How to Pass the National Nail Tech Exam on Your First Attempt



Your nail artistry talents have grown exponentially during your time in nail technician school. From your perfectly executed pedicures to your outstanding creativity and sense of design when creating trend-setting manicures, you know you have what it takes to become a sought-after manicurist. But first you have to demonstrate your abilities by taking and passing the National-Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology’s (NIC) written and/or practical nail technician (manicurist) exams and become state licensed.

Enter Zip:

The NIC nail tech exams, a prerequisite for state licensure in many states, ensure you possess the skillset necessary to provide safe, high-quality services in the exciting and fast-paced field of manicuring. To date, 33 states use the NIC’s nail technician written and/or practical exam.

Although your time in nail technician school undoubtedly prepared you to take the NIC exams and earn state licensure to become a nail technician, it is always beneficial to be prepared for your upcoming exams, and that means knowing what to expect and ensuring you are equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to pass the NIC national nail tech exam on your first attempt.

Here’s what you’ll want to know to take and pass the practical and/or written NIC nail examination:

Six Core Domains of the NIC Practical Nail Technician Exam

The NIC practical nail technician examination includes six core domain services:

  • Setup and Client Protection
  • Manicure
  • Nail Tip
  • Wrap
  • Sculptured
  • Nail Polish

You may prepare for your NIC nail tech practical exam by purchasing the NIC Examination Overview DVD. The DVD provides students with an informative overview of NIC testing procedures for the nail tech practical examination. The cost of the DVD is $30.

What You’ll Need for the Practical Exam

Although you must refer to your state regulatory agency for specific test requirements, the NIC recommends that your manicurist exam kit includes the following supplies:

General Supplies

  • Dry storage kit/container
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Mannequin hands with artificial nails attached
  • EPA-registered disinfectant
  • Disposal bag for waste materials
  • Cloth and paper towels
  • Cotton
  • First aid supplies (blood spill kit)
  • Tape

Basic Manicure Supplies

  • Bowl and container of water
  • Cuticle cream/remover
  • Filing and buffing implements
  • Cuticle polisher
  • Nail brush
  • Hand lotion or massage product
  • Cuticle oil

Nail Tip and Nail Wrap Supplies

  • Cuticle pusher
  • Nail tips and adhesive
  • Nail wrap material (non-pre-cut fabric)
  • Filing and buffing implements
  • Scissors
  • Accelerator

Sculptured Nail Supplies

  • Cuticle pusher
  • Sculptured nail products (powder, primer, liquid) – this product must be in its original container with the manufacturer’s label; NIC strongly recommends candidates use odorless sculptured nail products during the exam.
  • Sculptured nail brush
  • Liquid and powder containers
  • Filing and buffing implements
  • Sculptured nail forms

Polish Supplies

  • Polish remover
  • Base coat/top coat
  • Red polish

Examination Rules and Procedures

The last thing you want to do is fail your exam because you were unaware of the many rules and procedures required of test takers. Here’s what you will want to know:

  • Do not leave the exam area without permission.
  • You must bring your own exam kit in sanitary condition.
  • You must bring a container of water if needed for any section of the exam. You may also bring a thermos of hot water, if desired.
  • You will be given 10 minutes for client protection and for setting up your supplies.
  • You will be given 2 minutes in between each section of the exam for setting up the required supplies.
  • You will receive verbal instructions twice before beginning each section of the exam.
  • Once you have completed the tasks of a specific section, turn the hand toward the examiner to indicate that you are finished.
  • Always ensure you are following all appropriate public protection and infection control procedures during all phases of the exam.
  • You may not bring your cell phone or any other electronic device, handwritten notes, or any other printed materials into the exam room.
  • You may not talk with any other candidates during the testing period.

Depending on your state, you will use either a live model or mannequin hand(s) for the exam.

If you are allowed to use a live model, you must adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Your model must be at least 15 years old and cannot be licensed or a student studying manicuring.
  • Your model must present ID to gain admittance into the exam.
  • Your model must agree to submit to all services during the exam and may not participate in any way during the exam.
  • Your model cannot talk to you at any time during the exam.

If your state uses mannequin hand(s), you must bring a mannequin hand. Mannequin hands with digital fingers (trainer hands) are not permitted during your exam. Before reporting to the exam, you must apply a set of nails, covering the entire nail bed, to the mannequin hand.

