, flight nurses who work in helicopters and airplanes, and oncology nurses who specifically work with cancer patients.


Salary and job outlook

According to Job Bank Canada, registered nurses in Canada earn a median hourly wage of $40.39. This wage can vary by location and experience level, ranging from $28.00 to $50.00 per hour [2].  

The job outlook for RNs is “Good” to “Very Good” nationwide through 2026 [3]. 


This in-demand and big-hearted career has many perks, including a good salary and a bright future. Here are just a few benefits of becoming a registered nurse.

  • Work in shifts: Nurses don’t work a typical 9-to-5 workday. Often, RNs have 12-hour shifts three days per week. You can spend your time off doing other things you love, like spending time with family or enjoying a hobby.

  • Job security: Hospitals and clinics are always hiring nurses. This need is projected to increase in the coming years.

  • Flexibility: Nurses, like doctors, are needed nearly everywhere. While you may not be licensed or certified in other countries, you have the option to do so, and working as a travel nurse can be a lucrative career.

  • Active lifestyle: As a nurse, you’ll be on your feet often rather than sitting at a desk all day. This can be a positive for those who do not enjoy sitting still for eight hours daily.

  • Make a difference: Nursing can be a very rewarding career in helping people. If you’re a people person, you might be drawn to this field of work that allows you to have meaningful interactions with patients.

How to become a registered nurse

To become an RN, you may need additional education and training. However, starting or switching to this career is never too late. Becoming an RN can take approximately two to four years, depending on your background.

1. Complete an accredited nursing program.

As a first step, you’ll typically want to enrol in a program where you’ll learn the fundamentals of nursing. You’ll be able to learn chemistry, psychology, anatomy, and physiology in these programs. You’ll also take courses that teach wound care and other applied learning. 

All provinces and territories require you to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited bachelor's degree programme is required to become a nurse. These programs are typically available at colleges and universities and take up to four years to complete. 

2. Pass the nurse licensing exam.

Once your coursework is completed, you can register for certification with the appropriate provincial regulating body. After you’ve completed the requirements to become certified, which will vary based on location, you can register to take the nurse licensing exam. 

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), is part of the standardized procedure for becoming a nurse. Regulatory boards use the exam results to determine whether candidates are ready to obtain a nursing license. 

Most candidates apply for licensure and register for the NCLEX-RN six weeks before graduating from nursing school. You must meet all the eligibility requirements and apply through their local nurse regulatory body. Then, candidates register on the Pearson VUE website or by phone, which generates an authorization email that provides test dates and information.

The NCLEX-RN is a computer-based exam requiring test takers to complete a minimum of 75 (out of 205) questions and can take up to six hours to finish. The NCLEX-RN focuses on supervising and managing patient care, covering four “client needs” categories: safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. 

To prepare for this important exam, applicants may want to take a practice exam, available on the NCSBN website. If you don’t pass the NCLEX-RN exam the first time, you must wait 45 days before retaking it.

3. Get licensed where you want to practice.

After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you must obtain a nursing license from the territory or province where you want to practise. If you hope to work in multiple provinces (or countries), you’ll need a licence in each region. 

Each province has unique requirements, so check with your local regulating board’s website to learn more about becoming an RN.

4. Gain a specialization or an advanced degree.

After you become a registered nurse, you may want to specialize in a specific area or pursue an advanced degree. 

  • CNA certification: To qualify for the Canadian Nurses Association certification, RNs, nurse practitioners, licensed/registered practical nurses, or registered psychiatric nurses with current registration or licence in Canada must pass an exam. However, they must first qualify for the exam in one of two ways. The first option to qualify is to complete 1,950 hours of experience over the past five years. The second option is 1,000 hours of experience coupled with at least 300 hours of education in the form of certificates or speciality diplomas [4]. Earning certifications may boost your salary and make you a more marketable nurse. On top of these qualifications, you must also receive an application endorsement from your supervisor or a consultant in your nursing practice specialty. 

  • Advanced degree: To become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or nurse practitioner, or clinical nurse leader, you’ll likely need a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). Advancing and investing further in your education can substantially increase your pay while helping you feel more fulfilled in your nursing career.

Explore health care with Coursera.

Start a fulfilling and in-demand career as a registered nurse with courses from top universities. You may be interested in the University of Pennsylvania’s Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us or the University of Minnesota’s Integrative Nursing Specialization.

Article sources


IBIS World. "Hospitals in Canada - Market Size (2005–2030)," Accessed June 3, 2024.

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