How to Become a Family Nurse Practitioner

Becoming a family nurse practitioner can be a rewarding way to care for patients in a more independent environment. Learn the steps to become one.

portrait of Laura Bengs
by Laura Bengs

Published August 15, 2022

Reviewed by Elizabeth M. Clarke, MSN, FNP, RN, MSSW

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How to Become a Family Nurse Practitioner
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If you're compassionate, have good critical thinking skills, and are a good communicator, you may consider pursuing a career as a family nurse practitioner. A family nurse practitioner provides care to patients, much like a doctor would. Often working in primary care clinics, nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat patients, providing education and counseling as well.

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) typically begin with a nursing degree, then obtain additional education, training, and clinical hours. Yet, as with any advanced degree, your initial investment could be worth it in the long run.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Family Nurse Practitioner Do?

FNPs are often nurses looking to make a career change and take on more autonomy and responsibility. FNPs begin as registered nurses, then pursue a graduate degree that requires additional clinical hours.

Upon graduation, an FNP will need to pass either the American Nurses Credentialing Center FNP certification exam or the American Association of Nurse Practitioners' certification exam to become certified.

Once you are a certified FNP, you'll be able to take on more responsibilities than a traditional nurse. An FNP can diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medications, provide preventive care, order tests, and make referrals, among other responsibilities.

Family Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

  • Perform routine care: Family nurse practitioners can conduct routine physicals and collaboratively work with the patient to develop plans for preventative care.
  • Treat conditions: Family nurse practitioners are able to assess and diagnose illnesses and conditions (either temporary or chronic), developing and carrying out treatment care plans for patients.
  • Engage with other medical entities: Family nurse practitioners are able to order and interpret lab results, prescribe medications needed for treatment, assist in minor surgeries, and make referrals if needed.

Family Nurse Practitioner Not for You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Family Nurse Practitioner?

To become a nurse practitioner, you may need to invest some additional time and money to obtain the training and credentials necessary for certification. It may take 6-10 years to become a family nurse practitioner, depending on where in the process you are starting.

Step 1: Earn a Nursing Diploma, ADN or BSN

The first step you'll need to complete is obtaining a nursing degree from an accredited institution.

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) will typically take about two years to complete, whereas a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) often takes about four years to complete. You can typically expect to spend anywhere from $6,000-$20,000 for an ADN program and $40,000-$200,000 for a BSN program.

Both programs can prepare you with the skills needed for the workplace and help you earn the degree needed to become a family nurse practitioner. So, when choosing a major, think about your future goals and how that influences what career advice to follow.

Step 2: Obtain RN Licensure

After you graduate from your program, you'll need to apply for a registered nurse (RN) license, which is a requirement to become a family nurse practitioner.

To find application information, you can visit the website of the licensing agency in the state you plan to be practicing in. The license requirements may vary slightly by state, but you'll generally need to pay a credentialing fee (around $75) and register for the NCLEX, an exam that costs around $200 for candidates seeking U.S. licensure.

Step 3: Pass the NCLEX

To become a family nurse practitioner, you will need to pass the NCLEX. This exam focuses on four areas: providing a safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

Studying can ensure that you're well prepared for the exam. Consider using resources like websites, books, and study courses to prepare.

The exam is administered in a digital variable question format, meaning the computer adapts to your performance. In the end, you could answer anywhere from 74-145 questions. You'll have five hours to complete it.

NCLEX uses a pass-fail scoring system, so to pass, you need to answer questions correctly at least 50% of the time.

Step 4: Earn Your MSN

A master of science in nursing (MSN) degree is a requirement to become a family nurse practitioner. There are many different specializations within an MSN, but you'll likely want to specialize in a nurse practitioner (NP) program if you're interested in becoming a family nurse practitioner.

A master's degree can typically cost anywhere from $15,000 per year for in-state tuition to over $30,000 for out-of-state or private tuition. Looking for a more affordable option? Consider attending an online program, which may cost less, or explore alternate options.

In weighing whether to go to graduate school or whether to accrue debt to go to grad school, consider your earning potential. Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners — all potential careers for someone with an MSN — earned a median annual wage of $123,780 as of May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Step 5: Apply for Certification

Once you have passed your national certification board exams, you'll apply for an initial NP licensure through a licensing board or professional organization in the state you will practice in.

