passing the PCNSE exams 

The Palo Alto Networks Certified Network Security Engineer (PCNSE) is in high demand these days. Most software companies worldwide call vendor-specific certifications a good-to-have skill in their job descriptions. Some even go so far as to mention they want a ‘Palo Alto Network Security Engineer’. 

The PCNSE exam is designed to validate your theoretical knowledge and practical skills in configuring, deploying, and maintaining Palo Alto Networks firewalls. As such both system and support engineers (who may use these firewalls) can also get certified. 

Ask anyone who’s recently taken the PCNSE exam and they’ll tell you how challenging the preparation process was. One reason for this is the focus on hands-on experience with Palo Alto Networks firewalls. Simply studying the blueprint or revising the study guide will not guarantee a passing score.


Plus, as most questions are scenario-based, you need to practice your problem-solving skills before taking the exam. 

In this blog, we’ll be giving you an overview of the PCNSE exam details and blueprint, plus sharing some resources to help you solidify your grasp on key firewall concepts and how you can apply them in the real world.

The PCNSE Exam: An overview

Before we get into how you can prepare for (and ace) your PCNSE exams, let’s check off the basics.

Exam type  Onsite and Online Proctored (OP)
Exam FeeUSD 175
Exam format75-85 multiple-choice questions
Exam duration90 minutes
Minimum passing score70
RescoringNot supported

PCNSE registration process

Palo Alto, in partnership with Pearson VUE, provides both onsite and online examination options. All you have to do is create an account with Palo Alto on Pearson VUE and pick a date.

For online proctored (OP) exams, you can register at any time, even the day before the exam date. While there’s no restriction for onsite exams either and you can register at any time, your confirmation will depend on the number of seats available at the Pearson VUE testing center. 

And as these exams are rather popular, it’s recommended that you apply at least a couple of months ahead. 

PCNSE exam fee

Like all other Palo Alto certifications, the PCNSE exam comes with a standard fee of 175 USD. You can either pay at the time of registering for the exam or buy a prepaid voucher. The latter comes with a 12-month validity period. 

Regarding discounts — you get a 15% off from Palo Alto, if  you buy 25 or more vouchers. Some users have also mentioned finding vouchers with up to 50% off in the Palo Alto Live Community. 


PCNSE exam format

The PCNSE certification exam consists of 75 multiple-choice questions that have to be completed within 90 minutes. This time limit also includes the sign-up, identity verification, and NDA-signing process. This means you probably have only 75-80 minutes to complete the actual text.

The PCNSE exam uses a computerized scoring system and your final grade is presented on a scale of 0 to 100. To pass the exam, you’ll need to meet a minimum passing score, which is not publicly disclosed by Palo Alto Networks. However, some participants have mentioned this score to be around 70%.

The PCNSE exam blueprint: A complete overview

Palo Alto Networks has a publicly available syllabus for all their certifications with the topics covered along with the weightage for each, which they call the blueprint. You can use the blueprint to both plan your study program and prioritize high-weightage domains. 


Here’s an overview of the six domains mentioned in the blueprint:

Core concepts (12%)

This domain lays the foundation for understanding Palo Alto Networks firewalls. It covers fundamental concepts like:

  • Network security components such as firewalls, panoramas, and plugins 
  • Zone types for various interfaces including tap, tunnel, and loopback
  • Decryption identification and deployment
  • The basics of authentication policies

Deploy and configure core components (20%)

This domain comes with the most weightage and dives deeper into the configuration aspects of Palo Alto Networks firewalls.

