How to Become a CNA
Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are essential caregivers. They help their patients stay safe, be comfortable, and maintain their dignity as they navigate the daily challenges of aging or living with acute health conditions. CNAs provide hands-on care, helping patients bathe, dress, and eat. They monitor patients and communicate with other medical team members to ensure a high standard of care.
Because CNAs are in great demand and the education requirements are minimal, this career choice is ideal for new high school grads or those who want to gain a foothold in the healthcare field. A CNA career also helps aspiring nurses get a feel for what it’s like to work with patients.
This page will help you understand the steps involved in becoming a CNA. You’ll learn about CNA training programs, including time expenditure, cost, what to expect from training, licensing requirements, and more.
Steps to Becoming a CNA
There are three general steps involved in becoming a certified nursing assistant and pursuing a CNA career.
- Completing a certified nursing assistant training program
- Taking a state-specific CNA certification exam and earning your license
- Maintaining your license with continuing education hours, as mandated by your state
Before starting your CNA training, you’ll want to make sure you meet or exceed any necessary educational and age prerequisites.
What Are the Educational Requirements to Become a CNA?
States set individual mandates around education-related CNA requirements, meaning you’ll need to check with your state’s board of nursing to learn about specifics—both for school enrollment and professional licensing requirements.
Aspiring CNAs commonly ask if they can become a CNA without a high school diploma or GED. There are no federal regulations about minimum education requirements for CNAs. So if you live in a state that doesn’t require a GED or high school education, such as Texas, you may be able to skip this requirement as long as you’re old enough (generally 16-18 years old).
However, while states may not have specific educational prerequisites, schools and employers might. For example, your state could allow you to become a licensed CNA at age 16 and without a high school diploma, but the hospital you hope to work at may require that you are 18 years old and have at least a GED.
Keep in mind that not having a diploma or GED when you become a CNA could also create trouble down the road. If you plan to continue your education as an LPN or RN or pursue another CNA career path, many schools require these credentials as part of the admission process.
Another commonly asked question is whether you’ll need prior work experience to become a CNA. Given that certified nursing assistants are entry-level roles, neither CNA training programs nor employers will expect you to possess prior nursing experience.
Where Can I Get CNA Training?
Many different types of schools and programs offer CNA training, both online and in-person. That said, not all CNA training is created equally in terms of quality. Before choosing a CNA program, make sure you do your research and find an option that meets state licensure standards.
One way to find top-tier local schools is to review your state board of nursing’s list of approved programs. In Florida, for instance, the nursing board provides a regularly updated PDF file of schools along with their licensure status. In most cases, you can find training options with community colleges, vocational schools, high schools, employee-sponsored programs, or online providers.
Another tip when looking at programs in your area is to consider if you want to work for a particular employer after graduating. If so, reach out to the human resources department and ask if the facility offers any CNA training. The company may provide an approved, in-house training program or be willing to help cover the costs of certain programs if it means you’ll work for them.
It’s also crucial to understand the differences between a CNA training program and a CNA exam prep course. If you live in a “challenge” state like Florida, you can attempt to pass the exam without completing a CNA training program. In this case, you may decide to go the CNA exam prep route if you already have relevant nursing experience or training.
Conversely, if you don’t live in one of these states, the exam prep course will not qualify you to become a CNA—even if you receive a passing exam score. If you completed your CNA training program a while back and feel a bit rusty on the material, an exam prep course can help you brush up on important topics before sitting for the exam.
How Much Does It Cost to Become a CNA?
The cost of becoming a CNA can vary substantially based on the type of institution you attend and where you live. Some less reputable programs charge thousands of dollars, but the average cost is around $1,100 to $1,300. If you come across programs charging far more than this, be wary.
In addition, you need to factor in other common costs, such as your CNA exam and certification. These can be around $115 and $50, respectively, but will vary by state. Other purchases to consider include textbooks, study materials, and uniforms. Fortunately, there are quite a few financial aid options for CNA students that can help you pay for your training.
If you’re wary about spending money on nursing assistant certification, you may be able to start your CNA career debt-free. Some fully subsidized CNA training programs provide all classes for free to students. These types of programs often match you with a job before you even start the program, giving you a guarantee that the hours you put into training will pay off right away.
How Long Does It Take to Become a CNA?
CNA education programs typically last an average of 10 weeks, including clinical hours. However, fast-track programs enable you to complete training in just 4 to 6 weeks. Program length requirements vary by state certification requirements, so check with your state board of nursing to know what to look for in an acceptable program.
