How to Become an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse (2024)


October 26, 2022

How to Become an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse (1)

How to Become an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse (2)

By: Kathleen Gaines MSN, RN, BA, CBC

ICU nurses are highly trained Registered Nurses that work with patients who have life-threatening illnesses or conditions. They provide specialized experience, knowledge, and skills that patients need in order to survive or de-escalate care. Their patients receive intense interventions and require complex care. Find out what an ICU nurse does, what it takes to become one, and more in this complete career guide.

Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses work in a complex and challenging field in the nursing profession. These nurses provide life-saving care to patients that are extremely sick and often fighting for their lives. Nurses in this field are at the top of their game and take care of patients that require 24/7 nursing care.

Patients in the ICU are often intubated, ventilated, and on multiple live saving medications. ICU nurses are well versed in all aspects of care to restore wellness. ICU nurses will work with a variety of adult patients from diverse backgrounds. The specific population will depend on the area of employment.

Without ICU nurses, healthcare systems would be unable to accept trauma patients, end-of-life patients, and others that require highly specialized care. These nurses are specially trained and often cannot be replaced unless an individual has similar training and credentials.

The average annual ICU nursesalary is $80,900 as of 2022, per WhereasZipRecruiter reports that ICU nurses in the U.S. earn a average annual salary of $119,604 annually or $58 per hour.

ICU nurses are often paid higher than other nurses within a healthcare system because of their specialized training.

Most health care systems pay nurses on an hourly scale while others have a fixed annual salary. Those paid on an hourly scale are able to earn overtime pay whereas salary employees would need to discuss that with the hiring committee. As with all jobs in the nursing field, earning potential increases with additional education and experience. Nurses typically are awarded a raise during annual employee performance reviews. Certifications can give nurses an additional bump in their paycheck.

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Step 1: Become a Registered Nurse

To become an ICU nurse, you must first become a registered nurse (RN). You can either graduate with a BSN or an ADN from an accredited nursing program. You’ll then need to pass the NCLEX examination

Step 2: Gain Experience

In order to continue down the path of becoming an ICU nurse, you’ll need to gain at least 2 years of nursing experience in a position that specializes in intensive care nursing

Step 3: Obtain ICU Certification

The most popular certification for ICU nurses is the Certification for Adult Critical Care Nurses (CCRN) awarded by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

To be eligible to sit for the CCRN exam, nurses must meet the following criteria:

  • Practice as an RN or APRN for 1,750 hours in direct care of acutely/critically ill pediatric patients during the previous two years, with 875 of those hours accrued in the most recent year preceding application


  • Practice as an RN or APRN for at least five years with a minimum of 2,000 hours in direct care of acutely/critically ill pediatric patients, with 144 of those hours accrued in the most recent year preceding application

According to the CCRN website, eligible clinical practice hours have to meet the following criteria:

  • Must be completed in a U.S.-based or Canada-based facility or in a facility determined to be comparable to the U.S. standard of acute/critical care nursing practice.
  • Are spent actively providing direct care to acutely/critically ill pediatric patients or spent supervising nurses or nursing students at the bedside of acutely/critically ill pediatric patients, if working as a manager, educator, preceptor or APRN. The majority of practice hours for exam eligibility must be focused on critically ill patients.
  • Are verifiable by your clinical supervisor or professional colleague (RN or physician). Contact information must be provided for verification of eligibility related to clinical hours, to be used if you are selected for audit.
  • Nurses that work in intensive care units, cardiac care units, combined ICU/CCUs, medical/surgical ICUs, trauma units or critical care transport/flight are eligible to take the exam. If you are unsure if your unit qualifies, discuss the requirements with your unit nurse educator or nurse manager.

The Exam is $344 and individuals are given a 90 day window to schedule the exam at an ANCC approved center. There are over 300 in the country. Depending on your location, you may have to travel to the closest center. You do not have to take the exam in your home state. This is a national certification and not state specific.

Currently, there is no exact data on the growth for ICU nurses. However, according to the BLS, in 2021 there were 3,130,600 Registered Nurses in the United States. By 2031, there will be a need for an additional 195,400 nurses, which is a projected growth of 6%. With the aging population, this number is expected to be even higher.

ICU nurses will always be in demand because there will always be car accidents, gunshot victims, oncology patients, etc. who require life-saving measures. These highly specialized trained nurses will always be able to find positions especially as technological advances in medicine continue.

