Online Nursing Programs
in California

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of job openings for registered nurses to increase 15% by 2026. California employs the most registered nurses (RNs), who earn the highest annual mean wage in the country, likely due to the state's large population and several large hospital systems. Many students enroll in nursing schools in California to take advantage of this.

Students have several online nursing degree options. Nursing schools in California offer a variety of nursing degrees including associate in nursing (ADN), bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), RN to bachelor's in nursing (RN-to-BSN), master of science in nursing (MSN), and doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). The following guide helps students learn what to consider as they evaluate nursing schools in California.

How to Become a Nurse in California

Graduates from California nursing schools may pursue a variety of positions in the field. Nursing career paths often require similar education credentials, but diverge regarding licensure, procedures, and costs. Moreover, the type of online nursing degree you choose may affect the positions for which you qualify after graduation. For example, BSN and ADN graduates may qualify to sit for the RN licensing exam, but many employers prefer RNs with bachelor's degrees.

1. Choose the Right Path for You

There are several types of nursing, all of which require different degrees; all types of nursing require at least an ADN. Students should decide whether they want to become an advanced nurse or eventually teach nursing to college students, as these roles require further education. Candidates for nurse anesthetist, psychiatric nurse, flight nurse, and neonatal intensive care nurse positions must have at least a BSN. Nursing students who wish to become a nurse practitioner, nurse educator, or clinical nurse specialist must hold an MSN degree. Higher-level positions may best suit applicants with their DNP degree.

2. Earn Your Nursing Degree

Students considering applying to nursing programs in California must decide whether they want to earn their degree online or in a traditional, campus-based format. Each has its benefits and drawbacks, and holds a particular appeal for specific students. When comparing California nursing schools, students should learn about each program's prerequisites. Some require students to complete clinicals, fellowships, or internships as part of their degree. Different programs may have different durations, so prospective students should make sure they are willing and able to undertake the necessary time commitment to earn their degree.

3. Pass the Licensing Exam and Earn Your License

Several licensing exams exist for graduates with their online nursing degrees. Prospective RNs must take the NCLEX-RN, while the NCLEX-PN is required for prospective practical/vocational nurses. The NCLEX-RN takes six hours to complete and costs $200. The NCLEX-PN takes five hours, and also costs $200. Online nursing graduates who want to become nurse aides must pass the National Nurse Aide Assessment Program, which costs $100 and comprises a two-hour written portion (or oral, if reading in English is difficult) and a 25-minute skills demonstration.

Online nursing degrees provide graduates with most of the information they need to pass their licensing exams, but students should still plan to spend 2-3 months reviewing exam materials. Licensure does not guarantee a nursing job, but it does qualify you for employment in a variety of fields.

Nursing Licensure in California

Graduates from nursing schools in California may become RNs, nurse practitioners, travel nurses, nurse anesthetists, school nurses, psychiatric nurses, nurse educators, flight nurses, clinical nurse specialists, or neonatal intensive care nurses. Each career path has its own education and certification requirements.

RNs in California must pass the National Counseling Licensing Examination (NCLEX-RN). This six-hour, computerized exam assesses a candidate's ability to apply knowledge from their nursing program to real-life nursing scenarios. The NCLEX-RN caters to those who have completed their ADN, BSN, or entry-level master's program in nursing degrees.

Nurses who have completed their licensure requirements and online nursing degree from an RN programs in California can also practice in other states that honor California licensure. Students who want to learn more about RN licensure in California should visit the California Board of Registered Nursing website.

State Requirements by Nursing Type


To become RNs in California, learners must first complete a degree plan that complies with the standards of the California Board of Registered Nursing (BRN). To help learners find reputable, qualified schools, the BRN publishes lists of colleges and universities by degree type. The site also includes a document detailing the known unaccredited institutions offering nursing degrees within the state.

After completing an approved BSN, RN, entry-level master's, or LVN program, graduates must take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Qualifying plans give candidates the skills to pass this test, but learners should also utilize study materials and classes to understand the exam's structure. Candidates must apply to take the exam through the BRN and Pearson VUE. They must also pay a $250 exam fee to Pearson Vue, and $300 to the BRN. Once students receive authorization, they may schedule their exams.

On exam day, learners should bring their IDs. Most take the NCLEX on a computer, but some centers still use pencil and paper. Computer-based tests use Computerized Adaptive Testing software, which requires learners to continue taking their exams until the software knows with 95% certainty how each tester will perform.

Graduates from accredited nursing schools outside of California who have not obtained their licenses must undergo the same process to become RNs. These candidates pay an additional $50 to the BRN. RN licenses in California expire every two birthdays. Candidates must complete 30 qualifying continuing education hours, submit an application, and pay $10 to renew licensure.


Unlike RN license applicants, candidates for the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) credential should reference the California Department of Public Health's Professional Certification Branch (PCB). In-state students should choose from approved school-based programs and facility-based plans on the PCB website. These programs may have online components, but they always have some in-person requirements.

Candidates can complete their licensing exam either at the end of their curriculum or after graduation, depending on their school. The American Red Cross and the National Nurse Assistant Training and Assessment Program (NNAAP) have approved CNA exams. Each exam has a skills portion and a written test. Learners must pass both to obtain licensure, but they may retake one or both parts, if needed. Taking both sections together costs $105 at the Red Cross and $100 through the NNAAP.

The exam's skills portion requires candidates to demonstrate proper hand-washing, the six principles of care, and safety procedures. The written test comprises 70 multiple-choice questions, 60 of which count toward the score. Candidates who complete these steps and pass a background check receive licensure.

CNA licenses in California expire every two years. Professionals must submit renewal applications, which prove they completed at least 48 continuing education hours within the certification period. Currently certified CNAs from other states may receive reciprocity through the PCB with an initial application, live scan fingerprint form, a copy of an active license, proof of two years of medical work, and a form to verify licensure through the previous state.


The California Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians (BVNPT) oversees licensing for LPN (or LVN) candidates. Like other prospective nurses, LPN applicants must complete programs from approved institutions and pass licensing exams. The BVNPT does not endorse any programs with online learning components. Online classes may appeal to working professionals and other busy adults, but the board has not found these programs to meet standards. Prospective learners may choose from the BVNPT's list of approved institutions, many of which offer weekend and night courses.

Learners then take the NCLEX-PN to earn their licenses. New graduates should submit their exam applications, and schedule a test day immediately after receiving authorization to do so.

Students who have already completed online courses may have to retake them in-person to qualify for the exam. Alternatively, candidates can see if their specific programs have approval from other states. In these cases, candidates may apply for licensure through another state. After obtaining out-of-state licensure, these professionals may transfer to California through the endorsement program.

LPN applicants who apply to transfer from other states do not need to take an exam. Instead, these candidates submit several documents to the BVNPT, including copies of their photo IDs, full applications, a small photograph, two fingerprint cards, a high school diploma or GED, and license verification. This process costs $199, and the department may take up to 12 weeks to grant licensure.


The BRN assigns licenses to nurse practitioners (NPs) and other advanced nurses, like midwives and anesthetists. Candidates must first earn their graduate degree from an approved RN-to-MSN or nurse practitioner program. Unlike other nurses, these graduates do not have to take an exam. Instead, they submit two applications.

The first application is the Online Nurse Practitioner Applicant Identification Form, in which applicants demonstrate that they have current, unencumbered RN licensure in California, and that they completed an endorsed NP program. The application also requests information on any prior convictions. Learners who completed NP classes from out-of-state schools can also use this application. However, these candidates must submit additional information about their school and its curriculum.

The second NP application allows professionals to prescribe medication. Applicants complete the Online Nurse Practitioner Furnishing Number Application Identification Form. Candidates prove that they took advanced pharmacology in the past five years. NPs from other states who already have permission to prescribe medicine may show a copy of that credential instead. Candidates should submit both applications at the same time.

Licensed NPs from other states use the endorsement application. These applicants provide their Social Security number, a passport-style photo, fingerprints, license verification, transcripts from prior graduate programs, and an explanation of any criminal history. Endorsement applicants must pay $350 for the application, $100 for the optional temporary license, and $49 for the fingerprint card.

Career Outlook for Nurses in California

Graduates from online RN programs in California qualify to become RNs, while those from online BSN or RN-to-BSN programs are eligible for high-level careers as nurse anesthetists or nurse educators. Graduates from online MSN programs in California qualify for even higher-level jobs, such as nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist.

Being an RN is a popular career choice in California, which employs more RNs and pays them a higher annual mean wage than any other state. High employment and lucrative salaries compel students to attend California nursing schools and pursue careers as RNs in the state.

Employment Data for RNs in California

The BLS reports that RNs in the United States earn a mean salary of $70,000. The average salary for RNs in California, however, is $102,700 -- the highest average RN salary in the country. In fact, the 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas for nurses in the country are all in California. For example, RNs in the San Francisco Bay Area earn $139,700 each year on average. The state also employs the most nurses, with 282,290 RNs as of May 2017. The BLS projects U.S. demand for nurses to grow by 15% over the next 10 years, making California an excellent place to become a nurse.

Across the United States, nurses working for pharmaceutical companies earn the highest wages, making about $20,000 more than the average rate each year. However, few RN positions exist in that field. Of the most common nursing employers, government agencies pay the highest salaries, which stand at about $5,000 above average. Both public and private hospitals give their RNs above-average wages, as well. As the nursing market grows, the BLS projects many new jobs to open in long-term care and outpatient procedure facilities.

