Background The role of nurses in cardiothoracic transplantation has evolved over the last 25 years. Transplant nurses work in a variety of roles in collaboration with multidisciplinary teams to manage complex pre- and post-transplantation issues. There is lack of clarity and consistency regarding required qualifications to practice transplant nursing, delineation of roles and adequate levels of staffing. Methods A consensus conference with workgroup sessions, consisting of 77 nurse participants with clinical experience in cardiothoracic transplantation, was arranged. This was followed by subsequent discussion with the ISHLT Nursing, Health Science and Allied Health Council. Evidence and expert opinions regarding key issues were reviewed. A modified nominal group technique was used to reach consensus. Results Consensus reached included: (1) a minimum of 2 years nursing experience is required for transplant coordinators, nurse managers or advanced practice nurses; (2) a baccalaureate in nursing is the minimum education level required for a transplant coordinator; (3) transplant coordinator-specific certification is recommended; (4) nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists and nurse managers should hold at least a master's degree; and (5) strategies to retain transplant nurses include engaging donor call teams, mentoring programs, having flexible hours and offering career advancement support. Future research should focus on the relationships between staffing levels, nurse education and patient outcomes. Conclusions Delineation of roles and guidelines for education, certification, licensure and staffing levels of transplant nurses are needed to support all nurses working at the fullest extent of their education and licensure. This consensus document provides such recommendations and draws attention to areas for future research.