ICU nurses perform a variety of tasks and have numerous job responsibilities. These will vary depending on the healthcare system but generally, ICU nurses perform the following specific duties:

  • Collaborate with health care professions to provide holistic care to patients.
  • Educate patients and their families on diagnosis, medications, and other information
  • Cleaning and bandaging patient wounds
  • Tracking life support equipment
  • Immediately responding to changes in the patient’s condition.
  • Evaluating vital signs such
  • Administering medications
  • Acting as a patient’s advocate
  • Provide comfort and prevent suffering
  • Infusing blood products and monitoring patients for reaction
  • Caring for the patient’s body immediately after death
  • Identifying patient’s needs according to their age and level of consciousness and creating a care plan to meet them
  • Complete paperwork prior to transferring or discharging a patient
  • Respond to medical emergencies on the unit
  • Supporting a compassionate and therapeutic environment for critically ill patients

Nurses can specialize within the ICU field. ICU nurses often can provide care in various ICUs and related units:

  • Cardiothoracic ICU
  • Oncology ICU
  • Neurocare ICU
  • Surgical ICU
  • Medical ICU
  • Coronary ICU
  • Psychiatric ICU

Not all healthcare systems will have multiple ICUs. Patients requiring ICU level care will all be in the same unit.

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ICU Nurses are generally limited in where they can work because of their highly specialized training. The on-the-job training for ICU nurses makes them highly sought after for a variety of nursing positions; however, ICU nursing is very limited in their job location opportunities. ICU nurses can work in the following areas:

  • Hospitals
  • Cardiac Catheter Labs
  • Surgical Departments
  • Progressive Care Units
  • Outpatient Surgery Center
  • Post-operative Care Units

ICU nurses have the same continuing education requirements as other RNs. This will vary on a state by state basis. There are no specific CEU requirements for ICU unless they have obtained advanced certification such as the CCRN.

Generally, in order for an individual to renew their RN license, they will need to fill out an application, complete a specific number of CEU hours, and pay a nominal fee. Each state has specific requirements and it is important to check with the board of nursing prior to applying for license renewal.

A detailed look at Continuing Nurse Education hours can be found here.

To find out more information about ICU nursing check out these websites:

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

American Nurses Association

American Academy of Nursing

National League of Nursing

Society of Critical Care Medicine

American Journal of Critical Care

Critical Care Nurse Journal

ICU nurses work in a fast-paced and dynamic environment that often requires very high levels of mental and physical strength. Nurses are tasked with providing life-saving measures to patients while ensuring they receive the best care possible. It is a highly rewarding career within the nursing profession and one that most never leave once they become a part of.


  • What is an ICU Nurse?

    • Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses are Registered Nurses that specialize in critical care nursing to provide care for patients with life-threatening medical conditions.
  • What Does an ICU Nurse Do?

    • ICU nurses utilize specialized skills and extensive knowledge of disease pathology and pharmacology to provide life-sustaining interventions.
  • How Much Does an ICU Nurse Make?

    • The average annual ICU nurse salary is $80,900 as of 2022 according to
  • Is Being an ICU Nurse Hard?

    • ICU nursing is one of the most demanding nursing careers, both physically and mentally. ICU nurses are often tasked with providing lifesaving nursing care to patients on the brink of death.
  • ICU Nursing vs ER Nursing

    • ER nurses act quickly to stabilize patients so that they can move to their next destination which might be home or an ICU. ER nurses are typically focused on transitioning a patient to the next level of care. On the other hand, ICU nurses focus on restoring a patient’s wellness and their outcomes.
  • Can a New Nurse Work in the ICU?

    • Yes, a new nurse can work in the ICU but this will vary based on the healthcare system. Ideally, most ICUs will only hire nurses either from another ICU or with several years of medical-surgical experience. But don’t be discouraged if you are a new nurse. Just keep looking for the ICUs that will hire new grads!
$70,000 - $90,000 Associate Bachelors Bedside RN ICU
How to Become an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse (2024)


How to Become an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse? ›

To work as an ICU nurse

ICU nurse
Often called ICU nurses because of the unit they commonly work in, critical care nurses are highly trained to understand and provide care for people of all ages who are recovering from life-threatening illnesses or injuries. Today, there are more than half a million critical care nurses working in the United States. › healthcare › critical-care-nurse-career
, you must first become an RN by graduating with an ADN or BSN from an accredited nursing program. You'll then get your licensure by passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Next, you'll need to gain at least two years of nursing experience in a position that specializes in intensive care nursing.

How long does it take to be an ICU nurse? ›

Generally, it takes approximately five to six years of training and education to become a practicing ICU nurse. ADN programs take two years, while BSN programs take four years. Once you graduate and pass the NCLEX-RN exam, you'll need at least two years of clinical experience to qualify for certifications.

How hard is it to get into ICU nurse? ›

Please understand, becoming an ICU nurse is a very selective process. This job requires so much mentally from nurses that the entire hiring process is rigid and difficult to pass, especially for new grads. In fact, to get a job in the ICU right after graduating from nursing school is the exception and not the rule.

Can you start out as an ICU nurse? ›

While a new grad ICU nurse can thrive supported by experienced staff, it's a little different for travel nurses who are filling a staffing gap and must hit the ground running. Many hospitals require travel ICU nurses to have one to two years of experience before venturing into an unfamiliar critical care setting.

