Earning Your Ultrasound Technician Certification

Earning an ultrasound technician certification is an excellent way to begin a career in the medical sonography field. Ultrasound technicians operate medical equipment that uses high-frequency sounds to create images for medical treatment and diagnostic purposes.

Ultrasound technicians go by other names, such as diagnostic medical sonographers, ultrasonographers, medical sonographers, or ultrasound technologists. Regardless of the job title, aspiring ultrasound technicians need education and certification to work in the field. Read on to learn more about certification in this growing field.

Find Your Path: Timeline | ARDMS® | ARRT® | FAQs

Timeline: How to Become a Certified Ultrasound Technician

Becoming a certified ultrasound technician generally requires formal education with special training. Depending on your prior experience and academic goals, schools offer several pathways into the field, from one-year programs to a bachelor's degree. The timeline below outlines the most common steps to becoming a certified medical sonographer.

Obtain a High School Diploma

  • Four Years
  • Sonographers typically need a high school education or GED certificate prior to beginning higher education.

Attend an Accredited Ultrasound Program

  • Two to Four Years
  • Students can opt for a certificate, associate, or bachelor's program in ultrasound technology. Associate programs are the most popular option. Be sure to choose a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Gain Real-world Experience

  • Usually One Year
  • Whether gained during or after schooling, students must possess some professional experience in medical sonography to become certified.

Study For Certification

  • Varies
  • The time required to prepare for certification exams varies. At a minimum, students should take practice exams and review study guides.

Become Certified

  • A Few Months
  • After meeting education and work experience requirements, applicants can explore several ultrasound technician certification options. Candidates must pass the necessary examination(s), pay required fees, and complete registration paperwork to earn a certification.

Ultrasound Technician Licensure

Ultrasound technicians should understand the difference between licensure and certification. A license provides legal permission to practice in a certain profession by state. In contrast, certification is a voluntary credential issued by a private organization or agency that demonstrates competency in a specific career area.

Most ultrasound technicians in the U.S. can find work with professional certifications alone. Only four states currently mandate licensure for medical sonographers: New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon.

Sonographers must renew their permanent license every two years.

To apply for licensure, ultrasound technicians must meet certain requirements, including successful completion of a board-approved sonography course, a current certification from a board-approved agency, and a satisfactory criminal background check. Students beginning clinical experience requirements can apply for a temporary license.

Sonographers must renew their permanent license every two years. This process requires an additional application, proof of continued certification, and payment of nonrefundable fees.

Why Get Certified in Sonography?

In the few states that require licensure for ultrasound technicians, certification is also required. Certification offers the following benefits even for those who do not plan to work in these states.

Certification Can Improve Employment Opportunities
Certification is often needed to meet the minimum eligibility requirement for sonography jobs. Even when it is not required, most applicants hold certification in the field. A higher level of education and experience also provides an edge over other applicants.
Certification Ensures Current Knowledge in the Field
Most certified ultrasound technicians must complete continuing education credits within a certain timeframe. This enables ultrasound technicians to stay current on recent trends in the field.
Ability to Specialize in a Particular Area
Many sonographers work within a particular specialty, such as cardiovascular medicine or gynecology/obstetrics. Sonographers must become certified in their desired healthcare area to pursue specialized jobs in the field.

Certifications for Ultrasound Technicians and Sonography Professionals

While certification is not required for ultrasound technicians to work in most states, many hospitals, clinics, and medical offices prefer to hire certified candidates. Certification demonstrates that candidates meet the minimum level of education — usually the completion of an accredited sonography program.

Students must also complete 1-2 exams to earn certification. Major certifying organizations include the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (ARDMS®) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® (ARRT®).

American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® (ARDMS®) Certifications

The American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography® is a leading provider of certifications for ultrasound technicians. ARDMS® also provides volunteering and networking opportunities for ultrasound professionals.

Requirements

RDMS: Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

Overview: The RDMS certification is a generalized credential that certifies a sonographer has general knowledge of diagnostic medical sonography and can provide services safely. Ultrasound professionals desiring to work in specialty areas may pursue this certification.

Examination Needed: Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

Specialty Examination: Abdomen; Breast; Fetal Echocardiography; Obstetrics and Gynecology; Pediatric Sonography

RDCS: Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer

Overview: This credential certifies that ultrasound professionals can safely and effectively provide sonography diagnostic services that focus on the examination of the heart.

Examination Needed: Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

Specialty Examination: Adult Echocardiography; Fetal Echocardiography; Pediatric Echocardiography

RVT: Registered Vascular Technologist

Overview: This credential focuses on safe diagnostic sonography of the vascular system, such as the veins and blood vessels. Technologists specializing in the circulatory system can benefit from this certification.

Examination Needed: Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

Specialty Examination: Vascular Technology

RMSKS: Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer

Overview: The RMSKS certification demonstrates that a sonographer is knowledgeable in providing effective and safe diagnostic ultrasound services of the muscular and skeletal systems.

