Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) vs. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): What’s the Difference?
The world of nursing has many different titles and acronyms. You may be wondering about the difference between an LVN versus LPN. These two titles have many similarities, as they both represent entry-level licensed nursing, but there are some key differences. Use this guide to learn more about what an LVN and LPN do so you can decide if a career as a vocational nurse is one you’d like to pursue.
Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN) vs. Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN)
Licensed vocational nurses (LVN) and licensed practical nurses (LPN) are similar positions. Both LVNs and LPNs provide basic care to nursing patients and work under nurses with more advanced titles, like a registered nurse (RN). The main difference is where the entry-level licensed nurse works. An LVN works in the state of California; Texas also employs LVNs. Other states distinguish these types of nurses as LPNs.
Both LVNs and LPNs must pass rigorous licensing requirements set forth by the state in which the nurse wants to work. These typically include educational requirements and the passing of the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN). Licenses will need to be renewed in the time frame the state dictates, typically every two to four years.
Should I Become a LPN/LPN Nurse?
The educational requirements to become an LPN/LVN nurse are less demanding than higher nursing positions. Because of this, working as a licensed practice or licensed vocational nurse may be a good stepping stone career move if you’re interested in becoming an RN or more advanced nursing roles later. You may gain experience, learn about the types of patients you want to specialize in working with and get closer to determining what you want out of a nursing career.
LPNs/LVNs may work in a variety of settings, including:
- Nursing homes
- Extended care facilities
- Doctors’ offices
- Private homes
Some LPN/LVNs work as travel nurses, going to settings where there are nursing shortages and their skills are in demand.
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses may work under RNs or physicians. They gain experience with health care tasks like basic patient health monitoring and care. Their duties might include:
- Checking blood pressure
- Changing bandages
- Collecting test samples
- Inserting catheters
- Helping patients dress, eat or bathe
- Keeping patient health records and reporting patient status to RNs and physicians
In some cases, LVNs may also supervise unlicensed medical staff, such as nursing assistants and orderlies.
Salary and Career
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2020 median pay for licensed vocational and licensed practical nurses was $48,820 per year.
Nurses who pursue different nursing specialties in a higher role like RN or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) typically have higher earning potential. According to the BLS, the 2019 median pay for RNs was $75,330 per year. For nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, the 2019 median pay was $117,670 per year.
The BLS projects the job outlook for LVN and LPN positions will grow 9% between 2019–2029, which is much faster than average. There are 65,700 new LPN and LVN jobs expected to be added to the 721,700 jobs there were in 2019.
To become a nurse at the LVN or LPN level, obtaining a high school diploma or the equivalent education is the first requirement. Then, candidates typically must complete an approved educational program that awards a certificate or diploma. Completion of such a program qualifies a candidate to sit for the NCLEX-PN exam.
LPNs and LVNs have direct interactions with patients and supervisors on a medical team. To be successful, an LPN or LVN may want to have skills like the following.
- Communication: LPNs and LVNs may need to communicate patient progress to RNs or physicians. The LPN/LVN may also need to communicate to the patient what type of care is being provided.
- Empathy: LPNs and LVNs provide compassionate care to patients who could be undergoing stressful times as a result of medical issues. Nurses may provide caring support to patients as well as family members or loved ones who may be visiting or communicating with the medical team.
- Organization: Being organized may be very important in the LVN/LPN role. These nurses might keep track of patient care, accurately update records and provide clear feedback and updates to supervisors.
- Stamina: Nursing is often a physical role, where nurses are on their feet for long periods of time and are moving between patient locations. LPNs and LVNs may have to physically assist patients with certain functions, like bathing, which also requires strength and stamina.
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN) License and Exam
All state nursing practice requirements for LVNs and LPNs include passing the NCLEX-PN in order to get a license. Candidates must submit an application for licensure/registration to the state’s nursing regulatory board, register for the NCLEX-PN and pay the required fee.
The NCLEX-PN includes questions covering:
- Basic care and comfort
- Coordinated care
- Health promotion and maintenance
- Psychosocial integrity
- Safety and infection control
If you don’t pass the exam, you may retake it after 45 days. You’ll receive a NCLEX Candidate Performance Report that shows how you performed in each test plan content area, so you’ll know what to focus on before retaking the exam. Once you’ve passed the NCLEX-PN, you can apply for licensure in your state as long as you meet the remaining requirements, which may vary by state.
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN) Programs
LPN/LVN programs take around a year to complete and may be provided at places like community colleges, technical schools and hospitals. To sit for the NCLEX-PN exam, you’ll have to complete an approved LVN program. In LPN or LVN programs, students may study subjects like nursing, pharmacology and biology. The programs may also include supervised clinical experience.
Once you’re an LPN or LVN, there are other nurse degree programs to consider. One is an LPN to RN program. You may apply your nursing knowledge to your studies and learn how to provide specialized services to a certain patient population, if you choose.
Achieving an RN title may help you advance your career, as you’ll likely be able to provide more complex patient care and may supervise LVNs or LPNs as an RN.
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN) Resources and Organizations
As an LVN or LPN, joining professional organizations can connect you with peers and keep you up to date on the industry. Check out these resources and organizations for LVNs and LPNs.
- American Nurses Association (ANA): As a member of ANA, you can attend free webinars, get continuing education, get access to nursing journals, connect with other nurses and participate in lobbying efforts.
- International Council of Nurses (ICN): The ICN is a global organization representing nursing. It promotes nursing policy and aligns nursing organizations throughout the world.
- National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN): NAHN offers professional networking, continuing education and leadership development for Hispanic nurses.
- National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (NALPN): This is the national professional organization for LPNs and LVNs. NALPN puts on an annual conference, sends out a newsletter and can connect you with a state chapter.
- National Black Nurses Association, Inc. (NBNA): The NBNA has an annual conference and networking opportunities for African American nurses.
Have questions about becoming a licensed practical or licensed vocational nurse? Check out frequently asked questions on LPNs/LVNs and answers below.
What is an LVN nurse?
An LVN nurse is a licensed vocational nurse who provides basic care to patients and typically works under the supervision of an RN or physician. Duties include assisting patients with everyday activities like feeding and bathing, performing basic care like taking vitals or collecting samples, and communicating with patients regarding care.
How long does it take to become an LVN?
It takes around a little more than a year to become an LVN. LVN programs take around a year to complete, after which an LVN candidate can qualify to sit for the NCLEX-PN. Passing the NCLEX-PN is a requirement to apply for licensure in all states.
Where do LVNs work?
LVNs work in diverse health care and patient settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, patient homes and doctors’ offices. LVNs may work with specific patient populations, such as kids or older adults, or with patients who need either short-term or long-term care based on the state of their health.
Is RN higher than an LVN?
Yes, an RN position is a higher level nurse than an LVN. RNs may supervise LVNs. While LVNs provide basic patient care, RNs assess patient conditions, record patient medical symptoms and histories, administer medicine, perform and analyze diagnostic tests and create patient care plans.
Information on this page was last updated in June 2021.