Although most people may call it a license, states and educators usually reference the legal document as a boating certificate or card. Once obtained, certification never expires and you don’t need to renew it like a driver’s license. If you lose the card, each state or certifying body has a procedure for replacement, usually for a nominal fee. In some states, you just print out proof of having passed the exam.
What is a boating license?
Many states require a boating license or have mandatory boater education requirements. Other states are just coming on-line with new regulations, like California, which is phasing in an age-based set of requirements that begins in 2018 and continues to broaden over the next seven years. Whether these measures have been driven by accident reports, insurance requirements or environmental concerns is unclear. One thing is sure however: the question whether to certify or not, to become educated or to wing it, is becoming moot. Most boaters in most states need to have some sort of boating license or at least a minimum standard of education to operate a vessel on the inland and coastal waters of this country.
How to get a boating license
How to get a boating license varies by state. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) requires a minimum of three hours of study time excluding quizzes and exams. Most students will complete online courses in less than six hours. There doesn’t seem to be a maximum time limit to complete the process so if you fail a module, you can retake it, or you can start and stop online courses as your schedule allows.
In addition to state agencies that may be involved with getting a boating license, there are private education services that work with one or several states and these are listed on the NASBLA site. Also, the Boat U.S. Foundation provides free boating safety courses that may meet state requirements for certification. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the U.S. Power Squadron in your area may be helpful for in-person classes as well.
Two online private educators include Boat-Ed.com and BoaterExam.com, both of which offer comprehensive courses with text, high-end graphics, and videos to illustrate boating concepts to help you learn. U.S. Sailing and the American Sailing Association partner with BoaterExam so if you’re a member of either, you can ask their offices for recommendations for online courses.
In some states, these online educators will be able to issue the license or certificate. In other cases, the states follow up with a card once the exam has been passed and in some others still, you may have to complete the course and then sit for a proctored exam in person. Some states may allow you to challenge the exam without courses if you can prove sufficient boating experience and knowledge.
How much certification costs
Costs also vary from state to state. Most private certification ranges from $0 to $30, depending on the provider and state. Some materials can be obtained free of charge from state agencies and most BoatU.S. courses are free. BoaterExam.com provides “family” pricing. For instance, if your certification costs $30, other members of your family may be certified for an additional $15 each. Once you are certified in a state, your card should be honored by other states under the concept of reciprocity, just like a driver’s license.
Who needs a boating license
Again, this varies dramatically by state and the answer to who needs a certificate depends on where you live, what type of watercraft or vessel you’re operating and how old you are. Educational standards are guided by NASBLA. Not only does NASBLA oversee approval for independently contracted private education providers, they’re also the repository of most state regulation information. Their website has a map as well as a chart with each state’s education requirements. Per NASBLA, there are currently only four states that have no official licensing requirements of any kind including Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Some states have exemptions to mandatory boater education laws that may include age, military service and having another license (U.S. Coast Guard six-pack or master license, for example). You’ll have to check with your state’s governing agency to see if you can be either grandfathered or exempted based on your qualifications.
Where to get a boating license
Certifying agencies vary by state and go by different names: department of natural resources, parks and wildlife division, department of fish and game, or boating and waterways bureau. You’ll need to check with your state to find the right agency.
Qualifying study programs may include online, in-person or at home coursework. Just make sure the program you’re following is NASBLA-approved. In some states like California, printed publications can be sent to the student’s home or downloaded from the state’s website. Students study at their own pace and then complete and submit a written exam.
What is on the boating education test
Online boating courses must adhere to content standards as defined by NASBLA and aim to teach the minimum for safe and legal boating. An overview goes something like this:
- Boating equipment requirements (fire extinguishers, PFDs, signaling equipment, etc.)
- Trip planning and preparation (filing a float plan, fueling procedures, pre-departure checklist, etc.)
- Emergency preparedness (man overboard, cold water immersion, fire emergencies, on-water assistance, etc.)
- Safe boating operation (homeland security measures, influence of drugs and alcohol, navigation rules, etc.)
- Water activities (PWCs, water-skiing, paddle sports, towed devices, wake sports, diving and snorkeling, etc.)
One additional chapter or module is usually specific to state regulations and circumstances. This covers boating registration and titling requirements, marine environment and noise regulations, age and education requirements, accident reporting and more.
Passing grades also vary by state with a requirement of 70 to 90 percent to be attained on module quizzes and the final exam.
What a certification won’t do for you
Certification is necessary to keep you legal on the water but it won’t necessarily make you a better boater. You can read about docking all day but without practical, on-water experience, it can still be a nerve-racking proposition. Skills to perfect with actual practice will include docking, anchoring, heavy weather sailing and motoring, knot tying, and knowing your way around mechanical, maintenance, and emergency issues. Old salts know this already but if you’re new to boating, there is no substitute for hands-on experience.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in June 2017 and updated in November 2018.