What Boat License Do I Need?


man putting life jacket on woman to ride on water scooter, summer vacation, active sport, safety

The laws that govern the requirements for operating a boat are different in every state. These states set the laws for the waters in their jurisdiction, and you have to follow these laws and have all the documents you need for the boat.

You may not be able to bring your boat on a lake or ocean without the needed license. Read on to learn more on what you need.

What Boat License Do I Need?

Most states require a boating educational certificate, which they refer to as a boating license. In other states, it is referred to as a captain’s license, and it gives you the authority to operate any vessel on water. Most of the states allow you to complete the boating license education online and later undertake a licensing test online.

The safety certificate course that you undertake is not as intense as you would to be an automobile driver. You may never have to do any on-water training and the tests do not involve a physical boat.

The boating laws vary from state to state, and you need to do your research before you take your boat out on the water. After you research the educational requirements, complete an online course, and pass the test. Once you pay for the course and receive the certificate or license, you need to keep the certificate everywhere you go as the U.S. Coast Guard may ask to see it.

Why is a Boating License Necessary?

Not all states require a boating license. States such as Alaska and Wyoming and the territories of Guam and Virgin Islands do not require you to have boating education or boating license. However, it is your responsibility as a boater to ensure that you get the necessary education and certification to be safe in the water.

Boater education was introduced to help save lives. During the course, you will learn several topics about boats, including:

• Boat operation

• Communication

• Navigation

• Boat safety

• Boat maintenance

The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that there are about 7,700 accidents involving boats every year. About 70 percent of these accidents are caused by human error and not mechanical failures or environmental factors. These boaters without an education not only cause the highest number of accidents, but the accidents they cause are more severe.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) estimates that boat accidents cause the second highest fatalities after highway accidents. NTSB continues and notes that more than 80 percent of boaters in the waters do not have the necessary education to operate a boat safely. When the boater doesn’t have the necessary education, they may not know what to do in case of an emergency.

In the U.S., there are more than 12.7 million registered boats. The waterways are now so crowded, and this increases the risk of accidents happening. By boaters learning the basic safety rules of boating, the number of accidents will go down significantly.

There are several organizations that offer boating education and offer a certificate/license afterward. You need to take a course and get a certificate even if your state doesn’t require one. If you ever find yourself in waters governed by a different state, you will not have a problem.

Some of the organizations that offer boating education include:

  • U.S. Power Squadrons
  • U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
  • National Safe Boating Council
  • Boat Safe
  • Mariner’s Learning System
  • Boat-Ed
  • Safe Boating America

If every boater takes a boating course, the number of fatalities from boat accidents will be reduced. Most boat rental businesses and boat clubs teach the basics of boat safety to their customers and members.

What are the Boating Requirements in Different States?

State boating laws stipulate how you operate a boat, the age of the operator, what you can and cannot do in the water, boating under influence, and the safety gear and equipment you should have. In some states, if you do not follow the set rules, you might lose your boating license, and you have to go back to school and get another license.

Different states allow anyone older than 12 years to take a boater education course before they operate any vessel. In Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, they allow anyone at least 12 years to operate a vessel as long as they have a boater education course.

Other states consider that the boat operator should be older, 14 or 16 years and above. In other states, only adults above 40 years need to take a boater education course. In California, for instance, boaters over the age of 40 years should take a course and carry a Boater Card wherever they operate a boat.

These laws are different, and you should check the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators to see what your state requires. Note that, the laws can change any time, and you need to keep checking so that you are not caught on the wrong side of the law.

What is the Cost of a Boat License?

You only need to pay for the boating course and you will have the certificate or the license or boaters’ card to use. In most states, a third party offers the course and administers the exam. The course costs between $29 and $50, and you pay after you complete the course.

After the course, you may have to pay a small administrative fee. If you are part of a boat club, you can get the course there for free or at a small fee. You can also learn from free platforms such as BoatUS Foundation, which offers courses for 35 states in the U.S.

(Not Sponsored) Note From Editor — Here are state-specific boater safety courses offered for free from BoatUS – https://www.boatus.org/free/

You only need three hours to complete the course, which is in different chapters. If you do not have three hours, you can learn a few chapters today and more tomorrow. The schools structure the courses in such a way that you cannot click through the chapters and skip to the exam – you have to study everything before you get to the exam.

After every section, you will do an exam that you have to pass to unlock the next section/chapter. If you fail in that section, you have to read again. However, the courses are simple, and you will pass every section the first time if you pay keen attention.

The idea behind these courses is to ensure that everyone is aware of the safety rules needed to operate a boat. Some of the things you will learn include boat terminology, rules of navigation, state boating rules, which water activities are allowed and how you conduct them, and the state boating regulations.

After the course, you can take the exam, get a license and be ready to hit the water.

Do Boat Captains Require the Same Education Course?

If you need a captain’s license, the process is a little longer. The U.S. Coast Guard gives the captain licenses and these are for people who operate boats that carry people. You can operate a boat with a certificate from on online platform, but if you hire a licensed captain to carry you and your friends, family, and your pet, they will have more education than you.

Captains need to be at least 19 years. You can complete your certifications when you are 18 and apply for the license once you hit 19. You also need to have spent at least 360 days on the sea, with 90-days within the past three years.

Once you have the two above, fill the sea service form and have the vessel owner sign that you have operated the boat for at least as long as you claim. One experience day is equal to eight hours in the sea.

Take an exam approved by the U.S Coast Guard and get a certificate of completion that is only valid for a year. You will need to apply for a Transportation Worker Identification Card, TWIC, and then undertake a medical exam.

Father and daughter driving a boat

After that, you will need to provide proof of drug screening enrollment, fill out the captain license application form and provide your photo ID. Provide proof of application fees payment and take the U.S. Coast Guard Oath. Other requirements include a CPR and First Aid certificate and then you provide proof of residency.

There are so many requirements by the USCG, which provides a checklist before you submit the application. Once your application goes through, you will get a captain’s license.

Closing Thoughts

You can operate your boat as long as you have the license or certification, and you meet other requirements set by the state. If you do not have the license, or you want to enjoy water sports, you can hire a captain. The captain knows more about boating safety and probably has more experience than you.

If you take the necessary safety course, you are good to bring family members and even your pet dog to the waters. If your state doesn’t require that you have a license, you do not have to carry one around. Nevertheless, it is still important for you to take the course and be safe.

Kern Campbell

Kern is a life long boater who finds great happiness sitting at the helm of a boat running on the open water. When he's not running the boat, he's likely anchored up along the beach with his wife, kids and good friends enjoying a great day at the coast.

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