Practical Exam Content

You will be expected to complete practical tasks involving the six core domain services, and you will be evaluated on the following tasks within each domain service:

Set-Up and Client Protection

  • Disinfecting work area and/or using protective covering
  • Disposing of soiled materials using infection control procedures
  • Sanitizing hands
  • Setting up work area with supplies labeled in English
  • Setting up implements that are visibly clean and sanitary
  • Practicing infection control procedures throughout the setup
  • Maintaining the work area in a safe manner throughout the setup


  • Sanitizing hands and the hands to be manicured
  • Demonstrating filing
  • Shaping free-edge safely
  • Establishing uniform length and shape
  • Demonstrating cuticle care
  • Immersing fingers in bowl of water
  • Drying hands completely
  • Applying cuticle cream or remover
  • Pushing back cuticles
  • Cleaning under free edge
  • Buffing nails
  • Applying cuticle oil
  • Demonstrating hand massage
  • Applying massage product
  • Massaging palms, backs of hands, and fingers
  • Maintaining continuous contact while massaging hands
  • Cleansing massage product from each nail plate

Nail Tip

  • Setting up nail tip supplies
  • Removing shine from nail tip
  • Removing dust from nail plate and cuticle
  • Selecting nail tip that matches width of nail plate
  • Applying nail dehydrator/cleanser to nail plate
  • Attaching nail tip to nail plate with nail adhesive
  • Ensuring that at least ½ of nail plate remains uncovered
  • Trimming nail tip
  • Shaping free edge
  • Blending tip to nail plate
  • Ensuring cuticle and skin surrounding nail are free from nail adhesive
  • Ensuring finished nail is smooth and even

Nail Wrap

  • Setting up nail wrap supplies
  • Removing shine from nail plate
  • Removing dust from nail plate and cuticle
  • Applying nail dehydrator/cleanser to nail plate
  • Applying nail adhesive to nail plate
  • Applying wrap material over nail plate
  • Removing excess wrap material to fit nail plate
  • Applying nail adhesive
  • Applying wrap accelerator
  • Applying second coat of nail adhesive
  • Applying second coat of wrap accelerator
  • Filing nail wrap
  • Buffing nail wrap
  • Ensuring nail plate is covered in wrap
  • Ensuring cuticle and surrounding skin remains free of nail adhesive
  • Ensuring finished nail wrap is smooth and even

Sculptured Nail

  • Setting up sculptured nail supplies
  • Removing shine from nail plate
  • Cleansing nail plate and cuticle of dust
  • Applying nail form to fit snugly under free edge
  • Applying primer
  • Applying sculptured product to extend free edge
  • Applying sculptured nail product to cover nail plate
  • Shaping free edge
  • Filing sculptured nail to shape/balance
  • Buffing sculptured nail
  • Ensuring finished sculptured nail is smooth, even, and beveled/tapered
  • Ensuring contour of sculptured nail is balanced
  • Ensuring nail plate is covered by sculptured nail product
  • Ensuring cuticle and surrounding skin remains free of sculptured nail product

Nail Polish

  • Setting up polish supplies
  • Applying base coat to cover nail plate
  • Applying red polish to cover nail plate
  • Applying top coat to cover nail plate
  • Ensuring final appearance of polish is smooth and even
  • Ensuring cuticle and surrounding skin remain free of polish

You can find more information on the nail technology practical exam by downloading the most recent exam bulletin on the NIC website.

How to Pass the NIC Written Nail Technician Exam on Your First Attempt

You can prepare to take the written portion of your nail tech exam by ordering an online practice examination. The cost of the exam is $39, and it is delivered through a computer-based delivery partner, ISO Quality Testing (IQT). You can contact IQT with any questions at 1-866-773-1114 or [email protected].

The National Nail Technology Theory Examination tests your knowledge in the following areas:

Scientific Concepts – 40 percent

  • Infection Control and Safety Practices
    • How diseases are caused and transmitted
    • Recognize purposes and effects of infection control principles
    • Apply blood exposure/contact procedures
    • Identify Material Safety and Data Sheets
    • Identify ways to prevent work injuries
  • Basic Human Anatomy and Physiology
  • Nail Anatomy and Physiology
  • Basic Chemistry of Nail Products

Nail Technology Procedures – 60 percent

  • Client Consultation and Documentation
  • Nail Service Tools
    • Nail equipment
    • Nail implements
    • Nail supplies
    • Practice for safe use of tools
  • Nail Service Preparation
    • Perform setup of work station
    • Perform sanitation of technician and client’s hands/feet
  • Manicure and Pedicure Services
    • Perform procedures safely for basic manicure and pedicure services
    • Shape nails
    • Cuticle detailing
    • Cleansing nails
    • Buffing nails
    • Exfoliating
    • Perform basic massage
  • Recognize purpose and procedures for add-on services
    • Paraffin
    • Hot lotion/oil
    • Masks
    • Soak-off gels
  • Perform application, maintenance, and removal procedures for nail enhancement services
  • Perform post-service procedures following infection control guidelines

You can find more information on the nail technology written exam by downloading the most recent exam bulletin on the NIC website.

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