Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat?

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Whether you need a license to operate a boat depends on which state you live in. Every state regulates boating and other water activities differently. Whether you plan to purchase a boat or enjoy one on vacation, you need to know the rules for the state where you will be on the water. Operating a boat outside of the law could lead to tickets, fines and even criminal charges.

States Requiring a Boating License

Most states do not have an explicit boating license requirement. However, Alabama, Delaware, Georgia and Mississippi require a boating license for certain individuals. Each state’s rules are different, though. For instance, in Delaware, you must have a license if you were born after Jan. 1, 1978, while in Georgia, boating operators between 12 and 15 years old need a license.

You cannot jump into a boat and go, though. You may not be required to have a license, but your privilege to operate a boat in a state may be based on completing an educational requirement or passing an exam.

Read More: How to Get a Boating License

Boating Education Requirements

While very few states explicitly require a boating license, a majority of states require some type of boating education course for certain operators. Some states require everyone to take an education and safety course. Others require young boaters (usually those between 12 and 17 years old) to receive education before they can operate a boat themselves. Adolescents may also be restricted on the boats they may operate based on the watercraft’s horsepower. Other states focus on individuals who have been ticketed for a boating moving violation.

However, there are no general education requirements for operating a boat in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota and Wyoming.

If you want to operate a boat at home or on vacation, make sure to look up the license and education requirements. You are more likely to have to take a class than to obtain a license like you would for a vehicle. Go to your local DMV, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, the American Boating Association or another state-based organization’s website to learn about your state’s boating laws.

Boating Under the Influence of Alcohol (BUI)

It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol in every state. Like with driving vehicles, states have a .08 percent blood alcohol concentration limit. If you are operating a boat and the authorities find you have a BAC at or above the legal limit, you may be arrested and charged with a crime. If you are under 21 years old, any amount of alcohol in your system while you drive a boat is illegal.

It is also important to know that your boat can be stopped and boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard as well as state or local authorities. Your vehicle can be stopped if a law enforcement officer has reasonable suspicion that you are operating a vessel while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Officers may also stop and board your boat for a safety check, which in turn could help them determine that you are driving a boat while drinking.

Prepare Before You Drive a Boat

If you are going to operate a boat – whether motor-powered or not and whatever the size – do your homework. Determine your state’s boating laws, including licensing, education and safety requirements. Thoroughly preparing to operate a vessel enables you to avoid accidents and costly tickets.

If you are blamed for an accident on the water, ticketed or charged with a crime, call a local attorney with experience in boating regulations.


  • Most states do not require a boating license, however many require certain operators to complete educational requirements.