Some tasks that might be related to this domain are:

  • Configuring interface management profiles
  • Customizing the profile of different security groups
  • Setting up zone protection and DoS protection
  • Configuring routing via virtual and logical routers

Deploy and configure features and subscriptions (17%)

Here, the focus shifts toward advanced features and functionalities offered by Palo Alto Networks. This includes:

  • Converting port and protocol rules to APP-ID rules
  • Identifying the impact of application override on the overall functionality of the firewall
  • Configuring inbound decryption and SSL decryption exclusions

Deploy and configure firewalls using Panorama (17%)

This domain assesses your ability to manage firewalls using Panorama — the central management platform for Palo Alto Networks firewalls. Some things you might have to do are:

  • Set up and manage device groups using Panorama
  • Manage firewall configurations within Panorama like automatic comment recovery or dynamic updates
  • Check the firewall health and status from Panorama

Manage and operate (16%)

This domain emphasizes the ongoing management and operation of Palo Alto Networks firewalls. You should be prepared for questions on:

  • Creating and managing tags
  • Upgrading a Palo Alto Networks system
  • Managing high availability (HA) functions like path and link monitoring

Troubleshooting (18%)

The final domain is another important one and the one that focuses on practical knowledge. It assesses your ability to resolve issues with the firewalls and might include real-world scenarios. It covers both general and advanced troubleshooting. 

Some tasks suggested for practice in the blueprint are:

  • Troubleshooting one-to-one and one-to-many tunnels
  • Configuring bypasses for devices that can’t be decrypted
  • Monitoring HA functions for failover triggers

You can check out the PCNSE exam blueprint for the exact list of tasks to be practiced. Also, if you’re looking for lab access options to practice these tasks and maybe test your firewall security skills in simulated environments, you can check out Datacipher.

Topping your PCNSE exam: Best practices and resources 

Now that we’ve seen how the exam works and what topics it includes, the next step is arming yourself with the right resources so you can get a high score. 

Palo Alto’s resources

The first on our list is the free resources from Palo Alto itself. While they don’t offer free lab access, they do provide a lot of guides and videos to help you study the theoretical aspects, and their videos are a great way to demo their tools. 

Study guide and training programs

You can start with the PCNSE Study Guide — a supplementary textbook to the blueprint, the guide explores each domain in detail. Plus, it gives you a list of additional references that you can leverage to understand the topic better. 

The study guide also provides a list of free digital training courses that you can attend to get a better grasp of the Palo Alto platform. These are self-learning courses and they give you a demo of the various tasks mentioned in the blueprint

Sample questions

Once you’re done preparing, you can test yourself using sample test papers, starting with this one by Palo Alto Networks. Make sure to time yourself, and follow the Online Proctored (OP) guidelines, for a more realistic practice experience.

Third-party resources

While Palo Alto — with its NDAs and strict protocols on unauthorized resources — can seem secretive, it does partner with authorized instructors all over the globe who can help support learners who need some extra help — whether you’re on a time crunch and want to complete the certification before an important interview or you just prefer learning in a group.

Dataciper, for example, is a Palo Alto authorized training partner that provides online and onsite courses and supplementary material like textbooks and sample tests on firewall security and management. Here are some courses that might help you:

These courses are designed based on the PCNSE blueprint and combined with the unlimited lab access, can help you hone both your theoretical and practical skills.

Other tips to prepare for your PCNSE exam

Hone your firewall management (and Panorama) skills with Datacipher

Studying for the PCNSE is a challenging endeavor, but with a study partner like Datacipher, the journey gets a lot easier. 

Not only do you get access to the right resources — additional information, unlimited lab access, and sample tests — but you can also engage with experienced instructors who are readily available to answer your questions or even help troubleshoot issues.

Curious to learn more? Check out our PCNSE courses or get in touch to plan a custom study program.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. How long does it take to get a PCNSE certification?

There is no set timeframe to prepare for the PCNSE examination. While experienced people can finish the certification in six months, beginners might take up to a year to prepare for the exam. 

2. What is the difference between PCNSA and PCNSE?

PCNSA is an entry-level certification on the administration, configuration, and basic operation of Palo Alto Networks firewalls. 

PCNSE, on the other hand, is an advanced-level certification and covers the design, deployment, troubleshooting, and advanced functionalities of Palo Alto Networks firewalls.

3. How long is the PCNSE certification good for?

The PCNSE certification — like all Palo Alto Networks certifications — is valid for two years from the date you pass the exam. This means you’ll have to retake the exam every two years to keep your certification current.

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