What is the highest paid ICU nurse? ›

Highest paying cities for Registered Nurse - ICUs near United States
  • Los Angeles, CA. $3,266 per week. 1.3k salaries reported.
  • New York, NY. $2,540 per week. 10.1k salaries reported.
  • Fountain Valley, CA. $2,468 per week. 1.1k salaries reported.
  • Baltimore, MD. $2,422 per week. ...
  • Phoenix, AZ. $2,237 per week. ...
  • Show more nearby cities.

Is ICU or ER harder for nursing? ›

Nurses need to be highly focused and driven. But ultimately, if you're a high-energy person who's able to think on your feet and remain calm in a crisis, ER nursing would be a better fit. The ICU lacks the urgency of the ER, but there is an immense amount of pressure because of the severity of the illnesses.

Is ICU nursing harder than Med Surg? ›

Medical-surgical nurses must rely heavily on their critical thinking skills, collating and comparing numerous data sets, and past knowledge to determine and anticipate clinical scenarios. Medical-surgical nursing she summarized, is so much harder than critical care nursing.

Is ICU more stressful than ER? ›

Type B. Although ICU and ER nurses deal with similar levels of stress, they are probably best summarized by their personality differences. ICU nurses must be very detail-oriented and carefully monitor every aspect of a patient's health to help them recover fully. ER nurses must also be careful and detail-oriented.

Is it worth becoming an ICU nurse? ›

Intensive care unit (ICU) nurses play a crucial role in healthcare by caring for patients facing life-threatening conditions. They evaluate patients' conditions, provide treatments, and assist in procedures to help them recover. In turn, ICU nursing can be a highly-rewarding profession.

What is the hardest part of being an ICU nurse? ›

ICU nurses face a unique set of challenges as they care for critically ill patients who require constant monitoring and support, including the following:
  • Mixed-Up Schedules. ...
  • Shifts that Last More than 10 hours. ...
  • Physically Demanding Tasks. ...
  • Emotional Burden. ...
  • Wide Exposure to Death, Illness, and chemicals.
May 5, 2023

Should a new grad nurse start in ICU? ›

Is it possible for a new nurse to work in the ICU? Yes, but it is the exception and not the rule. I want to encourage all new nurses and nurse grads – if your goal is to work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), that it might be possible right away, but it's not easy and not for everyone.

Can new grads start in the ICU? ›

While getting an ICU nursing job as a new nurse may be competitive, it's definitely possible. If you put in the extra effort to research and apply for jobs, you will eventually find an opening. Once you're in, make sure to give it your all and prove that you're an asset to the team.

Which nurse makes the most money? ›

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists earn a median salary of $195,610 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it the top paying nursing specialty. CRNAs typically work 40 hours per week, making the hourly wage average out to approximately $94.04 per hour.

Does ICU pay more than Med Surg? ›

The national average for all ICU nurses is nearly $66,000 per year. The annual salary for a med-surg nurse is a bit lower than that with an average of approximately $62,000 per year. However, nurses in all specialty areas have great opportunities for advancement with plenty of new jobs opening up all the time.

Why do ICU nurses make more than ER nurses? ›

Both work in direct patient care in a high-pressure environment. If you hold an ADN or a BSN degree, you can choose from either career. ICU nurses with specialized nursing knowledge earn more than ER nurses since ICU patients. However, salary differences are nominal.

Are ICU nurses in high demand? ›

Quantifying the demand for ICU nurses is a bit more challenging because demand for their services fluctuates, but at least one study notes that demand for ICU nurses shot up by 186 percent in 2020 compared to the pre-pandemic period.

How stressful is it to be an ICU nurse? ›

Prevalence of stress among ICU doctors was 36.58% and nurses was 68.29%. According to the DASS (for stress only), 19.51% doctors were mildly stressed, 14.63% were moderately stressed, and 2.44% were severely stressed. Among nurses, 48.78% were mildly stressed and 19.51% were moderately stressed.

Why do ICU nurses make so much? ›

One reason for this is that each state has a different cost of living. Healthcare units in more expensive states must pay their ICU nurses higher salaries so they can afford their expenses. Some states also have access to stronger funding, which means their healthcare facilities can afford to pay higher salaries.

What is the highest paying nurse? ›

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists earn a median salary of $195,610 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it the top paying nursing specialty. CRNAs typically work 40 hours per week, making the hourly wage average out to approximately $94.04 per hour.

How many days a week does an ICU nurse work? ›

Some hospitals have a 7 pm-7 am shift, while others have a 7 am-7 pm shift. Some hospitals have 8 or 10-hour shifts. Regardless of the shift, most ICU travel nurses work 3-5 days a week. Your workdays will be rotating, which means that you may end up working weekends here and there.

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