Whether you're pontoon-ing on a lazy lake or speed-boating across the rollicking Pacific, chances are you're going to need more than a six pack and a fishing rod to meet your state's legal boating requirements.
The key word here is of course "state," as boating laws vary widely depending on where you reside. If your home turf does require a boating license, the finer points of getting licensed may change per location, but the basic process remains fairly consistent.
Boating laws vary per state, but the process of getting a license requires an online or in-person certification course more often than not.
Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat?
Whether or not you need a license to drive a boat ultimately boils down to the state in which you're driving that boat. For instance, Californian boaters under the age of 20 must hold a California Boater Card. Because the law requiring vessel operator cards, Senate Bill Number 941, just went into effect in 2017, age requirements are slowly rolling out; in 2019, those under 25 will need a card and by 2025, everyone will need one.
On the flip side, boaters in Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming don't need a license to skipper a boat (with some exceptions for those under age 18). In Texas, you'll need a boater education course if you were born after 1993, while those in Alabama who are under 40 need a license, too.
Given the variance, it pays to check for the lowdown with your local Department of Motor Vehicles or Division of Boating and Waterways, or your state's Parks and Wildlife department, Department of Public Safety or Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
The Licensing Process
In the majority of states, you'll need to show up with more than just an ID or the signature of your legal guardian to legally drive a boat. As is the case in states like California, Texas, Alabama, Michigan, Connecticut and many more, completing some form of boating safety education is very often a mandatory requirement before getting a license. Set aside a day, as these courses can run up to eight hours.
Typically, boater education courses take a classroom format followed by a written test. States commonly charge about $10 to $20 for these sessions and award you a certificate or card to verify your completion of the course – this document serves as your boating license.
Can You Get a Boating License Online?
Third party boating education websites such as BoaterExam.com, Boat-Ed and the BoatUS Foundation offer state-approved online boating courses for a few dozen states, including California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, New York and many more. Online safety courses run a fraction of the length of in-classroom courses.
As the courses are state-specific, they offer an alternative, at-home means of education and are typically accepted as a way to certification. Depending on the state, online certification costs up to $30. Look for courses accredited by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators if you'd prefer to get certified without leaving your desk.
Boating Laws to Watch Out For
When you're on the water, it's par for the course to be expected to carry both your picture ID and your boating license. Age minimums range widely per state; some states will license children as young as 12 provided they've attended a certification course under adult supervision, but the minimum age in other states is 18.
In some cases, states have different requirements for motorboats, such as requiring proctored exams in a physical classroom setting rather than an online course. Likewise, some states require more strenuous licensing processes for vessels with more than 35 horsepower, while others don't require adults to have a license if they're driving under the supervision of a license holder.
In a specifically Californian caveat, those operating a rental vessel don't need a license at all. Unique stipulations and exemptions like these serve as a reminder to hit your state's boating safety study guides hard and familiarize yourself with the laws that affect your region.