How to Become a Nurse in California

portrait of Staff Writers
Staff Writers
Read Full Bio

Contributing Writer

The staff writers for BestColleges collaborate to deliver unique, student-driven content on topics such as career development, college life, and college planning....
Updated on April 2, 2024
Learn more about our editorial process is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

Take our quiz and we'll do the homework for you! Compare your school matches and apply to your top choice today.

Nursing attracts many qualified professionals because it pays well and enjoys high demand due to the nationwide shortage of nurses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S. is projected to grow by 15% between 2016 and 2026 -- more than twice the national average growth rate for all occupations. Many people choose to pursue careers in nursing in California because of the state's strong employment and salary prospects. According to California's Employment Development Department, the number of RNs in California will increase by 16.2% between 2016 and 2026 -- faster than the national average.

The nursing profession in California will likely continue to grow at an above-average rate for the foreseeable future. Prospective nurses can start their careers in California by earning an associate degree in nursing, but they can access higher wages and more responsibilities with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), master of science in nursing (MSN), or doctorate in nursing from an accredited California school. Read on to better understand what California RNs can expect in terms of salaries, specialization options, and access to in-state professional organizations.

Career Outlook for Nurses in California

Nurses in California face optimistic prospects in terms of their salary and employability. According to the BLS, the state pays RNs the highest mean annual wage, exceeding $100,000. It is also home to the largest number of RNs in the nation. The following sections explore the advantages of a California-based nursing career, including especially lucrative pay for those in major metropolitan areas and the overall high demand and pay for specialized nurses, such as nurse anesthetists.

  Employment Annual Median Wage
California 282,290 $102,700
United States 2,955,200 $73,550

Source: BLS

Nursing Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Salaries for Nurses in California

Those interested in becoming nurses in California should consider working in the state's larger metropolitan areas, where nurses make the nation's highest mean annual wages. According to the BLS, the highest-paying metropolitan area for nurses in California is the Redwood City/South San Francisco area, where more than 14,000 RNs earn a mean annual salary of almost $140,000. Most of the highest-paying areas concentrate around the Bay Area, where nurses earn annual wages exceeding $110,000.

These numbers reflect the high cost of living found in California's larger metropolitan areas, such as the Bay Area and Napa County, along with the high demand for RNs statewide.

Top Paying Metropolitan Areas for Nurses in California
Area Name Employment Annual Mean Wage
San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco 14,170 $139,700
Salinas 2,470 $129,940
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara 15,990 $129,140
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward 35,480 $124,970
Santa Cruz-Watsonville 1,520 $124,470
Vallejo-Fairfield 3,170 $119,830
Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley 19,550 $116,660
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade 18,240 $116,170
Napa 1,430 $113,740
Santa Rosa 3,170 $111,530

Source: BLS

Specialties for California Nurses

After obtaining your degree and RN licensure, you may pursue advanced practice certification, which qualifies you to work in a specialized nursing field. California officially recognizes six forms of such certification: nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist, psychiatric nurse, public health nurse, and nurse-midwife.

Candidates for specialized nursing fields may obtain certification through national credentialing bodies, such as the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). In California, these professionals gain state certification after earning national certification. They must also hold a master's degree and hold acceptable clinical experience or prove clinical competency through documentation or an evaluation from a licensed physician and advanced practice nurse (APN).

Specialized certification leads to higher earnings, more professional responsibilities, and a better career outlook for nurses in California. For instance, according to the BLS, nurse practitioners can anticipate 36% growth in employment nationally between 2016 and 2026 . As of 2017, California employed the most nurse practitioners of any state -- 13,570 -- and paid them the nation's highest mean annual wage for the profession: $126,770. Additionally, nurses interested in pursuing less traditional careers can consider working as travel nurses or remote nurses.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners coordinate care with physicians, diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medicine, and sometimes even act as primary care providers. Their graduate-level medical education grants them many responsibilities typically reserved for physicians.

Median Salary in Los Angeles: $102,510

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists administer anesthesia to patients, working in teams of specialists overseen by anesthesiologists or surgeons. They also provide pain management and emergency management services, such as endotracheal intubation.

