If you're interested in operating a boat, you'll need to start out by securing a boat license. Each state determines the requirements for operating a powerboat, sailboat, or personal watercraft (PWC) on the waters in its jurisdiction. Most require some boating safety and education certificate, which may be called a boating license.
In most cases, the boat license course can be completed online and is followed by a boat license test that is also completed online. The boating safety certificate courses are less comprehensive than those for an automobile driver's license; for example, no on-water driver's education is usually required.
Follow these simple steps to get your boating license:
- Research the boater education requirements for your state
- Complete an online or in-person boating safety course
- Successfully pass the boating license test
- Submit payment after course completion
- Keep your boat license or completion certificate when you're on the water.
What Are the Laws and Boat Licenses by State?
If you buy a new boat and are a first-time boat owner, your marine dealer can give you information on how to get a boating license in your state. A good resource for state-by-state information is the National Association of Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) which has a webpage with the basic training requirements for each state. Each state has its boating education requirements available on a website, usually in areas related to natural resources or transportation.
Only some states offer an online course. For example, Connecticut only offers in-person training hosted at sites across the state, and the classes are at least eight hours long and range between two and four sessions.
How to Take a Boating License Course
A third party administers the online boating education or license course for most states, and there may be a fee of $29 to $50, usually paid after you've completed the course. The state may also charge an administrative fee. The BoatUS Foundation offers free boating license courses for 35 states.
The online course is designed to take about three hours to complete and is set up in sections or chapters. You don't have to complete the entire course in one sitting; you can complete a chapter or two, log off, and then return later to the point you left. The course is structured to prevent you from simply clicking through the study sections to get to the exam. After each section, a review exam must be completed and passed before you can move on to the next section.
These courses aren't designed to make passing difficult; the point is to raise awareness by presenting information on every aspect of boating. The course will cover boating basics and terminology, navigation rules, state boating regulations, handling boating emergencies, and how to enjoy watersports safely.
After you complete the course, you'll be ready to take the exam. If you pass the exam, you can print your boating license and be prepared to hit the water.
What Are the Boating Education Requirements?
Boating education requirements vary widely by state. In Wisconsin, for example, you are required to carry a Wisconsin Boating Safety Education Certificate if you are at least 16 years old, born on or after Jan. 1, 1989, and will be operating a motorboat or PWC in Wisconsin.
The rules are very different in Oklahoma; a boating education certificate is only required if you are 12 to 15 years old and will be operating a boat or PWC over ten hp or a sailboat 16 feet or longer. Each state also regulates the boating license age for those under the age of 16 to 18. Some states recognize the boating license issued by another state.
Still, it is always the boat owner's responsibility to know the boating license requirements for the state where they operate their boat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you need a boating license to drive a boat?
Each state regulates boating education and licensing requirements. Some states require all boaters to have a license or certificate, while others have age limits for licensing.
Do you need a boating license to rent a boat?
Once again, each state regulates boating education and licensing requirements. Some states require all boaters to have a license or certificate, while others have age limits for licensing.
How much is a boating license?
The BoatUS Foundation offers free boating license courses for 35 states. Other providers offer the course and exam for a fee of $29 to $50, and the state may add a registration fee.
Do boating licenses expire?
Each state regulates boating education and licensing requirements. Check with your state for specific licensing information.
Do you need a boating license for a personal watercraft (PWC)?
Each state regulates boating education and licensing requirements, and most apply their boating license regulations to personal watercraft. Some states have a separate education program and license for personal watercraft. Check with your state for specific licensing information.
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated in January 2023.