Keen to explore the globe while helping people in need? A career as a travel nurse might be a great option, not least because there is now a worldwide shortage of nurses.
A report by the International Council of Nurses has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the immediate need for nurses in many countries and “will further ramp up demand over the next few years.”
Howard Catton, the council’s CEO and co-author of the January 2022 report, told Newsweek: “There are 6 million too few nurses currently and a potential shortfall of up to 12 million nurses over the next decade.”
The report found that “many nurses are migrating from lower-income countries to more prosperous ones, where they can secure higher salaries and gain broader experience,” he added.
The flipside of this development is that lower-income countries “are the most vulnerable to nurse outflow, and the most likely to be negatively affected by the pandemic,” Catton said, so the council is calling for “a massive investment in nurse workforce sustainability” and global action on this.
If the globetrotting life of a travel nurse sounds appealing, read on for experts’ advice on how to become one.
What Is a Travel Nurse and What Do They Do?
Travel nurses work in locations other than the place they trained. This can include U.S. nurses who work in a different state, as well as those who go overseas. They are usually hired on short-term contracts, but some nurses emigrate to another country on a long-term basis.
Travel nursing contracts are often between employers in the destination and health care agencies based at home, according to Katie Boston-Leary, a former travel nurse who is director of nursing programs at the American Nurses Association.
“Travel nurses are expected to be experienced—not novices—to be able to provide care safely and efficiently with minimal orientation and limited onboarding,” she told Newsweek.
Steady work for travel nurses can be “unpredictable and based upon length of contracts or geographical location of available contracts,” she added. Those in the U.S. tend to work for numerous agencies at a time to increase their opportunities.
The work of a travel nurse will depend on their medical speciality. The website RegisteredNursing.org explains that, in addition to the standard responsibilities, the daily tasks carried out by nurses overseas can include:
- Emergency medical services and care
- Educating family members and caretakers about appropriate care
- Responding to natural disasters or disease outbreaks
- Providing medical care and aid to underserved, rural and remote populations.
Pros and Cons of Being a Travel Nurse
“Nurses who choose to work overseas benefit from broadening their nursing and life experience in a different culture. They often return to their home countries with new or improved skills,” Catton said.
As with any job, there are drawbacks as well as perks. Here are some of them, according to the websites All Nursing Schools, RegisteredNursing.org and Nurse Journal:
- Expansion of medical experience through exposure to technologies and facilities in different countries
- Stipends for housing, food and other living expenses
- Potential to earn a higher salary than you would as a staff nurse
- Opportunity to travel and experience living in a foreign country
- Chance to help underserved communities
- Opportunity to improve language and communication skills.
- Potential dangers of working in high-risk areas and exposure to diseases and other health hazards
- Not receiving the same benefits as full-time staff nurses, such as paid time off
- Spending long periods apart from family
- Sense of isolation caused by relocating frequently
- Lack of long-term relationships with colleagues and patients.
How to Become a Travel Nurse
Because international nursing jobs are usually obtained via agencies in a nurse’s home country, Americans in this field will need a registered nurse (RN) license.
Agencies’ other requirements for their nurses might vary. Boston-Leary said: “You must have an active license and temporary licenses may be obtained based on location. Nurses can be placed based on demand, specialty, experience and willingness to relocate temporarily if needed.”
The agencies will “have required competency and orientation training.” Once this is complete, they will provide clients with “nurses’ profiles to determine the best fit,” she added.
Before you can become an RN, you have to earn an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Most agencies prefer a bachelor’s degree, according to Nurse Journal, and some health care facilities will only hire those with a bachelor’s degree.
Travel nurses also need certifications in basic life support and advanced cardiac life support. Other certifications can be helpful for assignments in specialized areas, said Nurse Journal.
Agencies typically require travel nurses to have at least one year of hands-on experience in their speciality, according to RegisteredNursing.org.
After your nursing degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Exam to obtain an RN license. This exam, which can take up to six hours, covers:
- Nursing practice, conditions and treatments
- How the health care system works
- Legal and ethical issues
- Patient communication and education.
You’ll also need to meet the requirements for the countries in which you intend to work. Travel nurses have to familiarize themselves with the laws and geographic-specific diseases of each location.
There are immigration requirements too, such as work visas, sponsorship and immunizations, which will vary by country. Work visas are usually arranged by the nursing agency.
The ability to communicate with patients is vital. According to All Nursing Schools, it’s not uncommon for an agency to send a nurse to a country whose language they do not speak fluently. But travel nurses will be expected to have at least a working knowledge of the language.
In some countries, you have to take a language test before or after arrival. This applies to English-speaking countries including Canada, the U.K. and Australia—and the test may be obligatory even if English is your first language.
Catton said: “Once nurses have their nursing registration recognized by a country’s nursing regulator they are legally allowed to practice in that country.”
How Much Does a Travel Nurse Earn?
The salaries of nurses “vary widely” by country, Catton said.
Within the U.S., travel nurses are contracted for a specific period and paid at a higher rate than “direct hire or incumbent nurses,” Boston-Leary said. Some employers also offer benefits and housing.
“Compensation varies based on demand, speciality, geographic location, experience and so on,” she added. According to the 2022 NSI National Health Care and RN Staffing Report, organizations pay agencies an hourly rate of between $154 and $225 per nurse—and nurses are paid a percentage of that, she said.
According to jobs website Indeed, travel nurses who work overseas can earn roughly $109,000 a year, but it also points out that salaries can vary significantly.
RegisteredNursing.org suggests that the average salary for a travel nurse working in the U.S. is about $75,000, although some agencies are offering up to $100,00 because demand is high.
“International travel nurses tend to have lower salaries than domestic, except for assignments in some Middle Eastern countries,” it states.
A nurse working in the Middle East probably won’t be paying taxes on their income, All Nursing Schools explained, so that should be taken into account.
According to World Atlas data, outside the U.S. and Canada, nurses earn the most money in Europe, with these countries offering the highest salaries:
- The Netherlands
Even if your salary is not at the top of the scale for a travel nurse, most agencies offer benefits such as housing, and stipends for meals and additional travel. Some also offer medical, dental and vision insurance, paid leave, reimbursement for licensing as well as end-of-assignment bonuses, according to All Nursing Schools.