Employment Data for CNAs in California

Across the country, the average CNA makes $27,510 per year. These professionals make significantly more money in California, which pays CNAs a mean salary of $33,560. Most of these professionals work for skilled nursing facilities, hospitals, retirement communities, home health service providers, and temporary employment agencies. Of these employers, hospitals and temp agencies pay the most. Specifically, CNAs in government facilities earn $5,000 more than average each year.

The BLS projects national demand for CNAs to grow by 11% over the next decade. Unfortunately, these nurses earn relatively low pay for difficult work. CNAs often use their position as a stepping stone to becoming an RN, and a way to earn some income during nursing school. Students hoping to earn a decent CNA income may opt to work in a high-paying area, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Salinas, San Jose, Yuba City, or Sacramento. These all rank among the highest-paying metropolitan areas in the country for CNAs.

Employment Data for NPs in California

Advanced nurses, including NPs, earn an average of $110,930 per year in the U.S. In California, NPs earn about $126,770 annually. NPs in California who want to earn more than the state's average can go to the San Francisco metropolitan area, where the average NP earns $151,660 annually. Other high-paying areas include San Jose ($141,930), Fairfield ($138,180), and Madera ($135,070).

An NP's specialty may also affect their salary potential. Payscale reports that NPs in family medicine make $90,983 per year on average, plus $18,240 in additional compensation, including bonuses and profit sharing. This totals $109,223, just under the average total income for NPs.

The BLS projects the need for NPs to grow by 36% over the next decade, about five times the average growth rate for all careers. This growth would mean the nation needs 56,100 more NPs to meet projected demand. Since California employs more NPs than any other state, many of these new professionals end up there.

Biggest Hospitals in California

California is home to several large hospitals, employing thousands of medical professionals. Online nursing graduates may apply to one of these facilities to secure rewarding, well-compensated employment. Current nursing students in California might look to these institutions for fellowship or internship opportunities, which their programs may require.

  • University of California San Francisco Medical Center : This short-term, acute care, nonprofit hospital located in San Francisco was rated as the best hospital in California by U.S. News & World Report in 2017. It has 782 beds and 8,000 employees, and was ranked 52 of the top 500 employers in the U.S. by Forbes.
  • Community Regional Medical Center : Located in Fresno, Community Regional Medical Center staffs more than 8,400 professionals, and has 909 licensed beds. This teaching hospital has one of the largest emergency rooms in the state. Employees qualify to participate in a tax-sheltered annuity plan, and receive medical, dental, vision, and life insurance coverage.
  • Cedars-Sinai Medical Center : Cedars-Sinai, a nonprofit teaching and research hospital in Los Angeles, has more than 1,500 research projects in progress. Employees qualify for tuition reimbursement for classes that enhance their expertise and certifications. Cedars-Sinai serves more than 1 million patients each year, and employs over 10,000 professionals.

Additional Nursing Resources in California

  • California Nurses Association: CNA, a labor union of RNs, sponsors legislation to protect caregivers and provide increased funding for education at California nursing schools. It negotiates agreements on behalf of its members, and advocates for safe and fair labor practices for working nurses.

  • Association of California Nurse Leaders: The ACNL serves nursing executives and RNs working in leadership roles. It provides members with opportunities to continue education, plus online resources such as job boards and educational materials. Members may network with each other and share best practices and experience benefits.

  • American Psychiatric Nurses Association California Chapter: The APNA provides continuing education resources for mental health nursing, and advocates for legislation to improve standards and educational opportunities for nurses in the mental health field. It also seeks to improve delivery of mental healthcare statewide.

  • California Nursing Students' Association: The CNSA works to aid students in transitioning from nursing educational programs to their field or career of choice. It offers scholarships, career advice, and networking opportunities. Members may benefit from CNSA's advocacy efforts, mentorship, and activism. Student members have the opportunity to enhance their education by participating in breakout sessions, which supplement nursing program curriculum.

  • Association of Public Health Nurses: The APHN advocates for the education and professional development of nurses working in public health. It provides continuing education webinars, career counseling, and job listings. APHN prides itself on facilitating networking and the exchange of ideas among public health nurses.

  • California Emergency Nurses Association: The CENA advocates for issues affecting the practice of emergency nursing care. The association provides continuing education opportunities, and promotes the ENA code of ethics for emergency nurses. It offers scholarships to students pursuing a specialty in emergency nursing, and works to generate interest in education in emergency nursing and related fields.

Accredited Online Nursing Programs in California

Students interested in an online nursing degree need to know which nursing schools in California provide programs in the field they wish to pursue. The following database includes all accredited ADN , BSN, RN to BSN , MSN , and DNP online programs in the state of California.

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