As part of your application, you'll submit personal information, scores for your examination, transcripts to verify education, and a fee (around $75). Processing time for your certification can vary, but once you've submitted your application, many organizations will provide a method for tracking your application.

Depending on the state, the NP may be required to have a collaborative practice agreement with a supervising physician to obtain licensure.

Step 6: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

After obtaining your initial license, you'll need to maintain your license by completing the continuing education requirements of your licensing board. This can be done through additional coursework or training opportunities.

Some family nurse practitioners choose to pursue a doctor of nursing practice or train in a specific speciality. Some common nurse practitioner specialties include:

  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner
  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner
  • Women's health nurse practitioner
  • Emergency nurse practitioner

What to Know Before Becoming a Family Nurse Practitioner

Accreditation

In order to apply for a nurse practitioner license, you will need to have a degree from an institution that holds national certification, often called an accreditation. Different organizations award accreditation, but they have a common goal: to make sure the institution is meeting standards to provide a high-quality education for students. (Make sure to look into accreditation for online schools, too.)

Cost

Before diving in, it can be helpful to make sure you understand the true cost of your program, including hidden costs like application fees and testing fees. Costs can vary depending where you study (and influence the difference in costs for an online program). But in addition to your undergraduate degree and graduate degree, you'll want to figure in costs for licensing, the examination, and additional certifications you may need.

Salary

According to the BLS nurse practitioners earn a mean annual wage of $118,040, as of May 2021. Salaries can vary, depending on location (an NP in California, for example, earns a mean annual wage of $151,830), experience, speciality, and other factors. Additional degrees and training could increase this earning potential.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Family Nurse Practitioner

Is a nurse practitioner higher than a PA?

Both a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant (PA) are medical professionals with an advanced degree, but not a medical doctor degree. While they have different graduate degrees, the difference is not that one is higher than the other, it is in their approach to diagnosing and treating conditions.

Physician assistants will look at the body's pathology for the cause of the problem and develop a solution, whereas nurse practitioners will frame diagnosis and treatment in a way that focuses on additional factors that influence the patient's life.

Another important distinction: PAs always have to be supervised by a physician. They cannot practice independently. NPs, depending on the state, can practice independently and/or have full practice authority.

NPs use a holistic approach. They typically have to have had RN clinical experience, whereas a PA can go directly to their program without a prior medical or nursing background required.

What is the fastest way to become a family nurse practitioner?

An accelerated BSN RN program tends to be one of the quicker ways. It is an option for those who have a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field. Typically, these accelerated programs are 12-15 months in duration. It would significantly shorten the amount of time it takes to then go on and obtain an MSN FNP since the RN part only takes about 12 months.

What is the difference between FNP and NP?

Both an FNP and an NP are nurse practitioners. An FNP is a family nurse practitioner: a nurse practitioner who specializes in family medicine and can treat patients at a range of ages.

Nurse practitioners can pursue other specialities that can narrow their focus to a specific type of medicine or a certain age group, such as pediatrics or geriatrics. An FNP and NP generally will carry out the same duties such as diagnosing and treating patients. However, the specific scope of those duties may vary by speciality.

Can I become a family nurse practitioner with an online degree?

In short, yes. There are online MSN programs that will allow you to become a family nurse practitioner through online studies. However, family nurse practitioner programs will typically require you to complete clinical hours that need to be done in person.

So while you'll be able to complete much of the classwork online, you'll likely need to make arrangements to be able to complete clinical hours in person. Because of the flexible nature of an online program, you may be able to earn your degree in more or less time than an in-person program, depending on your approach.

How much money can I make as a family nurse practitioner?

Nurse practitioners earn a mean annual wage of $118,040, as of May 2021, according to the BLS. This number can vary by speciality, where you live, where you practice, and other factors.

For example, in California, a nurse practitioner earns a mean wage of $151,830 annually. In Tennessee, a nurse practitioner earns an annual mean wage of $95,120.

According to the BLS, a nurse practitioner in a physician's office earns a mean annual wage of $114,870, and a nurse practitioner in a psychiatric and substance misuse hospital earns a median wage of $131,830 annually. Weighing all of these factors can be important when deciding where you want to practice.

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