Travel Nurse 101: How to Become a Travel Nurse


Do you know a travel nurse or someone involved in travel nursing? Many people have heard the term, but aren’t sure exactly what a travel nurse is or why they’re needed. The biggest difference between a staff nurse and a travel nurse is that travel nurses are employees of their agency rather than the hospital itself. Travel nurses work temporary contracts across the nation in a multitude of settings from hospitals, to prisons, to clinics, and everything in between. These assignments typically last between 8 and 26 weeks, but most assignments are around 13 weeks, and are usually needed to help facilities mitigate staffing shortages. You’ll find them in some of the most rural settings, in the smallest critical access hospitals, to some of the top Academic Medical Centers and Level I Trauma Centers in the nation. Even with the challenges this career and lifestyle may have, it does come with it’s many rewards, one of them being ultimate freedom; freedom to choose where you work and when you work, and most importantly, financial freedom. Many Travel Nurses have a budget in mind, of how much they’d like to make on a weekly basis to meet their financial goals and accept contracts accordingly. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, check out the steps below to help put yourself on the path to success.

1. License & Experience

The first step may seem really obvious but it is still important to note. It is imperative that you pass the National Counsel Licensure Examination (NCLEX) in order to obtain your RN license. You need an active RN license to apply for licenses for other states you’d like to work in without having to pass the NCLEX again. This application process is called RN Licensure via Endorsement. If you live in a state that is a part of the Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (eNLC), you’re in luck! You’ll be able to practice in any other state in the eNLC, without applying for an additional license if your active license has the multi-state status rather than single-state.

Once you have a license in hand and you’ve selected your specialty, you’ll need to work in that specialty in an acute care setting for at least 2 years. Most facilities require at least 2 years of experience because in a staffing shortage, which is the setting you’re most likely entering as a Travel Nurse, there won’t be time to give you a detailed and lengthy orientation and precept you to the unit. Facilities hire Travel Nurses with the understanding they are ready to work after a day of orientation, and maybe a half day shadowing another nurse, before taking patients on their own. To be a Travel Nurse you have to be confident in your skills and ability to jump in wherever needed.

2. Identify a Tax Home

Once you have the experience, it’s time to jump into the nitty gritty of it all. Travel Nurses are paid differently than staff nurses. Most agencies offer some type of tax free stipend in addition to a taxable hourly wage when presenting pay packages for a specific contract. However, you can’t just say you’re a Travel Nurse to qualify. There are some IRS guidelines you must follow when accepting tax free stipends, one of which is you must maintain a permanent tax home. The IRS uses a set of criteria for determining whether or not an individual has a legitimate tax home:

  • Whether the taxpayer performs a portion of their business within the vicinity of the declared tax home, and uses the declared tax home for lodging purposes while performing business there.
  • Whether the taxpayer’s living expenses are duplicated as a result of their traveling for work. 
  • Whether the taxpayer has abandoned the declared tax home. This is typically determined by how frequently the taxpayer uses the declared tax home for their own personal lodging and personal business, and whether or not the taxpayer has direct family members living in the declared tax home.

In order to qualify for tax-free stipends, you must meet two of the three criteria. For travel nurses, it’s typically the first two. You must return to your tax home for at least 30 days each year to work and you must have a record of duplicate living expenses such as rent/mortgage back home and a living expense on the road.

3. Determine Your Goals For Travel Nursing

Identify the reasons why you want to get involved with travel nursing. Are you pursing this career change solely for the financial benefits? Or are you interested in working in specific units or facilities? Or all of the above? These motivations will help your recruiter determine which contracts to pitch you to satisfy your needs. They have access to thousands of contracts across the nation, so a little help narrowing down options is a huge help! Go into your initial calls with agencies and recruiters, with a few must-haves and deal-breakers in mind.

At Axis, we take the time to listen to our nursing candidates, to find out what truly motivates them. Establishing that personal connection is essential to maintaining a fruitful relationship for both the agency and the client.

4. Find a Staffing Agency That Works For You

Now that you’re armed with the experience, an understanding of pay, and have objectives in mind, it’s time to find that perfect match. Yes, this really will feel like an episode of the Bachelor. There are hundreds of Travel Nursing Agencies out there and thousands of recruiters. It can feel like a daunting task trying to find that special someone you want to give that final rose to. But we promise, the search will be worth it.

What should you be looking for? Well, what are your deal-breakers? Do you absolutely need agency insurance? Are you looking for a competitive 401K? Are you traveling with pets and need assistance with housing? All of these things will help you narrow down which agencies you want to work with. From there, you’ll make calls and connections with recruiters within that agency and this is when the fun begins. As cliche as this may sound, it all comes down to a gut feeling. When you don’t have anymore deal-breakers, which recruiter did you connect with? Or which 2-3 recruiters did you connect with? Who do feel will take care of you, is knowledgeable enough to help you navigate through the industry, and who do you enjoy working with? For the most part, each recruiter will ask you for the same things in the beginning: resume, references and skills checklist. They’ll also be able to help you get all the necessary credentials, and ensure that all of your on boarding paperwork is taken care of. In addition, your recruiter will be able to help you relocate by helping you find housing, providing a transportation stipend, and reimbursement for licensing fees. Generally, the submission process requires you to fill out an application, skills checklist, and provide references. Axis helps you with each step of the submission process, and makes sure that you have all the necessary paperwork. You may be asked to provide medical records, or proof of immunizations, so it’s important to keep those records current.


Looking for your next travel assignment?  Search our gigs here.


5. Organize and Go!

Before you can even be considered for travel nursing, you must have either an Associates Degree in Nursing, or an Associates of Science in Nursing. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is not needed for most travel assignments. That said, if you want to set yourself apart from the rest of the field, it’s a good idea to look into earning your bachelor’s degree.

Now that you have some background on the travel nursing industry, it’s time to start wandering! Fill out an application and you’ll be on your way!

Go Ahead. Be a Rock Star!