Median Salary in Los Angeles: $42,000

Emergency Room Nurse

These nurses work in emergency rooms, using their advanced medical training to assess patients' conditions. They stabilize and monitor patients before and after physicians see them.

Median Salary in Los Angeles: $71,855

Neonatal Nurse

Neonatal nurses address the needs of newborns suffering from birth defects, prematurity, and congenital cardiac issues and malformations. They may work in the neonatal intensive care units at hospitals.

Median Salary in Los Angeles: $88,699

Psychiatric Nurse

Psychiatric nurses interact with, evaluate, provide therapy to, and administer medication for patients with mental and emotional disorders in institutional settings. They often work in psychiatric care units in hospitals and inpatient clinics.

Median Salary in Los Angeles: $61,042

Certified Nurse Midwife

Certified nurse midwives help ensure the safe, natural delivery of babies, providing holistic prenatal and postpartum care to women. They sometimes work in hospitals, but they may also run their own private practices.

Median Salary in Los Angeles: $91,528

Nursing Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

How to Become a Nurse in California

  • Check

    Earn a Degree

    Prospective nurses must first earn a degree from an accredited nursing program. To obtain licensure and qualify for employment, nurses must hold at least an associate degree in nursing. However, earning a BSN in California can help candidates stand out against the competition, and many hospitals and other clinical employers only consider applications from candidates who hold bachelor's degrees in nursing. Most RNs who start out with an associate in nursing return to school to secure a bachelor's.

    An MSN qualifies candidates for nurse practitioner certification, and nurses aspiring to establish private practice may earn a doctor of nursing practice. These APNs often work in specialized fields, such as midwifery.

    Before selecting a nursing program, make sure it holds AANP accreditation. Nursing degrees from unaccredited schools may not meet the standards needed to obtain initial licensure or licensure through endorsement if you should move out of state.

  • Check

    Obtain Nursing License

    To obtain nursing licensure, you must graduate from an AANP-accredited, state-approved nursing program at the associate level or higher. You can then apply online or by mail for initial licensure. This application entails a fee of $300 for California graduates, $350 for out-of-state graduates, and $750 for international graduates. First-time candidates for licensure can pay an additional $100 for an interim permit to practice while they await their National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) results.

    Before taking the NCLEX for RNs, candidates must submit fingerprints for a criminal background check. California residents submit fingerprints through the Live Scan process, while out-of state candidates submit them with a fingerprint card. The exam itself costs $200. Candidates take the test -- administered via computer year round -- at state board-approved testing centers.

    If you want to become an advanced practice specialized nurse in California, you must seek national certification before applying for state certification. Candidates must submit documentation with their state certification application, but exact requirements vary depending on the specialization. State certification applications incur a $75 fee for all specializations recognized by the California board, with the exception of state certification for psychiatric nurses, which does not entail an extra fee.

  • Check

    Maintain and Renew Certification

    Your initial license remains valid for up to two years, expiring on your birthday every other year. During this time, you must accumulate at least 30 hours of continuing education and renew your license at least three months before expiration. Expect to pay a $190 renewal fee plus a $10 RN education fund fee. You must also provide a full set of fingerprints. California waives renewal requirements for active military personnel.

Resources for Nurses in California

Once you earn California RN licensure, you should consider joining a professional nursing organization to expand your professional network. Additionally, state government resources help California nurses stay current with the exact requirements needed to maintain licensure. Along with the resources listed below, this link can provide you with more ideas on where to find assistance.

Top RN-to-BSN Programs in California

Many colleges offer RN-to-BSN programs, which emphasize flexibility and affordability to meet different learners' needs. Working professionals often opt for online programs to accommodate their schedules, and some learners pursue accelerated programs to earn their degrees more quickly. The following ranking compiles the top accredited RN-to-BSN programs in California.

  1. California State University-Long Beach

    Long Beach, CA

    California State University Long Beach (CSULB) is located on more than 320 acres just three miles from the Pacific Ocean. With more than 37,000 students, CSULB offers undergraduate and graduate students academic programs in 84 buildings, including specialized facilities for nursing.

    The bachelor's in nursing (BSN) program at CSULB comprises 120 credits to prepare students for careers as professional nurses. Learners can enter the program as basic or registered nurse students. Registered nurse student applicants must hold or be eligible for a current nursing license in California and have a minimum 2.75 GPA in previous nursing coursework.

