In many states across the U.S., a boating license is required to operate most common types of large or motorized water vessels on both waterways and open coastal waters. How to get a boating license is decided on a state by state basis as there is no national legislation for licensing requirements. It is also common for states to forgo the licensing process and to instead require residents to complete a state-approved boating program before operating most types of water vessels. Boaters living in these states are usually required to carry their proof of completion of the necessary course as a permit for boat operation.

Many states allow residents to apply for an online boating license or to enroll in an accredited web-based education program. Most states also offer residents classroom-based boat certification courses that can be taken for a minimal fee if not offered for free by the community. All boaters must meet state eligibility requirements in order to operate a water vessel in that state. Boat operators are required to replace lost licenses or education cards if they are lost or stolen. Visit your state-specific page to learn more about licensing procedures and education requirements for boaters in your state:

Select a state to begin:
Select a state to begin:

Do you need a license to drive a boat in the United States?

Getting a boat license is not a requirement in every state of the U.S. In fact, many states like Tennessee, Texas and Washington state require that most boat drivers complete a state-approved boaters safety course instead of applying for a formal license. Some states require all boat operators to apply for a license or education training, while others only require drivers of a certain age to apply.

Many states separate water vessels into different classes of boats, some which require licensure and some that do not. Oftentimes, kayaks, canoes, small sailboats and similar nonmotorized watercraft do not require licensure to be operated, but exceptions do exist.

Boat License Requirements

The boating license age for boat drivers varies significantly from state to state. In many cases, boat license requirements are divided up according to age groups. The boating age to independently operate a motor vehicle is 16 years of age in West Virginia, for example, although minors from 12 to 15 years of age can drive a boat under the supervision of a licensed adult. In Tennessee, independent operators of water vessels can be as young as 12 years of age if the necessary education course has been completed.

Getting a Boat License in the U.S.

Where to get a boating license depends on where the driver lives in the United States. Boating licenses and cards are issued by state agencies on a local basis and cannot usually be requested from national entities.

How long does it take to get a boating license in most states? Because the application procedures for licenses and cards is different from state to state, the total amount of time it takes to receive certification varies also. Most states offer short classroom courses that can be completed in a day and accept online courses that last between three to eight hours in duration.

Washington state residents must take a boating course and then provide proof of completion to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to be able to operate a water vessel. Boat operators residing in Wyoming do not need to apply for a license or a boat safety certificate to legally drive a water vessel in the state.

Wisconsin residents must request a special ID number from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources before they can sign up for any certified education program to have permission to boat in the state. Drivers must look into the specific policies of their state of residency to learn more about how to get a license in their location.

Boater Safety Courses

Boat drivers living anywhere in the United States can enroll in an online boaters safety course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) to learn more about the best practices for operating a variety of types of water vessels and local regulations and policies concerning the student’s state.

Most states offer in-person boating classes, as well. These are usually taught by trained government officials or local representatives from the military. The material covered in these boating lessons can vary significantly by provider, but generally covers the same principle topics that all drivers must be familiar with before operating any type of water vessel.

A typical boating education program should teach drivers everything they need to know to stay safe while boating. Holders of a boater education card should also be aware of how to leave a minimal impact on their surrounding environment. Because boaters are held to similar laws as operators of other motor vehicles, all courses also cover important laws and consequences that boaters must know before driving in a certain state.

Renewing and Replacing an American Boating License

In states that require a license or boater safety card, it is usually required that the boater keep proof of meeting state requirements with him or her at all times when operating a water vessel. As a result, drivers who have somehow lost or destroyed their boating license must immediately apply for a replacement through the necessary channels.

Certain states require drivers to apply for a duplicate from the state government, while other states direct drivers to request a duplicate directly from the course provider. In most cases, requests for duplicate licenses must be accompanied by the appropriate fee to be correctly processed.

Do boating licenses expire at any point? Whether a boat certification expires or not depends on the type of license or education card the driver has. States that only require a boaters safety certificate do not usually have expiration dates on their permits and allow drivers to operate water vessels without worrying about renewal procedures. This is true for boat operators in Vermont, for example. States that require drivers to be official licenses to operate a boat may have expiration dates.

Boat Registration Basics

Throughout the United States, a boat registration on the state level is required by most types of larger and motorized water vessels. Applying for a boat title and registration is usually a matter of submitting an application with proof of ownership and an application fee to the department of motor vehicles or transportation of that state. Most states offer multiple submission methods for registration and title documents.

Once the registration is processed, most states offer boat registration stickers that must be attached to a specific place on the outer hull of the applicable water vessel. Boaters who fail to comply with their resident state’s DMV boat registration procedure generally face penalties similar to driving a motor vehicle without the proper documentation.

Boat operators living in Wyoming, for example, must submit a registration request once every one or three years for all motorized water vessels to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department along with the necessary application fee to meet state requirements.

Boating Rules and Regulations in the United States

Boating rules throughout the United States were created with the purpose of keeping boaters, swimmers and other enjoying the water safe while sustainably using our natural resources. Most boating regulations are created on a state by state basis, but many basic best practices are the same across state boundaries.

Many of these regulations concern making sure that water vessels meet boat requirements like having the necessary Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) and emergency signaling systems. Examples of boating rules that are very common amongst various states include:

  • All water vessels must have at least one wearable, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)-approved life jacket on board for every person on the boat at all times.
  • All life jackets must fit appropriately according to the age, weight and activity of expected occupants and be in proper, usable condition.
  • All water vessels of certain classes must have at least one throwable USCG-approved personal flotation device.
  • All boat passengers of any age aboard any type of personal watercraft (PWC) must wear a life jacket at all times.
  • Passengers on all water vessels who are young minors must wear an USCG-approved life jacket at all times when the boat is in motion.
  • All motorboats, houseboats and some other categories of water vessels must have a proper fire extinguisher on board.
  • All motorized watercraft and sailboats must display the necessary lights at an appropriate strength from sunset to sunrise, visible 360 degrees.
  • All motorized water vessels must have a suitable sound producing system on board to signal for help in the case of an emergency.
  • Boating under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol is illegal throughout the United States. Drivers found to be operating a boat while intoxicated will face criminal penalties akin to driving a car while under the influence.

Boating License Fees

The total cost for a boating license must be confirmed with the managing state agency in the driver’s home state. Some states ask minimal boat card application fees, while others provide the service free of charge. In states where some form of boating course is required, boat operators can usually find both free and affordable options that average around $30 a course.

Last updated on Friday, March 6 2020.