Nurse walking through a hospital corridor

Nurses work hard to earn their degrees, pass the NCLEX and become registered or practical nurses in their state. What happens if you want to relocate? Usually, this requires registering again with your new state’s nursing board. But if you have a compact nursing license (CNL), you can work in 25 states in the U.S. without issue.

Compact nursing licenses are shared by 39 US states under the Nursing Licensure Compact (NLC), which has since expanded to the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact (eNLC). The eNLC increased standards and regulations for nurses, including background checks, to better ensure patient safety and quality of care. 

What are compact nursing states?

Compact nursing states allow RNs and PNs with unencumbered compact nursing licenses to practice freely without obtaining a new license for each state. If you want to work as a travel nurse, being able to move readily from one state to another is crucial to your job. 

Initially, the Nursing Licensure Compact consisted of 25 states. The agreement allowed multistate nurses to work in different states using a compact nurse license issued by their home state. Then, in 2018, the eNLC improved the original agreement, and over ten states have since joined the Compact. 

State breakdown of CNL graphic

What states and US territories are compact nursing states (eNLC)?

As of 2022, over half of America is part of the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact. If you earn your compact nursing license, you can work as an RN in 39 states and two territories:

  • Alabama

  • Arizona

  • Arkansas

  • Colorado

  • Delaware

  • Florida

  • Georgia

  • Guam (RNs with unencumbered, multi-state licenses can practice here under the NLC)

  • Idaho

  • Indiana

  • Iowa

  • Kansas

  • Louisiana

  • Maine

  • Maryland

  • Mississippi

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • Nebraska

  • New Hampshire

  • New Jersey

  • New Mexico

  • North Carolina

  • North Dakota

  • Ohio (Implementation starts January 1, 2023)

  • Oklahoma

  • Pennsylvania (Awaiting implementation)

  • South Carolina

  • South Dakota

  • Tennessee

  • Texas

  • Utah

  • Vermont

  • Virginia

  • West Virginia

  • Virgin Islands (Awaiting implementation)

  • Wisconsin

  • Wyoming

You can view the most up-to-date information on the Nurse Licensure Compact on the NCSBN official website.

Where can I work with a multistate nursing license?

Compact nursing is possible in any of the eNLC states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam. By earning your compact nursing license, you can start working as a travel nurse, disaster relief nurse or provide telehealth nursing to patients in multiple states. 

The primary reason nurses seek compact licensure is the flexibility of practicing as an RN without having to go through the licensing process multiple times.

Without the NLC, nurses would have to apply for new licenses whenever they wanted to treat patients in a different state. With a compact license, you only need to apply for one compact nurse license in your home state. Then, you can work as a nurse in any of the states that have been implemented into the eNLC.

How to apply for a compact nurse license in five steps

You can get your CNL in 5 steps, starting with earning a degree from a reputable nursing school. Here is an overview of the entire process. If you are already a registered nurse, getting your multistate nurse license could be as simple as applying through your state’s board. 

1. Earn a nursing degree from an accredited program

Graduating from an accredited nursing program is part of the eNLC uniform licensure requirements. The U.S. has two nursing school accreditation agencies: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). 

Whether you earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree to start your career, make sure the school is accredited by the CCNE or ACEN. Otherwise, you won’t be able to use your degree to qualify for the NCLEX or a state license. 

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN exam

After nursing school, every aspiring RN or PN has to pass the NCLEX exam. The NCLEX exams are specialized test that evaluates your knowledge in patient care, nursing practices, and medical knowledge. 

The adaptive exam uses a pass-fail grading system. Once you’ve passed, you can move on to becoming a fully registered nurse where you live.

3. Register as a nurse with your state’s nursing board

NCLEX results are sent to your state’s board of nursing. After the results are released, you can continue the nurse license application process. Each state has its own requirements, including submitting fingerprints and passing a criminal background check.

