how to get a boating license

How to Get a Boating License or Boater Safety Certificate

Written by Kim Kavin
February 15, 2022

Last Updated on November 3, 2023 by Boatsetter Team

When you rent a boat with Boatsetter, you always have the option of adding a captain—which means you don’t actually need a boating license to enjoy a day out on the water. But if you want to drive the boat yourself, you’ll need to do so in keeping with the local regulations, which often means having a boating license, or boater safety certificate.

So, the question becomes, how do you get a boating license?

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Is a Boating License Required in My State?

It’s important to note that within the United States, boating rules, laws and regulations vary from state-to-state. In most states, boaters are required to either a) get a boating license, b) pass a boat education course to receive a boating safety certificate. However, some states, like Maine, South Dakota, Wyoming, Arizona, and Alaska, do not have any mandatory boating requirements.

Our friends at Discover Boating have a great tool that maps State Boating Laws, Rules & Requirements, including what’s required to operate a boat.

getting a boating license

Safe boating certificates are different from traditional licenses in that you don’t have to keep renewing them as you would with an automobile driver’s license, but they are similar in that some states offer reciprocity—meaning that if you pass a state-approved class to get your boating safety certificate in one state, that certificate can sometimes be used as proof of competency to operate a boat in another state.

Again, it’s best to check with the state where you plan to go boating before you head out onto the water.

Where To Get a Boating License

A quick online search for “boating license” or “boating certificate,” and the name of the state where you plan to go boating is a great place to start. That kind of search will take you to state-approved online and in-person courses for what’s often called safe boating certificates.

  • Look specifically for courses that are state-approved; they often carry the logos of the U.S. Coast Guard or NASBLA, which is the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.

Another way to find approved courses is to go to Boat-Ed®, and click on the state where you plan to go boating. After you click through to any given state, the site will tell you the age requirements for the state’s boating safety certificates, and it will give you an overview of how the course can be completed, including online options.

where to get a boating license

What Will I Learn in a Boating Safety Course?

The kinds of things you learn in a safe boating course are about more than just the boat itself. These courses are designed to help you understand not only the basics of how boats work, but also about the rules of the road out on the waterways—which can be different from the rules of the road that you’re used to following in an automobile.

For instance, as an automobile driver, you are likely used to thinking about speed in terms of miles per hour. There are speed-limit signs that give a number such as 35 MPH or 50 MPH for you to gauge whether you are operating your vehicle in a safe manner for that particular roadway.

On a boat, you will rarely see speed-limit signs. You’ll more likely see signs that say things like “no-wake zone.” How fast can the boat you’re driving go to remain within the rules of a no-wake zone? That’s the kind of thing you learn in a safe boating course.

Other things you’ll be introduced to include…

  • Aids to navigation, which are like the street signs of the waterways.
  • Different types of buoys and flags, which provide important information for anyone driving a boat, alerting them to things such as shoaled-in areas where a boat could run aground, or to scuba-diving sites where people are underwater and boats should not pass above (the boat’s propeller could strike an ascending diver).

boat safety certificates

For some states, you can find safe boating practice exams online. These click-through practice exams will give you an idea of the types of questions you will be able to answer after taking a safe boating course, and will give you an idea of how little or how much you still have to learn before taking command of a boat’s helm.

Is Getting Your Boating License Worth It?

We sure think so! Even captains who hold licenses to operate sizable ships will tell you that there is always something you can learn to become a better boater, so take your own safe boating course seriously. Not to mention—if you’re interested in taking it a step further—US Coast Guard certified-captains have the option of joining the Boatsetter Captain Network, and making an extra income by operating rentals.

Whenever a skipper has the skills and knowledge to operate a boat safely, everyone on board tends to relax and have even more fun out on the water.

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