A boating license is required for many Wisconsin adults and minors to operate a motorized boat or personal watercraft (PWC), depending on the boater’s age. Instead of receiving licenses, Wisconsin adults are expected to earn a boater education card for the completion of an applicable education program in order to legally operate a water vessel in state waterways. To be eligible to drive motorboats and PWCs in Wisconsin, boaters must meet the state’s age criteria and adhere to all state laws and regulations governing the waterways.

Boaters can choose to apply for an online boating license by completing an online education program and printing their certificate of completion. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) oversees most boating service matters in the state. Boat certification and education courses approved by the DNR are also taught in classrooms at locations throughout the state. Boaters who have the necessary certification but who need a replacement can request a duplicate from the DNR with the appropriate application fee. Keep reading to learn more about meeting the requirements to legally drive a boat in Wisconsin.

Do you need a license to drive a boat in Wisconsin?

In Wisconsin, all boat boaters born on or after January 1, 1989 are required to take a boaters safety course already approved by the WI DNR and to pass the accompanying course exam. Getting a boat license is only required for boaters of motorized boats and personal watercraft, though boat drivers of all ages are encouraged to complete a course before driving any type of water vessel. Similar to getting your driver’s license in Wisconsin, to get a boating license, you will need to take certain safety courses and register your vehicle.

Wisconsin Boat License Requirements

The minimum boating license age when a minor can operate a water vessel under the supervision of an eligible adult is 12 years of age in Wisconsin. From 12 years of age, boaters can meet WI boat license requirements and enroll in a boating education course to receive the necessary qualification to independently operate a motorboat or PWC. Minors 10 to 16 years of age must be accompanied by a parent or guardian or another adult designated by the minor’s parent or guardian when operating a water vessel. There are no age requirements in Wisconsin to operate a boat that is not propelled by a motor.

Getting a Boat License in Wisconsin

Boaters can choose where to get a boating license from courses taught online and classes conducted completely in-person. The average online boater’s safety course can generally be completed within a day, while classroom courses are often day-based only if they do not include extended coverage of additional topics. In order to enroll in a DNR-approved program, WI residents must first apply for a Wisconsin DNR Customer ID Number. This ID number is required to register a boater’s participation in credited programs. It can be requested by any of these three methods:

  1. Online: Head to the WI DNR website and submit your information to electronically receive your Wisconsin DNR Customer ID Number.
  2. By Telephone: Call 888-936-7463 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to request an ID number with the help of a representative.
  3. In-person: Head to your nearest DNR service center during regular open hours to ask for an ID number in-person. A list of available locations is available from the DNR.

Boaters can enroll in the online or classroom-based boater safety course of their choosing once they have received their Wisconsin DNR Customer ID Number. Multiple providers offer courses that have been approved by the DNR and that offer valid certificates to permit legal boating.

Wisconsin Boater Safety Courses

WI residents can get a boating license online or in-person according to their preference after they have received their DNR ID number. The DNR encourages all boaters, not only those born after 1988, to enroll in a state-approved boating course to learn the best practices for safely operating a boat and how to remain within Wisconsin waterway laws. Each county offers at least one eligible course in-person every year. The objectives of the course include:

  • Reducing the potential for accidents, injuries and fatalities when operating any water vessel in WI waters.
  • Minimizing the potential for conflict between boaters, swimmers, landowners and other water resource users.
  • Promoting the safe, responsible and ethical use of the aquatic environment and Wisconsin’s natural resources.
  • Emphasizing the state’s rules for navigation, ethics and proper use of water vessels and resources.

Renewing and Replacing a Wisconsin Boating License

All boaters of boats are required to keep their boater education card with them at all times when operating an applicable motorboat or PWC. The DNR does not technically issue licenses, but instead expects boaters to receive education certificates. These proofs of completion never expire and do not need renewal.

If a licensed operator somehow loses or damages his or her boat card, he or she is obligated to request a duplicate from the DNR by mail. Boaters in this situation can request a replacement by any of the following methods:

  1. Head to the state Go Wild website and make a profile to print your registered certificate. This process is free.
  2. Visit a Go Wild License Agent and request a duplicate.
  3. Visit a DNR Service Center and request a duplicate.

Wisconsin Boat Registration Basics

Motorboats and other large water vessels must apply for a boat registration and a Wisconsin Certificate of Number in order to be legally operated in state waterways. Owners must request a boat title and registration for all recreational water vessels except the following:

  • Boats propelled without a motor
  • Sailboats under 12 feet of length
  • Vessels registered in another state present in Wisconsin for less than 60 consecutive days

Once properly registered, the owner is required to place the boat registration stickers on the appropriate location of the water vessel to signify being up to state code. Applications for registration and title can be submitted to the DNR online, in-person or by mail for fulfillment by mail. Renewal requests can be submitted in multiple formats as well.

Wisconsin Boating Rules and Regulations

Whether a driver chooses to get a license online or take an in-person course, he or she has to pass the same basic requirements in order to become qualified. This includes learning about Wisconsin boating regulations designed to keep boaters and others enjoying the natural environment safe at all times. In addition to safety concerns, WI boating laws were created to enable the sustainable usage of the state’s natural resources by boaters. Some important boating rules that all WI boaters should be aware of include:

  • Wisconsin boating rules prohibit boaters from operating any water vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Boat operators who are stopped driving a water while under the influence will face criminal penalties similar to drivers found operating a motor vehicle intoxicated.
  • 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 16 feet or longer must have at least one throwable USCG-approved personal flotation device.
  • All boat passengers of any age aboard personal watercraft must always wear a life jacket.
  • Passengers on all water vessels operating in federal waters who are 13 years of age or younger must wear an 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 water vessels must have a suitable sound producing system on board to signal for help in the case of an emergency.
  • If an accident occurs, boaters are required to report the incident within 10 days to the DNR.

Wisconsin Boating License Fees

The average classroom-based boating course costs just $10 in Wisconsin. Most online offerings cost a bit more at about $30 a class, though a free option is available. Boaters requesting a duplicate license do not usually need to pay a fee.

Last updated on Friday, December 7 2018.

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