Examination Needed: Sonography Principles and Instrumentation Examination

Specialty Examination: Musculoskeletal Sonographer Examination

Midwife Sonography Examination

Overview: This credential is intended for midwives specializing in ultrasound technology for all trimesters of pregnancy. This certification ensures that midwives possess the necessary skills to provide ultrasound services in a safe and beneficial manner.

Examination Needed: Midwife Sonography Computer-based Examination; Practical Examination

ARDMS® Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam: What You Need to Know

The SPI exam is the cornerstone requirement for the various ARDMS® certifications available to ultrasound technicians. Professionals specializing in a specialty area, such as pediatrics, cardiac care, or obstetrics, must pass this exam. Candidates generally take the SPI exam in conjunction with a specialization exam.

Who needs to take the SPI exam?

Sonographers looking to obtain an RDMS, RDCS, RVT, or RMSKS certification must also take the SPI exam. Even though these certifications require a corresponding specialty exam, candidates must also take the SPI exam covering basic skills and concepts. Topics include diagnostic effectiveness, equipment, and scientific theories underlying sonography.

What is the format of the exam?

The SPI exam takes two hours to complete, consisting of 110 multiple choice questions and a series of Semi-Interactive Console (SIC) questions. The SIC questions test the candidate's ability to manipulate a hypothetical ultrasound console, including modifying the machine's settings to achieve the desired goals. The SIC questions are simulations in which the candidate demonstrates their knowledge in using ultrasound equipment.

What is the Five-Year Rule?

Applicants who seek an RDMS, RDCS, RVT, or RMSKS certification must complete their SPI and specialty exams within a five-year period. It does not matter which exam is taken first, as long as both are completed within five years. This five-year rule does not apply to sonographers taking an additional specialty exam for a credential they already hold.

Are there any prerequisites for taking the exam?

Specific prerequisites required for the SPI exam depend on the applicant's background. However, education and experience requirements apply to all candidates. Some candidates qualify with no additional experience, while others need four years of clinical ultrasound or vascular experience. Educational requirements vary from a high school diploma to a bachelor's degree.

What if I am an international student?

International students are eligible to take the SPI exam. If they hold a degree from a non-U.S. institution, a foreign education transcript evaluation organization must assess their credentials. Applicants who hold an active MD or DO may submit a copy of an Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates certification.

How do I apply?

The application process begins with registration at the ARDMS® website. Applicants must fill out an online application, pay a $225 examination fee, and submit the necessary documentation.

How is the test scored?

The SPI exam has a primary pass or fail score and a scaled score ranging from 300-700. To pass, a candidate must score at least 555. This score does not represent a percentage of correct answers or a curve. Instead, each exam is analyzed individually to determine the minimum performance level required to earn a score of 555.

Are practice tests available?

The ARDMS® provides two online practice exams, priced at $35 each. Practice test takers receive 30 minutes to complete 30 sample questions. Though these practice exams are not full-length exams, they represent the topics covered and difficulty level candidates can expect on the formal exam. These practice tests may be taken multiple times, but the questions will not change.

Staying Certified: How to Maintain Your ARDMS® Certification

Maintaining certification ensures that a sonographer stays current on the most recent information available. Sonographers must complete several steps each year to maintain ARDMS® certification.

Fee and Attestation

Every ARDMS® certified individual must pay an annual fee. For those with the RPVI and RMSK certifications, the renewal fee is $130; for the RDMS, RDCS, RVT, and RMSKS, the renewal fee is $85. In addition to paying the fee, certified sonographers must also attest that they have followed all of the ARDMS® rules and policies and are in good standing with the ARDMS®.

Continuing Medical Education (CME)

During a three-year period, certified sonographers must complete 30 CME credits. Depending on the certification, a portion of those 30 CME credits must be in an area related to the sonographer's specialization, such as musculoskeletal or vascular ultrasound. You can find CME providers approved by the ARDMS® in their directory.

Spotlight On: Sonographer School Accreditation

Accreditation is crucial for those entering a formal ultrasound program. Many employers require new hires to hold the relevant degree or certificate issued by an accredited educational institution. Furthermore, some certifications are only awarded to graduates of an accredited program. The following table covers how ultrasound credentialing organizations view accreditation.

ARDMS® ARRT®
There are many different paths individuals can take to meet the prerequisite requirement for becoming certified through ARDMS®. Not all paths require completion of an accredited program, but one path requires completion of a program accredited by CAAHEP or the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® only accepts graduates of programs accredited by an organization recognized by the ARRT®. To verify a school's status, check the list of ARRT® recognized accrediting bodies.

The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists® (ARRT®) Certifications

In addition to the ARDMS®, the ARRT® is a leading provider of sonography certifications. Some certifications offered include sonography, vascular sonography, and breast sonography. The ARRT® offers these certifications through two pathways: primary and post-primary.

  • Primary Pathway: The primary pathway certification is available in six areas: sonography, radiography, nuclear medicine technology, radiation therapy, magnetic resonance imaging, and vascular sonography. This pathway is intended for those without prior certifications. Applicants must demonstrate a requisite level of competency in didactic coursework.
  • Post-Primary Pathway: The post-primary pathway certification is designed for sonographers who already hold an ARRT® certification in one of the following fields: radiography, sonography, nuclear medicine technology, or radiation therapy. In some cases, candidates may hold certification from the ARDMS® or Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board. An applicant must also show a certain level of clinical experience.

