Your Ultimate Guide to Free Nursing CEUs

Kathy Quan RN BSN PHN - 03/26/19

Lifelong learning is in your future, even if you just completed your nursing education and passed the NCLEX or are a seasoned nurse. The medical field is not an exact science and it never stays stagnant. The best practices for all nurses including LPN/LVN, ADN, BSN, MSN, and APRN all require continued learning whether it be state Board of Nursing required formal continuing education units or specific continuing education required by a facility or your nursing specialty association. You may even be required to have both.

CEU requirements

Currently, 39 states, US territories and Washington DC require nursing CEUs from RNs and LPN/LVNs. The specific number of units and time frame vary from state to state. Most often, license renewal is every 2-4 years and between 10-30 ceus are required each renewal period. Additionally, some states require specific courses at designated intervals such as annually, every 3-4 years or just one time.

There are a few states that do not require CEUs. These are: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wisconsin. However, nurses with specialty certifications must always adhere to the certification requirements laid out by the associations granting the certification.

This can change at any time through state legislation. State Board of Nursing Information is available from the National Council for State Boards of Nursing for all 50 states, US Territories (Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands) and Washington DC. All nurses are required to stay aware of their BON requirements. This is especially true for nurses using the Nursing License Compact to either work across state lines or as a travel nurse

Continuing education can also be regulated and required through your employer such as for magnet hospitals or nursing specialties with on-the-job certifications. If you hold specialty certifications from nursing organizations such as medical-surgical, neonatal, critical care, etc., there will be specific continuing education requirements to maintain the certification. This is in addition to any state required continuing education and applies even if your state has no CEU requirements.

What are all those acronyms with CEUs?

Continuing education units for nurses have many different terms depending on the source of the education units. All courses taken must be accredited by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and/or your state board of nursing. The acronyms given out by providers depend on who accredited their education program. There has always been confusion with some of the acronyms and efforts to standardize the terminology have been made in the past few years.

  • CE stands for Continuing Education. This is something many professions besides nursing require for professionals in health care such as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, dental hygienists, and therapists (Physical therapists, Occupational and Speech and Language therapists, etc.) Other professionals such as lawyers, social workers, and accountants also have requirements for continuing education. The regulations and requirements vary by state licensing boards.
  • CNE is specific to nurses as Continuing Nurse Education.
  • CEU is Continuing Education Unit(s). This is the number of credits given out by the provider for their course. It is also the standard of credits required by the state board of nursing. One CEU represents ten hours of participation in the education course or activity.
  • Contact Hours represent the number of hours spent in instruction or participation. One contact hour represents 50-60 minutes of class time as set by the state board of nursing.

The terms CEU and contact hour are often interchanged but really do not represent the same thing. This can become very confusing. State BON requirements are most often stated in a specified number of CEUs and each CEU represents 10 contact hours of instruction.

CEUs are required for relicensure. The first renewal after graduation is usually a free pass, but after that, every 2-4 years nurses need to complete CEUs in order to qualify to renew their license. Verify with your state board of nursing to determine the time frame and the number of CEUs required. Nurses need to maintain evidence of completion for a minimum number of years; for instance, the minimum in California is 4 years. This will also vary from state to state so be sure to learn what your state requires.

Specific Requirements for CEUs

The purpose of continuing education is to ensure nurses update their knowledge base to provide cutting-edge quality nursing care. Some specific education choices by state can include changes in laws and regulations in your particular state, new treatments and technology, changes in theories and research about disease process, diversity, abuse, neglect, domestic violence and new public health dangers or threats. 

Florida, for instance, requires 2 hours of study about changes in Florida laws and regulations as well as 2 hours of medical error study. For the first renewal period only 1 hour of study in HIV/AIDS is required, and every third renewal 2 hours of domestic abuse is required. New York requires 3 hours of infection control every 4 years. Some states such as Louisiana have a sliding scale number of CEUs required depending on the number of nursing employment hours worked. It’s important to understand what your state BON requires because they vary so widely.

Ensure your CEUs are accredited

Not all courses are approved to provide CEUs for students. The ANCC has strict rules for accreditation including making sure the course provides additional education and information from what you should have learned in school. Their objective is to provide nurses with courses that can make you a better nurse. In so doing, your salary may be increased to reflect the knowledge gain. The course must be administered by an approved provider. Most facilities and agencies have successfully applied for approval. The state BON can also approve providers and courses based on the standards set by the ANCC.

Courses taken at accredited nursing schools are another option for meeting CEU requirements. Continuing education goals of adding another degree or certification can be applied to CEU requirements as long as the course is related to nursing.

Where can I get nursing CEUs?

Continuing education for nurses is available from a variety of sources. Some is free and some low cost. Check out the possibilities.

Start with your employer. Many hospitals, clinics and home health/hospice agencies provide continuing education courses that may be quite specific to the field of nursing and to the employer. Providing these courses can be expensive which is why the employer will open them up to all local nurses. Smaller hospitals and agencies may not be able to provide any ceus. But any offering ceus to nurses outside the hospital or agency welcome nurses from all over to attend. Sometimes the employer will offer free ceus to employees for specific courses they offer that may meet a state or accreditation need for the employer.

Professional Organizationsoften offer ceus for nurses designed to update certifications, but also for all nurses to attend. The American Nurses Association for instance, offers a free ceu course annually as part of Nurses week activities. When joining a professional organization look carefully at the benefits and keep in touch with them via newsletters and emails to be informed about perks for free or low cost ceus for member nurses.

College courses may count. Courses taken at community colleges, university and colleges may count towards your ceus if they are nursing related. If the institution has been accredited for nursing education, any nursing related courses offered should be eligible for ceus when taken during the time frame leading up to your license renewal. You cannot bank units and carry them over. The best example is a nurse who is continuing their education to earn a higher degree in nursing. These courses will most likely count towards ceus. Check with your institution and your state BON.

Online CEUs. An online search for nursing ceus will reveal an abundance of companies (non-profit and for profit) as well as educational institutions offering online ceus. NursingCE.com is one of many. Remember to check the accreditation before taking any course. Some offer the convenience of printing your ceus once you have successfully completed the course. Others may have you wait for an email or snail mail letter to receive them.

Workshops and Seminarsprovide specific continuing education opportunities for nurses. Conventions put on by nursing organizations usually offer several of these throughout the convention. Some are included in your registration fees and others are in addition. Some require lecture and an exam, and some are research activity-based learning experiences. Again, check for the accreditation credentials.

Who pays for the CEUs?

Nurses are ultimately responsible for paying for their own ceus. If money is an object, then searching for free ceus is a necessity. There are plenty of sources.

The first place is to watch your employer’s education boards or online information sites. You can also petition your employer to pay for a ceu course which may even include transportation and housing if it is truly something that can benefit your skills and employment status. Sometimes you’ll be expected to report back to your employer all of the information and tips you learned from your experience.

Unions and professional organizations often offer free ceus to members as part of the membership perks or benefits.

Watch for ceu offerings from vendors you work with. They may offer free or reduced costs to their favorite clients. So, before you shoo away that annoying vendor, ask about educational opportunities available.

Talk to your tax accountant. In the past ceus courses may have been a tax deduction. Tax laws are constantly changing and it’s always important to never assume continuing education courses are a deduction. Keep your receipts though, just in case.

Free ceus are also available online. Also, low cost ceus are available from multiple sources. Search for “free nursing ceus,” “free ceus for nurses,” etc. Each subject matter may bring up new information. NursingCEcom offers many courses for free. There are a number of other sources that are subject to change. Look up any nursing organizations you belong to. They may not advertise free ceus as readily as they might a course you have to pay for. Again, it cannot be emphasized enough, make sure the courses are accredited either by the ANCC or your state BON. Also keep in mind that free ceu courses are for smaller denominations. You’re much more likely to find a free ceu course offering 1-3 ceus that one offering 10 or more ceus. If you need 30 ceus, you will need to take multiple courses to add up to 30.

Some of the most common resources for free ceus include:

Keep your paperwork

On most license renewal applications, you will list the title of the course(s) and the provider number and the number of ceus given. After that it’s up to you to keep copies of any certificates issued, receipt and other information regarding the course(s) you have taken for ceus. This information must be kept for a specified number of years in case you are audited. In California, for instance, you need to keep the information for 4 years.