Physical, occupational, and speech therapists who are new to travel therapy often wonder, “Do I have to have a state license for each state I want to work in?”
The answer, unfortunately, is YES! As a PT/PTA, OT/COTA, or SLP, you must have a state license for any US state where you want to work, in order to take a job there, even if you are just there temporarily as a travel therapist.
- There are exceptions to this rule, such as for certain government jobs, when traveling with a sports team, or sometimes during a state of emergency. But for the most part, you always need a license in that state.
This can be a tricky part of being a traveling therapist and wanting to travel to new states to work. So let’s go over how this process works and how you can master it to be a successful travel therapist!
The Typical Licensing Process
Under most circumstances, therapists (like other healthcare professionals) must apply individually to each state licensing board where they would like to obtain a license.
Sadly, passing our national board exams for PT/OT/SLP doesn’t automatically qualify us to work in all of the 50 states. We must also apply for a license in the individual states we want to work in. (Unless you are eligible for a “Compact License” — more on this below!)
When you first graduate and apply to take your national exam, you will apply for your first state license, normally in your home state or the first state where you plan to work. This process is called “Licensure by Examination.”
After you get your first license, you can apply for as many additional state licenses as you want, and this process is called “Licensure by Endorsement,” because your first state endorses that you have a license in good standing, and gives you the ability to get any subsequent licenses!
To get licensed in each state, you need to visit the state licensing board for your profession in that state. For example, if you want to get a PT license in Hawaii, visit the physical therapy board website for the state of Hawaii, and so forth. Each state will have slightly different requirements, so it’s important to go directly to their website to see all of the steps to getting licensed there, and give them a call if you have questions!
Licensing requirements for each state usually involve: an application (paper or online), an application fee, and sometimes: a background check, references, verification from other states where you’re licensed, verification of your passing scores for your original national exam, verification from your school where you earned your professional degree, fingerprinting, and/or a jurisprudence exam (which is a test on the laws for practicing in that state).
Again, every state has different requirements, so it’s up to you to find out what all you need to complete to get the license there!
Fortunately for PTs/PTAs, there is now the “PT Compact” which is a compact licensure that allows you to more easily and quickly obtain compact licensing privilege to work in another state. This cuts out a lot of the hassle and fees involved in applying to each state individually.
It’s very important to know that not everyone is eligible for the PT Compact. Only certain states are participating at this time, and in order to be eligible, your home state must be participating. I repeat, your home state must be participating. You cannot simply get a license in a compact state, then become eligible for the compact. For more information, please check out this article specifically on the PT Compact, and visit PTCompact.org for all the eligibility rules and to see which states are participating!
For OT/COTA and SLP, at this time there is no compact licensure. But there are initiatives within these professions to start one. If you’re an OT/COTA or SLP, reach out to your national and state organizations if you’d like to help get the ball rolling to make the licensing process easier!
Does the Travel Company Help with Licensing?
Usually travelers want to know whether the travel therapy company helps you get licensed in a new state, or at least pays for you to get the license in order to take a job with them in a new state.
The answer is that, yes, they can sometimes help you with the process, but usually you are going to have to do most of the work to get the license upfront, then get reimbursed for the fees later.
In some cases, usually if you are already a current traveler working with a company, they can help you with the licensure process by taking care of some of the steps and fees upfront for you. But normally this is not the case unless you’re already working for them.
Most of the time, if you take a job in a state with that company, they will reimburse you for the cost of getting the license as part of your pay package for that job.
- But, as always, it’s important to understand how pay packages work as a traveler. All the money usually comes out of the bill rate for the job, unless the company has a separate budget set aside for licenses. But the bottom line is, even if you are getting reimbursed for a license, it’s probably coming out of your pay one way or another. Always remember that the pay package is all one big “pie” no matter how the company “slices” it.
Strategies for State Licensing as a Traveler
In general, we recommend that travelers plan to have at least 2-3 active state licenses at a time, in order to have more job options in different states. If you only hold one active state license, you really limit your ability to find jobs as a traveler.
Some travelers will plan to wait until they get a job offer to apply for the license in that state. However, this process usually is too slow and does not work out. Some state licenses are fairly quick to get, maybe just a couple weeks, but some can take months to process, especially if they’re waiting on verifications from other states where you have licenses.
In addition, most jobs will want you to already have the state license before even interviewing you. So, this is why we recommend already having a few licenses before you apply for travel jobs in another state.
So this raises the question, how do you know which state licenses to get? Our recommended strategy is to talk to recruiters and other travelers to find out which states usually have a good amount of travel jobs for your discipline.
Unfortunately, there are certain states where you might really want to go, that don’t tend to have a lot of jobs. For example, it’s often rare to see many travel PT jobs in Utah for some reason. Whereas certain other states tend to have really good travel job availability, like California.
It’s important to strategize where you choose to get licensed. If you have 3 state licenses but they’re all states where there are no jobs, this doesn’t help you. If you have a particular region in mind, for example New England, try to pick the state in that region that has the most jobs to get licensed. For example, as a PT pair, we wanted to go to Maine or Vermont, but we found out there weren’t usually a lot of jobs there. So we applied for Massachusetts instead since they tend to have a lot of jobs, and we ended up working there, but got the opportunity to visit Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, etc on weekend trips!
The licensing process can be tricky, and unfortunately sometimes you end up applying for some licenses and then never get to use them and never get reimbursed for them. This is a bummer, but it’s part of the process. You’ll usually only be out a few hundred dollars, but you’ll greatly increase your chances of getting consistent back to back jobs when you want them, which limits unwanted time off where you could lose thousands of dollars by not working.
Maintaining Several State Licenses
The last consideration for travel therapy licensing is whether or not you keep the license when it comes up for renewal. This is up to you.
We usually let licenses lapse if we don’t think we will end up working there or going back there. If you go this route, you could always reinstate the license later by paying a fee, which usually is not too difficult of a process.
For those licenses that you choose to keep, you’ll want to make sure to keep track of deadlines, fees, and CEU requirements in order to renew each state license you hold. We personally keep a spreadsheet just to track the details of each license to make sure we don’t miss anything. We also use MedBridge for our CEUs, which is a great resource to get online CEUs, and it has nice features which allow you to see which states your CEU course qualifies for and how many credits. You can almost always “double dip” your CEU credits across all your state licenses. So all in all, it’s not that difficult to maintain a few licenses.
Summary for Licensing as a Travel Therapist
The licensing process as a travel therapist can be challenging and cause some headache. But the time and effort invested in getting a few state licenses will be worth it in the end when you are able to have more job opportunities and explore new states! Hopefully with the insight provided in this article you’ll be better prepared to get licensed and pursue your career in travel therapy!
Check out the rest of the Travel Therapy 101 Mini-Series in order to learn all the basics of travel therapy, including: pay, housing, working with recruiters, tax homes, and more!
If you have questions or are ready to get started on your travel therapy journey, please feel free to contact us or ask us for recommendations for our favorite travel therapy recruiters to help you get started!
Written by Whitney Eakin, PT, DPT, ATC