What Do I Need to Know about Continuing Education (CEs)?

Nurses need to know the continuing education requirements for renewing their nursing licenses.


  • Career Columnist / Author
    Specializes in Tele, ICU, Staff Development. Has 30 years experience.
What Do I Need to Know about Continuing Education (CEs)?

Important Information for Nurses Regarding Continuing Education (CEs)

Amber was just two weeks away from the renewal date for her nursing license. As she reviewed her certificates, she noticed that one certificate she received from a conference listed 10 contact hours but did not have a provider number.

She was counting on those 10 contact hours and wondered if this certificate would be accepted for her renewal.

She also questioned whether her nursing school classes would count towards her continuing education requirements. She needed to know how it all worked. Regardless, Amber realized she was short of the required 30 contact hours by about 10 to 15 hours. Filled with panic, she turned to the internet to search for suitable courses.

Understanding the Difference: CEUs vs. Contact Hours

To begin, it's essential to understand the difference between continuing education units (CEUs) and contact hours. According to the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), one "contact hour" represents a minimum of 50 minutes of instruction in a nursing continuing education class or activity approved by the board.

To put it in perspective:

  • Fifty to sixty minutes of instruction equals 1 contact hour.
  • Ten contact hours equal 1 continuing education unit (CEU).

Although the term "CEU" is often used interchangeably with "contact hour," as in "I earned 4 CEUs (or CEs)," it is more accurate to say, "I earned 4 contact hours."

Key Points to Know About CEs

To ensure you don't find yourself in a last-minute bind, here are several important things to know about continuing education (CE) requirements:

  • No Carry-Over: Contact hours cannot be saved or carried over to the next renewal period. All required contact hours must be completed within the immediate renewal period preceding the license renewal date.
  • CE Requirements by State: The requirements for CE vary by state. Newly licensed nurses are often exempt from CE requirements for their first renewal. After the initial renewal, nurses must meet the continuing education requirements according to their state's regulations. 
  • Renewal periods for licensure vary from annually to every three years, depending on the state. It is crucial to check your state's Board of Nursing (BON) for specific requirements. While the BON typically contacts nurses for renewal, it's wise to ensure they have your current address and not to rely solely on their notifications, as mishaps can occur.
  • Number of Contact Hours Required: The number of contact hours required for renewal varies widely by state. Some states have no mandatory CE requirements, while others, like Washington, require as many as 45 contact hours. In some states, such as South Dakota, continuing education is not mandatory, but there may be minimum practice requirements. It's worth noting that some states accept alternative activities, such as publication in a peer-reviewed journal, national certification in a nursing specialty, or completion of a nursing refresher course, as substitutes for traditional CE.
  • State-Specific Content Requirements: Many states specify particular content requirements, either as mandatory one-time requirements or ongoing CE topics. Examples include tick-borne disease for APRNs in Texas and human trafficking in Florida. Nurses should be aware of such state-specific content expectations.
  • CEs and Compact Licensure: Nurses with a compact license must meet the licensure renewal requirements and CE requirements for their primary state of residence. 
  • Acceptable Content: CE courses should be relevant to nursing practice and go beyond basic educational levels for entry into practice.
  • General Courses Not Accepted: Prerequisite courses, such as mathematics, government, anatomy, physiology, etc., generally cannot be used to fulfill CE requirements.  General education may not be used for CE credit. Facility orientation is typically not accepted.
  • State-specific Courses Not Accepted: Each state's BON has specific guidelines outlining content that is not acceptable for CE credit. For instance, some states may not recognize Basic Life Support (BLS) or Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) as suitable for continuing nursing education. Other states may allow credit for the initial completion but not re-certification. It is crucial to check with your state's BON for accurate information on these courses.
  • Approved Providers: Contact hours must be obtained from approved providers. Approved providers can be those approved by your state's BON/BRN or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The ANCC is recognized as an approved provider by every state BON and is considered the gold standard. National nursing organizations that offer CE at annual conventions are typically approved as providers by the ANCC,
  • Record-Keeping and Auditing: It is crucial to keep thorough records in case of an audit. Maintain records of the courses you have taken, including the title, number of contact hours awarded, date of the course, and provider number. Approved providers receive a provider number, which must be included on your certificate. To stay organized, consider scanning copies of your certificates and keeping an electronic file for easy retrieval.
  • BSN or graduate degree programs.  Contact hours may be awarded for completion of college credit courses at an accredited institution of higher learning. 
  • Academic courses must typically lead to an academic degree in nursing or be relevant to nursing practice.  
  • Conversion of academic units to contact hours. Typically, one academic semester unit is equal to 15 contact hours; one academic quarter unit is equal to 10 contact hours.  
  • Conferences and Evaluations: When attending conferences, make sure you complete and submit any required evaluations. Many state boards require providers to offer course evaluations as part of the CE process. Make sure to comply with these requirements.

Final Thoughts

For more information and specific details regarding continuing education requirements in your state, visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) website. They provide valuable resources and links to your state's Board of Nursing. Stay proactive and informed about your CE obligations to maintain an active nursing license and keep up with the ever-evolving demands of the profession.

Career Columnist / Author

Hi! Nice to meet you! I especially love helping new nurses. I am currently a nurse writer with a background in Staff Development, Telemetry and ICU.

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