You also need to factor in the time it takes to become licensed, which can vary depending on your state’s requirements and the frequency of test openings. With state-approved training programs (such as the ones offered by Premier Nursing Academy), graduates are provisionally approved to begin work as CNAs even before passing the CNA exam.
How Hard Is It to Become a CNA?
When exploring how to become a CNA, many prospective learners may wonder whether or not they’ve got what it takes to pass a training course and state exam. In reality, how difficult a student finds their training program depends on the student. Some may find the written coursework easy but need to spend more time working on the clinical skills. Others may find the clinical portion of the program a breeze but struggle with the reading and homework.
It’s important to remember that CNA training doesn’t last long when you consider all it provides. It may feel difficult or overwhelming in the moment, but if you dedicate yourself to putting in the effort and finishing the program, you’ll find yourself ready to begin a fulfilling, in-demand career in no time.
What Should I Expect From a CNA Training Program?
Most certified nursing assistant training programs include two components: in-class coursework and clinical experience. Classes can vary based on the program you attend, but common CNA program topics to expect include:
- CPR and First Aid
- Infection Control
- Workplace Safety
You may learn other skills throughout training as well, such as:
- How to take vital signs
- Helping patients perform range of motion exercises
- Documenting patient care services and reporting these to other nursing staff
- Assisting patients with daily tasks such as eating and bathing
- Communicating and interacting with other healthcare professionals
During the clinical portion of training, you’ll work under the supervision of a licensed nurse to apply the skills and knowledge gained during the classroom portion of the program. This real-world experience serves as an important component in preparing you to become a successful CNA.
What Are the Nursing Assistant Certification and Licensing Requirements?
To work as a certified nursing assistant, you must pass a state-approved exam to obtain licensure in the state you plan to practice. Some states require this step before starting work, while others will let you work several months after completing your CNA schooling while waiting to take your exam.
To qualify for the exam, you must meet the required minimum number of training hours. These will also vary by state, so check with your state board of nursing. Plan to spend at least 75 hours completing training requirements—which is the federally mandated minimum. Some states may require additional hours.
Third-party test providers such as Pearson VUE often administer the CNA exam and divide it into two parts—a written portion and a clinical portion. The written portion uses a multiple-choice question format and can be completed on a computer. The clinical portion requires you to demonstrate important nursing skills to a clinical evaluator. Skills you may be tested on include:
- Taking and recording patient blood pressure
- Feeding, bathing, and dressing patients
- Leading patients through range of motion exercises
- Creating and maintaining a sterile environment
- Communicating with patients and their healthcare teams
Individual states set requirements around passing scores, but most fall between the 70-80% range. Make sure that you understand your state’s requirements by contacting your state board or NCSBN. After passing the examination, your name will be added to the registry of CNAs, and you can seek employment.
You typically need to renew your CNA license every two years. Some states may require you to complete a set number of continuing education courses to ensure you stay up to date in your knowledge and skills. Some of these required hours may also include in-service training.
Can I Become a CNA Online?
For some students, an in-person CNA training program doesn’t fit well with their busy schedules and existing professional and personal responsibilities. In these cases, pursuing a distance learning program can make CNA requirements feel doable.
CNA programs include both theoretical and practical training, so no legitimate training program can exist fully online. While you may be able to listen to lectures from the comfort of your home with online learning, you’ll need to take part in in-person clinical training to learn the physical work required to take care of a patient.
Online CNA training comes with both pros and cons. Distance learning provides the flexibility busy students need and offers more autonomy for motivated, focused learners to complete assignments quickly. On the flip side, online learning can’t substitute for clinical experiences and doesn’t offer the same type of structure some learners need to succeed.
If you need the motivation of going to class every day to keep you on track, in-person learning may offer the best fit. A fast-track, in-person CNA training program can give you the training you need with a short-term commitment.
How Can I Become a Travel CNA?
Working as a travel CNA allows nursing assistants to step outside of healthcare facilities and provide services to patients in their homes. Agencies may even hire some of these professionals privately to travel with their patients and provide ongoing care. Many travel CNAs report earning significantly higher salaries, making it a great option for those looking to move up in their careers without completing additional education.
The majority of staffing agencies require travel CNAs to possess at least one year of nurse assisting experience. If you think you want to pursue this path, keep these requirements in mind and try to tailor your experience to future travel CNA positions. While gaining the requisite experience, you can look up CNA staffing agencies in your region to learn about any specific requirements for employment.