    Core coursework includes community health nursing, health assessment, and nursing research. Learners complete senior concentrations in critical care, maternal child health, or selected populations. All students receive a recommendation for certification as a public health nurse in the state of California upon graduation.

  2. California State University-Channel Islands

    Camarillo, CA

    Located in Camarillo and founded in 2002, California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) offers undergraduate and graduate programs to over 7,000 learners. As the youngest school in the CSU system, CSUCI offers integrated classes and degrees that provide real-world experiences and service learning opportunities.

    CSUCI offers two cohort-based bachelor's in nursing programs. The ADN-to-BSN degree is a bridge program for nurses enrolled in the first year of an ADN degree. CSUCI's RN-to-BSN curriculum, designed for licensed RNs or learners in their final semester of an ADN, offers students a shorter pathway to the NCLEX exam. Students can enroll in the RN-to-BSN program full or part time.

    The ADN-to-BSN and the RN-to-BSN degrees train learners to meet the needs of patients while offering insights into social, ethical, and practical perspectives on nursing. Students complete 120 credits to prepare for careers as public health, home health, or extended care nurses. Learners also gain the knowledge and skills to work in nurse education, nurse management, and pursue graduate study.

  3. Sonoma State University

    Rohnert Park, CA

    Sonoma State University (SSU) in Rohnert Park, California, accepts qualified applicants from within its service area while hosting large populations of freshmen and transfer students from outside the North Bay portion of the state. More than 30% of the student body lives on campus, making SSU a leader in residential college education within the CSU system.

    SSU's bachelor's in nursing provides learners two tracks for degree completion. The post-licensure degree allows students enrolled in associate degrees in nursing to apply to the BSN program during the first semester of their ADN. Students take advanced coursework during summer terms after their first and second years of the ADN before finishing a bachelor's degree at SSU. SSU partners with five community colleges in California for this degree. The pre-licensure program gives learners without a nursing background access to four years of coursework, including two years of pre-nursing and general education classes.

    Applicants to SSU's nursing programs must apply to SSU and the Department of Nursing. Students can transfer up to 70 hours towards a nursing degree, although they must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA in previous college coursework.

  4. California State University-Sacramento

    Sacramento, CA

    Commonly known as Sacramento State, the California State University - Sacramento campus boasts more than 3,500 trees to shade students as they traverse the urban setting. Sacramento State offers undergraduate and graduate degrees to more than 29,000 learners, with two bachelor's in nursing programs.

    Sacramento State's traditional BSN includes 120 hours of comprehensive coursework to train students without a nursing background. The RN-to-BSN program allows practicing nurses with associate degrees to complete their degree while preparing for a certificate in public health nursing in California. Sacramento State's RN-to-BSN degree comprises 120 credits, including required courses like community health nursing, foundations of evidence-based nursing, and foundations of nursing leadership and management. Learners must take 30 credit hours in residence on Sacramento State's campus.

    Practicing RNs receive priority admission to Sacramento State's RN-to-BSN program. Applicants must hold a cumulative 2.6 GPA or higher from the last 60 credits of transferable coursework, hold a valid California nursing license, and reside in the state of California.

  5. Concordia University-Irvine

    Irvine, CA

    Steeped in Christian tradition, Concordia University Irvine (CUI) traces its origins to the mission of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. As one of the Concordia University System schools, CUI provides academic programming to more than 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

    The RN-to-BSN program at CUI includes online and hybrid degrees. Working nurses and students enrolled in associate degrees in nursing complete 40 credits in 1-2 years. Through dual enrollment, learners can take up to nine credits of BSN coursework after completing the second semester of ADN study. Core courses include health assessment, theories and foundations of nursing practice, nursing research, and bioethics in healthcare. Learners also complete public health theory and public health clinical classes to prepare for public health nursing certification in California.

    The nursing program at CUI offers learners access to nursing simulation and skill labs to gain hands-on experience in a healthcare setting. Students also complete coursework on the New Testament and foundations of Christian theology, applying Christian ideals to nursing practice.

  6. San Diego State University

    San Diego, CA

    Founded in 1897, San Diego State University (SDSU) is the oldest institution of higher learning in San Diego. Initially hosting fewer than 20 students, SDSU now enrolls more than 36,000 learners.

