Nail Technician Career and Training Information
A nail technician is a specialized professional within the cosmetology industry who is responsible for keeping clients' nails, hands, and feet looking and feeling their best.
They are generally creative people who enjoy treating nails as an artist's canvas but also have a strong knowledge of related health issues.
A nail technician, or manicurist, is a specialist who focuses on providing care for nails. Often, they perform services on the skin of feet and hands as well.
What's included in a typical job description can vary depending on specific employers and working environments, but common responsibilities tend to include:
Manicures and Pedicures
- Inspecting client for nail or skin disorders
- Removing existing nail polishes, treatments, or artificial nails
- Soaking hands and/or feet in warm water (which can have a mixture of moisturizing, soothing, or rejuvenating ingredients added)
- Performing hand and/or foot massage
- Performing hot stone treatments
- Applying treatments and moisturizers to hands and/or feet
- Cleaning nails
- Trimming, shaping, and filing nails
- Polishing and buffing nails
- Applying any requested treatments (such as a silk wrap)
- Applying polishes or designs as per the client's request (can include a single solid color, classic applications like a French manicure, or new trends such as airbrush designs, geometric patterns, textured designs, etc.)
- Applying acrylic or other types of artificial nails
- Creating and applying nail art
- Advising clients on proper care of nails, hands, and feet
- Cleaning and properly disinfecting all work areas and tools between each client
- Greeting clients and discussing available treatments and services
- Promoting and selling products and tools to clients
- Processing payments for services and products
- Booking appointments
In addition, those who are also entrepreneurs running their own salons often need to take on additional responsibilities such as:
- Hiring, training, and managing staff
- Creating staff schedules
- Managing accounting and finance-related tasks (or working with a professional accountant)
- Handling promotion, marketing, and advertising
- Ordering supplies and managing inventory
How to Get Into the Field
In the past, requirements tended to be more informal, and it was common to simply obtain training on the job. Today, however, most employers prefer to hire nail techs who have a formal education.
In addition, it's important to keep in mind that all states except Connecticut require certification through a state-approved (i.e., accredited) program and successfully passing a state licensing exam. Licensing exams and requirements vary by state, but nationwide requirements tend to include being at least 18 years of age and having received a high school diploma (or GED equivalent).
After successfully passing the exam, you will be awarded certification and will be eligible to work in your state.
What You Can Learn in a Training Program
When it comes to training, there are many different options to choose from. Specialized cosmetology and beauty school options exist, but many other vocational schools, trade schools, and colleges offer specialized programs as well.
Alternatively, if you are interested in learning how to become a nail technician online, there are many schools that provide distance learning options, allowing you to train from the comfort of home. The most important thing is to make sure that the program you choose has been accredited by the state board of cosmetology so that you will graduate eligible to pursue state licensing.
Depending on the type of school and program you choose, the curricula for programs can vary quite widely. However, some of the common topics you can expect to learn about include:
- Nail structure and growth
- Hand and feet anatomy
- Nail and skin diseases and disorders
- Industry laws and regulations
- Client education
- Manicure and pedicure procedures
- Nail repair (i.e., fixing broken or split nails)
- Maintenance and enhancements
- Wraps and specialized treatments
- Hand, arm, and foot massage techniques
- Nail art design and application
- Artificial nail applications (i.e., acrylic, fiberglass, gel, and silk nails)
- Safety and sanitation practices
Tools, Equipment, and Supplies
- Portable hand and food baths
- Hand-held and electronic manicure and pedicure tools
- LED and UV manicure lights and nail dryers
- Airbrush machines
- Polishes, base coats, and top coats
- Strengthening and repairing serums
- Lotions and oils
- Polish removers and chemicals
Business and General Education
- Business ethics
- Customer service
- Product promotion and sales
- Appointment scheduling
- Business computer applications
- Salon management
- Marketing and promotion
Many schools will include practical experience through externship or practicum components that take place within local salons. Some schools may even have an on-site, student-run salon that allows students to provide supervised services to actual clients. Most accredited programs will also include preparation for licensing examinations.
Program length can vary by school and location. It can also depend on whether you choose to study part-time or full-time.
The most common education credentials are diplomas and certificates, which generally take a year or less to complete. However, the length of the program tends to vary depending on the state in which you attend school. The reason for this is that education hours are part of the prerequisites for state licensing. Some states only require 200 hours of classroom training, while others may ask for up to 600 hours.
If you choose an online program, you may be able to complete a program more quickly, since you could have the opportunity to set your own pace. By putting in more hours per week than a traditional on-campus program, you could complete courses sooner than if you were following a structured timetable.
Cost of Schooling
The cost of nail tech/manicure school will depend on various factors, including the type of school and program you choose, the length of the program, and even the location of the school.
That being said, on average, you can expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 or less for a short-term online program up to $10,000 for an on-campus program. However, many on-campus nail technician programs average around $5,000.
When looking into the cost of tuition for specific programs, it can be helpful to determine exactly what is included within the tuition fee. Some schools combine the cost of tuition with books and supplies for one single fee, while others will charge separately. Knowing exactly what is included in tuition and what is extra can help you determine the total cost of your nail technician education.
Most schools are able to offer some sort of financial support to students. It's helpful to find out if a school has a financial aid department because it could help you determine what sources of funding you may be eligible for, such as federal loans and grants, private loans, scholarships, or veterans benefits. Plus, some schools may offer alternative options such as payment plans or work-study programs.
The first step is to check with your state board of cosmetology. It will be able to direct you to the specific criteria for your area.
Although licensing requirements do vary by state (with Connecticut being the only state that doesn't require nail technicians to obtain licensure or certification), common prerequisites and processes include:
- Graduating from a program that is accredited by the state board of cosmetology and includes a minimum number of training hours (usually between 250 and 450).