4. Make sure you meet the eNLC requirements

There are 11 uniform standards for nurses under the eNLC:

  1. You must meet all the requirements for standard nurse licensure in your state

  2. You must have a degree from an accredited program or have a degree from an approved international program that has been authorized by the accrediting body in the country

  3. If you aren’t a native English speaker, or your degree is from a non-English program, you must pass an English proficiency test 

  4. You must have passed the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN exam 

  5. You have to be eligible for a valid, unencumbered nurse’s license

  6. You must pass a federal-based criminal background check

  7. You cannot have any state or federal criminal convictions

  8. You cannot have any nursing misdemeanors or convictions

  9. You cannot be a current participant in an alternative-to-discipline program 

  10. You must disclose whether you are currently participating in an alternative-to-discipline program

  11. You must have a valid U.S. Social Security Number

Once you are sure you meet these 11 criteria, you can move forward with your multistate license application. 

5. Apply for a compact license in your state

Applying for your compact nursing license is straightforward, so long as you meet the criteria and live in a compact state. Access your state nursing board’s website, and follow their instructions for applying for a multistate license. Once you’re approved, you will be able to freely practice nursing as an RN or practical nurse in eNLC states. 

You can sign up for free updates through the Nursys e-Notify system to get updates about any changes to the eNLC.

What if I live in a non-compact state? 

Nurses from non-compact states must apply for single-state licenses wherever they want to work. They could also consider relocating to a compact state, then applying for their multistate license.

You can only hold one compact license, but nurses can hold multiple single-state licenses. 

History of compact nursing licenses

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing created the NLC in 2000 to make nursing licensure easier across the country. Before the compact, nurses could not hold multistate licenses; any nurse that wanted to work across state borders had to apply for single-state licenses.

Ultimately, the need to apply for individual state licenses complicated travel nursing and disaster relief when it was needed most. Implementing a multistate, national nursing license simplified the process and made it easier for patients to get care. 

However, there were concerns about the multistate program, especially regarding nurses’ backgrounds, work histories, and patient confidentiality. As a result, only 25 states had joined the NLC by 2015. 

In 2018, the NCSBN improved the NLC. The enhanced compact instituted 11 uniform licensing standards that helped more states feel confident about joining the agreement. 

As of 2022, there are 39 participating states, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam. Several of the states have successfully passed laws and are awaiting implementation in 2023. 

What is the difference between the eNLC and NLC?

The eNLC is the updated version of the original Nursing Licensure Compact from 2000. It is an enhanced version that allows registered nurses/practical nurses (or LVNs) to work in multiple states using one valid multistate license. 

Today, the eNLC has been around long enough to no longer require the “e” before its title. It’s simply known as the NLC and regulates the licensing criteria for nurses who want to work across state borders in compact states. 

Benefits of NLC states

NLC licenses remove barriers for nurses who want to work with patients across state borders. This includes nurses who frequently relocate as travel nurses, disaster relief nurses, and nurses who work in telehealth.

With the rise of telemedicine, NLC states make it easier for a wide range of patients in various locations to receive quality care. Nurses from major cities can connect digitally with patients from rural America, where access to medical care is often limited. They can also consult with patients who may not be able to afford traditional health services or those who do not have transportation.

Becoming an NLC state makes it easier for healthcare facilities to fill vacancies, especially during times of crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel nursing made it possible for nurses around the U.S. to save millions of lives thanks to their NLC licenses.

Ultimately, NLC states make it easier for nurses to care for patients wherever they are. It expands care to people across borders. This can be especially impactful in historically underserved communities and states with major staff shortages. 

FAQs about compact nursing licenses

What states are in the compact? 

As of November 2022, 39 states (including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam) accept multistate licenses. If you live in a compact state, you can apply for your compact license and start practicing in any state that belongs to the compact. 

Which state is easiest to get an RN license?

Most states take anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks to process a nursing license. Some states grant temporary nursing licenses, and there may be paths for expedited licensure in some cases. 

Hawaii, Louisiana, Missouri, and South Carolina have same-day temporary licenses for those who meet the requirements. Arizona has a 48-hour emergency temporary nursing license available for nurses verified to work within seven days.

Can I get a compact nursing license if I live in California?

California is currently not part of the NLC, so you cannot apply for a compact license if you live there. You can only apply for single-state licenses in other states you would like to work in. 

Do nurses have to be licensed in every state?

No, nurses can be registered in their home state and work there without any issue. However, if they want to work outside their state, they’ll need to apply for a compact nurse’s license or single-state licenses in the states they want to work in.