    SDSU's RN-to-BSN program includes 26 credits of nursing coursework and nine general education credits that students can complete in one year. Designed for learners with a nursing background, the RN-to-BSN curriculum provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to advance to leadership positions in the field. Nursing classes include nursing research, nursing professionalism, health assessment and promotion, and acute care of critical care patients. Learners also complete clinical hours at an assigned site.

    Applicants to SDSU's RN-to-BSN program must hold a minimum GPA of 3.0, an associate degree or diploma in nursing, and a current California nursing license. All learners must enroll in six credit hours during their first semester of the program at SDSU.

  7. California State University-Chico

    Chico, CA

    Founded in 1887, California State University - Chico is the second oldest institution of higher learning in the California State University system. The school offers more than 100 majors and program options, including basic bachelor's in nursing and RN-to-BSN degrees.

    The schools basic BSN prepares students without a nursing background for careers in nursing. The RN-to-BSN degree, offered online, allows practicing nurses and students enrolled in associate degrees in nursing to complete their degree in 15 months. Learners can transfer up to 70 credits into the program and must complete prerequisite nursing courses with C grades or higher. Core classes include nursing informatics, nursing research, and leadership in nursing.

    Approximately 40 students gain admission to the RN-to-BSN program each year. The admission point system gives priority to California veterans, graduates of one of SDSU's community college partners, practicing nurses and residents in underrepresented counties, and learners with high GPAs.

  8. California State University-Stanislaus

    Turlock, CA

    California State University - Stanislaus, more commonly referred to as Stanislaus State, offers academic programs from its Turlock and Stockton campuses. Stanislaus State provides more than 10,000 students 43 undergraduate majors, 15 graduate degrees, seven credential programs, and one doctoral degree.

    Stanislaus State offers several bachelor's in nursing degrees. The pre-licensure program gives learners an opportunity to earn their first degree while the advanced second bachelor's in nursing program curriculum allows learners with a degree in a discipline other than nursing to complete a nursing degree in as few as 17 months.

    The RN-to-BSN degree at Stanislaus State, available on campus and online, offers practicing nurses the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills needed to advance their careers. The degree includes sequential coursework in a cohort model. Full-time students complete the on-campus program in three semesters while online learners can finish the program in one year.

  9. Simpson University

    Redding, CA

    Simpson University in Redding, California, affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, offers Christian-based academic programs to more than 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Simpson University nursing programs include a pre-licensure bachelor's degree in nursing and an RN-to-BSN degree.

    Students can complete the pre-licensure BSN at Simpson University in four years while the RN-to-BSN program allows practicing nurses to complete classes online or on-campus in one year. The RN-to-BSN degree includes coursework in statistics, nursing research, nurse leadership, and health teaching. Learners may take additional coursework in public health nursing to prepare for a certificate in public health nursing in California.

    Applicants to the pre-licensure program must hold a GPA of 3.0 or above in prerequisite coursework for admission. Students applying to the RN-to-BSN program must hold a minimum 2.5 GPA in all transfer coursework. Students can transfer up to 72 credits towards the program.

  10. California State University-San Bernardino

    San Bernardino, CA

    California State University - San Bernardino (CSUSB) provides more than 70 undergraduate and graduate programs to over 20,000 students annually. Founded in 1960 and opened five years later, CSUSB offers two bachelor's in nursing degrees -- one for traditional learners and one for practicing registered nurses.

    The traditional BSN at CSUSB requires 180 credits of coursework to prepare students for the NCLEX-RN exam. The RN-to-BSN degree at CSUSB offers licensed nurses in California a hybrid program to build career competencies and advance their nursing careers. Students complete online and on-campus coursework before participating in two clinical rotations at community or hospice agency locations. Core nursing classes include health assessment, nurse leadership, and pathophysiology and pharmacology.

    Students can apply to CSUSB for pre-nursing admission as they complete coursework to prepare for the traditional BSN. Pre-nursing students must earn a GPA of 3.0 or higher in prerequisite coursework. Applicants to CSUSB's RN-to-BSN program must hold a valid California nursing license and complete prerequisite coursework with a minimum 2.0 GPA. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.