Requirements

Education Requirements

  • Primary Pathway: All applicants must hold an associate degree or higher from a school accredited by an ARRT®-approved organization. This degree does not need to be in the radiologic sciences. However, applicants must also complete a program in the same discipline as the credential they plan to pursue.
  • Post-Primary Pathway: Because applicants in this category already hold a certification, the only notable educational requirement is 16 hours of relevant structured education.

Ethics Requirements

Applicants must be of good moral character and follow the ARRT® ethical guidelines. This includes not having any honor code violations or instances of other certifications or licenses being revoked for disciplinary reasons. There is also a requirement for individuals to report any felony or misdemeanor convictions. However, juvenile convictions and traffic violations (not involving drugs and alcohol) do not need to be reported.

Exam Requirements

The sonography certification exam is computer-based, consisting of 400 questions and lasting 7.5 hours. The exam ensures that the candidate possesses the minimum knowledge to complete the job duties for a typical entry-level position.

Major topics covered on the exam include scientific principles of ultrasound technology and specific ultrasound procedures for certain types of patients.

Staying Certified: How to Maintain Your ARRT® Certification

Like other ultrasound technician certifications, ARRT® certification holders must maintain their credentials over time. This usually consists of acting in accordance with ARRT® ethics, paying an annual fee, and completing continuing education requirements.

AART® Rules and Regulations and AART® Standards of Ethics

A certification holder must remain in good standing with the ARRT®. This means certified professionals must comply with all relevant ARRT® Rules and Regulations and the ARRT® Standards of Ethics.

Annual Renewal

Registered technologists must renew their certification and registration every year. Each year, the renewal deadline occurs on the last day of a candidate's birth month. To qualify for renewal, professionals must pay a fee and be current in their continuing education requirements.

Continuing Education Requirements

Every two years, certification holders must complete at least 24 continuing education credits. Alternatively, the holder may meet all 24 credit requirements by passing an additional ARRT® approved certification exam. Visit the ARRT® website for more information about meeting the continuing education requirements.

Continuing Qualifications Requirements (CQR)

ARRT® certification holders must be recertified 10 years after their original certification. The CQR process consists of creating a professional profile, going through a self-assessment process, and taking additional continuing education credits.

Additional Job Requirements for Ultrasound Technicians

Becoming a successful medical diagnostic sonographer requires advanced knowledge and skill. Candidates acquire much of the necessary training through ultrasound education programs and preparation for certification. However, some additional requirements may apply to legally practice as a medical sonographer or successfully complete certain job tasks.

A significant portion of an ultrasound technician's job is the proper handling of ultrasound equipment. This requires the careful placement of an instrument on the body, including subtle changes in depth and angle, to obtain the best ultrasound images possible. Ultrasound machines produce visual images using sound waves. As a result, the images produced appear unclear. It takes a keen eye to identify what is depicted on the screen. Effective ultrasound technicians rely on strong communication and interpersonal skills. Their job responsibilities involve listening carefully to patients to get all necessary information.

Beyond Sonography: Optional Medical Sonographer Programs

Some ultrasound technicians pursue other certifications to broaden their employment options. In addition to ARRT® and ARDMS® certifications, several other optional certifications can improve a sonographer's chances of professional advancement.

Vascular Certification

Ultrasound technicians in this specialty often possess a high degree of independence. They provide preliminary information about a patient's vascular system to the corresponding surgeon, cardiologist, or radiologist.

Basic Life Support Certification

Basic life support (BLS) certification requires a brief training regimen that teaches resuscitation on someone whose heart or breathing has stopped. The primary component of BLS certification is learning CPR.

EMT Certification

The EMT certification builds on the BLS certification, providing additional training in life-saving skills. This certification can help sonographers improve their hiring profile. It demonstrates a greater capacity to handle emergencies in certain settings, such as a trauma center or an outpatient clinic.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does an ultrasound tech make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, diagnostic medical sonographers earned a median annual salary of $75,920 as of May 2020. The exact earning potential varies by location, employer, years of experience, and education.

Can you go to trade school to be an ultrasound tech?

Yes! Many technical and vocational schools offer diagnostic medical sonography certificate programs. These programs include the coursework and clinical internships needed to obtain professional sonographer certification.

Can you become a sonographer without a degree?

A non-degree certificate satisfies the minimum education requirements needed to work as a medical sonographer or ultrasound technician. However, some employers prefer to hire candidates who hold an associate or bachelor's degree.

Is there ultrasound technician schooling online?

Due to the nature of clinical experience requirements, very few schools offer sonography programs entirely online. Aspiring ultrasound technicians who need course flexibility can turn to hybrid programs, which require a combination of online and in-person attendance.

How long does it take to become a diagnostic medical sonographer?

The length of time required to become a diagnostic medical sonographer depends on the educational path you pursue. A non-degree certificate program may take less than two years, while a bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete.

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