- Submitting a nail specialty registration application to the state board of cosmetology for approval, along with payment for applicable fees. Once you have been approved, official nail specialist registration or licensure will be issued. However, some states will also require that you successfully take an examination before licensing is issued.
- In some states, while your license is pending, you are still eligible to work under the supervision of a registered nail technician within a licensed salon or spa as long as you provide the salon owner with a copy of your completed licensing application as well as your school transcripts.
- Once you have received official registration, you will be responsible for keeping it valid by paying renewal fees and completing continuing education credits as necessary. Renewal periods, fees, and minimum continuing education hours vary by state.
The majority of manicurists work within a salon or spa; however, national estimates from 2016 showed that almost 30 percent were self-employed, running their own salon or providing a mobile service in which they travel to their clients' homes. *
Alternative work environments can include spas or salons within cruise ships, resorts, and hotels. Plus, some work within the fashion or entertainment industries, but these positions tend to be rare and extremely competitive.
When it comes to hours, nail techs who work in salons tend to work full-time, but those employed within spas that provide many different services are often only needed for part-time hours. Since a large number of clients prefer evening and weekend appointments, these tend to be the busiest times for nail technicians.
The job prospects appear to be very good according to national projections for the period between 2016 and 2026. The estimates show that job opportunities for nail professionals are projected to grow by 13 percent, which is faster than the estimated average for all occupations (seven percent). *
Some of the factors that are expected to stimulate growth in the industry include:
- A rise in popularity and demand for "mini sessions," which are manicures that are performed quickly and at a lower cost than regular full-scale treatments
- A rise in the popularity and demand for mobile services (i.e., house calls)
- A growing number of women (and even men) who are dedicated to healthy lifestyles that include better grooming practices
In addition, because manicures and pedicures tend to be lower cost than many other cosmetology services, they remain popular as "low-cost luxury services" and are, therefore, less likely to be cut out during tight financial times.
It can be difficult to come up with exact numbers because, like restaurant and hospitality workers, cosmetology professionals are often provided with tips (aka a gratuity) from clients for their services. Tip amounts are completely at the discretion of a client, but most people tend to follow the tipping etiquette for the cosmetology industry, which is to leave an extra 15-20 percent on top of the set cost of their service(s).
That being said, national government salary estimates (not including tips) from 2018 showed that wages break down this way: **
- The median hourly wage was $11.70 per hour (approximately $24,330 annually)
- The highest-earning 10 percent made more than $16.10 per hour (approximately $33,490 annually)
According to a 2017-18 industry report in Nails Magazine, nail techs earn $653.14 per week, on average.***
Some salons also offer the opportunity to earn commission or receive perks for selling products. Common forms of retail incentives include:
- Sales commission either added to salary or paid out separately as a bonus
- A discount on receiving salon services or buying products
- A points or awards system
- A rental rebate for those who rent a nail booth from a salon
Another factor to keep in mind is that those who are self-employed will have the opportunity to earn a higher salary than the average. Nails Magazine reported that many professionals rent their own booth in a salon. In these situations, they are basically entrepreneurs who keep 100 percent of their earnings, and simply pay rent in order to have their booth located within an existing salon. The average rent was reported to be $199 weekly, or $379 monthly. In some cases, salons may issue a rental rebate in lieu of a commission for selling the salon's products.
Manicurist salary rates also tend to be higher for those employed in the fashion or entertainment industries.
Helpful Qualities for the Job
Successful nail technicians tend to be:
- Artistic—In the cosmetology world, nails can literally be an artist's canvas. The top manicurists in the world are artists who turn nails into beautiful, eye-catching masterpieces.
- Friendly and Professional—For many people, manicures and pedicures aren't just about the actual appearance of nails; they are a cherished small luxury providing the chance to take time out of a busy schedule to wind down and relax. This means that many clients aren't just paying for the actual work being done to their nails; they are paying for the atmosphere and experience as well.
- Trendy—The cosmetology industry is driven by change. Trends for hair, makeup, and nails are always evolving, which means that you need to stay on top of what's new and popular and what's old and out of fashion. Clients want to go to nail technicians who understand the current trends and are capable of pulling them off.
- Dexterous—From using a sharp tool to remedy an ingrown nail to using an airbrush to create an intricate nail design, nail technicians need to perform precise techniques on a very tiny area of the body. Therefore, excellent hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, and steady hands are a must.
Upsides of the Work
- You can enjoy exploring your creativity and artistic talent on a daily basis.
- You get to meet and interact with new people regularly. Plus, you often have the chance to form friendly professional relationships with repeat clients.
- Compared to other industries, a relatively high percentage of nail technicians get to enjoy being self-employed, either running their own nail salons or creating mobile businesses and traveling to clients' homes.
- It's possible to run a nail salon business within your own home, which comes with many perks and freedoms, including the chance to avoid long commutes and be more flexible in setting work hours.
- Cosmetology is a diverse industry, so it's possible to find training and certification that covers multiple areas, allowing you to pursue a dynamic career that involves providing a range of services in addition to nail technology, such as hairstyling, makeup application, and skincare.
How To Get Started
To help decide whether or not a career in this field is right for you, it's a good idea to talk to experienced pros and get a feel for the realities of the job. Offer to take one out to lunch or book a manicure and pick his or her brain during your appointment.
And if you're ready to start right now, find a school using this easy-to-use search tool.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, website last accessed on September 20, 2018.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, website last visited on April 29, 2019.
*** Nails Magazine, "2017-2018 The Big Book," website last visited July 22, 2019.
The National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology (NIC), website last visited July 19, 2017.
The Professional Beauty Association (PBA), website last visited July 19, 2017.