How to Keep a Nursing License Active When You’re Not Working

A nurse using a home laptop to pursue continuing education credits.

Registered nurses (RNs) are largely considered to be the cornerstone of our country’s health care system. They are typically the first point of contact for all incoming patients. Given how hard they work to promote safety and patient well-being, it’s understandable that some nurses may occasionally take an extended break from daily practice. For example, a nurse might choose to take a prolonged sabbatical to spend time raising children or caring for an older family member. Burnout, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, is another reason why nurses are choosing to take time off.

Even when not working, however, nurses may wish to maintain active credentialing, allowing them to more easily transition back into the workforce at a time of their choosing. The question is: how to keep a nursing license active when not working. There are a number of considerations for nurses to make.

What Is a Nursing License and How Are They Obtained?

To practice nursing at any level, having a license is essential. Licensure is the process of having a board approve a nurse to engage in nursing practice by verifying they meet certain criteria. Each state has its own nursing board, and the criteria for licensure can vary slightly. With that said, there are a few common steps that all nurses must take to obtain a valid license.


First, the licensing body will verify that the nurse has completed a degree from an accredited university. This can be an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).


Aspiring nurses must sit for a thorough examination, ensuring their knowledge of basic clinical care principles. Licensure requires passing either the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN (for practical and vocational nurses).

Background Check

Many states require nurses to submit to a criminal background check, which must come back clean for them to be licensed.


Most states require nurses to pay a license fee, though the amount depends on the state.

After meeting these criteria, nurses are free to practice in the state where they are licensed.

What Should a Nurse Do About Their License if They’re Not Working?

Nurses may choose to put their practice on hold, whether to deal with family commitments, re-enroll in school, or simply attend to their own mental health. However, nurses have to practice to keep their licenses active. Stepping away from the profession can result in a nursing license either becoming inactive or delinquent if certain precautions aren’t taken.

Nursing licenses must be renewed at regular intervals, which vary by state. Failing to renew a license, even by simple oversight, can result in the license becoming delinquent. Clearing delinquent status can require nurses to pay a significant fee, complete a reactivation application, and potentially submit to another background check.

Nurses may also choose to place their license on inactive status, in lieu of renewing. Reactivating the license is usually a simple process, requiring the nurse to contact the state nursing board, submit an application for renewal, and potentially pay a fee. If five or more years elapse before reactivation, the nurse may be required to pass an examination, proving their continued competency in the field.

Nurses are also required to take a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) each year to maintain their license. One CEU is typically measured as 10 contact hours. A contact hour is a unit of 60 or more minutes spent in a classroom or engaged in a patient care activity with an accredited nursing instructor.

Continuing education requirements vary by state, though all courses must be approved by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). For example, in Alabama, RNs must have 24 contact hours every two years. By contrast, RNs in Georgia must have 30 hours every two years. RNs in Indiana and Maine do not need CEUs at all.

Best Practices to Follow When Not Working as a Nurse

If a nurse plans on returning to their role, it’s in their best interest to stay current and active in the profession, even when they’re not working. Some tips for how to keep a nursing license active when not working include the following.

  • Make a commitment to complete a certain number of CEUs each year.
  • Practice nursing on a community service basis, such as taking a short weekly nursing shift at a school.
  • Attend workshops and seminars related to the nursing role.
  • Subscribe to nursing journals and publications.
  • Stay in contact with co-workers and colleagues.
  • Follow health care leaders on social media.

Begin Your Journey to Becoming a Registered Nurse

The first step toward licensure is obtaining the proper academic credentials from a program that will prepare you for examination and for successful practice. Learn more about the Hawai'i Pacific University Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, which offers an online curriculum designed to provide up-to-date skills in patient care.

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Recommended Readings

APRN vs PA: What’s the Difference?

Non-Bedside Nursing: 8 Alternatives Beyond the Bedside

Nursing Job Growth: Opportunities for Advancement



AAACEUS, Nursing Continuing Education Requirements by State

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, CE Opportunities

American Nurses Association, Continuing Education

Chron, How Long Can I Go Without Working Before My LPN License Becomes Inactive?

Fierce Health care, "Third of Nurses Plan to Leave Their Jobs in 2022, Survey Finds"

LinkedIn, Inactive vs. Delinquent Nursing License: What's the Difference?

NCSBN, Licensure

Nursing CE, How to Keep Your Nursing License Active When Not Working

On Hike, Alphabet Soup - CE, CEU, and CNE

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses