Registered Nurse (RN) vs. Nurse Practitioner (NP): What’s the Difference?

6 Min Read Published September 18, 2023
RN vs NP

One of the best aspects of the nursing profession is that it offers so many advancement opportunities. You can earn entry-level nursing credentials in a year or less and grow from there. Two common roles nurses assume in their careers are registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). 

This guide compares RN vs NP duties, licensure, education, and more to help you decide which best suits your career goals. Read on to learn more about the differences between these vital nursing roles.

RN vs NP: What's the  Difference?

The most significant difference between registered nurses and nurse practitioners is that RNs carry out care, while NPs can prescribe care. A nurse practitioner is an RN who has completed advanced education, training, and certification to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

An RN can carry out orders and care plans for the patients that they care for. However, NPs can act as independent practitioners (in some states), diagnose medical conditions, order medications and tests, and treat medical conditions.

Additionally, most RNs can work with an associate’s or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. On the other hand, NPs must have a minimum of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree to become licensed.

Here's a breakdown of key nurse practitioner vs RN differences:




Job Duties

Cares for patients and carries out orders prescribed by a doctor, NP, or PA. 

Diagnoses illness, prescribes medications and tests and creates patient care plans. 

License/ Certification


RN license required; AANP or ANCC certification exam

Education Requirements

Associate’s (ADN) or Bachelor’s degree (BSN) in nursing

Master’s (MSN) or doctorate (DNP) degree program


$81,220 per year

$121,610 per year

Continuing Education Requirements

Varies by state, but 24-36 continuing ed credits per year.

Varies by state, but the AANP requires 100 contact hours of CEs relevant to the certification area, with 25 in pharmacology, within the first 5 years of practice.

Career Opportunities

RNs can work in many areas, from direct patient care to administration to technology. They can also do research and teach with higher degrees, such as a DNP. 

NPs can work directly with patients, open independent practices in some states, participate in research, and teach. 

What is an RN?

The official definition of an RN from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) is “an individual who has graduated from a state-approved school of nursing, passed the NCLEX-RN Examination and is licensed by a state board of nursing to provide patient care.”

What is an NP?

According to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), nurse practitioners are “clinicians that blend clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating health conditions with an added emphasis on disease prevention and health management.”

NPs can work as primary practitioners in many states. In states without full practice authority for NPs, they work alongside a physician to diagnose and treat patients. 

RN vs NP Job Duties 

The job duties of an RN vs NP will differ, but there also may be some similarities depending on the field they work in. For instance, RNs and NPs may teach, participate in research, or get involved in entrepreneurship.

At a basic level, however, here are some of the job duties of an RN vs NP:


  • Carries out orders prescribed by a doctor, physicians assistant, or  NP
  • Administers medications as ordered
  • Performs direct patient care
  • Gives patient education


  • Comes up with a diagnosis and orders plan of care, including testing
  • Interprets diagnostic tests, imaging, and other results
  • Prescribes medication
  • Perform advanced acts of patient care in in-patient settings
  • Educates patients and their family
  • Manages overall care

RN vs NP Education Requirements


Becoming a registered nurse takes 2-4 years. To become an RN, you must complete an accredited nursing program. This may be an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. People with a Bachelor’s degree in another non-nursing field can also enroll in an accelerated nursing program.


Becoming an RN could take between 4-7 years. NPs must follow all the steps to become registered nurses, including passing the NCLEX exam. Then they may enroll in a master’s or doctorate-level nurse practitioner program. 

Some schools offer RN-NP programs where students can enroll directly into an NP program without having to earn their BSN first. 

RN vs NP License & Certifications

Both RNs and NPs must pass the NCLEX-RN, which is the certifying exam to become a registered nurse. NPs, however, will go on to take additional exams to earn their nurse practitioner certification.


After graduating from nursing school, RNs must take the NCLEX to become registered nurses in their state. Passing the exam certifies them to work as an RN. Nurses wishing to pursue specialty roles may also earn other credentials like nursing informatics certifications or aesthetic nurse certifications.


Nurse Practitioners must pass the NCLEX as well, then have the choice between two certifying exams to become an NP: 

  1. AANP Certification: The certifying board for this exam is the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. The AANP can certify family nurse practitioners (FNPs), adult-gerontology NPs (AGNPs), and emergency nurse practitioners (ENPs).

  2. ANCC Certification: The American Nurses Association (ANA) governs the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). FNPs, AGNPs for primary and acute care, and psychiatric-mental health NPs (PMHNPs) are eligible for ANCC certification.

NP vs RN Salary


RNs make an average of $81,220 annually per US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports. Of course, your nursing salary will vary depending on where you work (states like California have higher wages), your specialty, and your field. Additionally, an RN may have additional advanced non-clinical degrees, such as an MSN or DNP, that could expand salaries.


Nurse practitioners make $121,610 per year on average, according to BLS statistics. Just like RNs, your salary as an NP can vary widely based on specialty and geographical location.

RN vs NP Continuing Education Requirements


In general, RNs must then renew their nursing license every three years by completing 24-36 continuing ed credits per year. However, the exact requirement varies depending on which state they practice in.


Like RNs, the exact certification requirement for continuing education varies by state. But NPs certified with the AANP will need 100 contact hours of CEs relevant to the certification area, with 25 in pharmacology, within the first 5 years of practice. 

RN vs NP Career Opportunities

RNs and NPs have almost endless opportunities for both bedside and non-bedside careers


Direct patient care in both in-patient and out-patient settings, including but not limited to: 


NPs can become primary or specialized care providers in various areas. There's no shortage of NP specialties, from family and geriatric care to women's and mental health. As an NP, you can choose any track that suits your interests or goals, although certain specialties require additional certifications.

NPs may work in in-patient settings like hospitals, out-patient settings like medical offices, or virtually with telehealth care. NPs can also open independent practices in many states. And, like RNs, NPS can work in:

  • Technology and informatics
  • Travel NP roles
  • Administrative and leadership roles
  • Entrepreneurship 
  • Research
  • Teaching, both clinically and non-clinically

RN vs NP: Choosing the Best Path For You

There is no right or wrong answer in choosing RN vs NP paths for your nursing career. You’ll want to assess your financial situation, family and care responsibilities, and career goals to decide which suits you. 

If your ultimate goal is to become an NP, be aware that only some programs allow you to enroll directly from an RN to an NP program. Others require experience as an RN before becoming an NP.

However, the beauty of nursing is that you have unlimited potential to advance if you want to. You may begin as an RN and, later, if your career goals change, advance to an NP role. Nursing opens endless opportunities, starting with getting your RN first.

Chaunie Brusie
Chaunie Brusie Contributor

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, RN is a nurse-turned-writer with experience in critical care, long-term care, and labor and delivery. Her work has appeared everywhere from Glamor to The New York Times to The Washington Post. Chaunie lives with her husband and five kids in the middle of a hay field in Michigan and you can find more of her work here

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