How To Get A Boating License (Essential Guide)

Boating is a great way to spend time outdoors and explore the world around you. But before you can do that, many US states and Canada require you to pass a boating education course and receive a boating license (especially if you’re under the age of 16). In this article, I will describe what a boating license is and how you can obtain one.

Related article: How Long Does It Take To Get A Boating License?

What is a boating license and how does it work?

A boating license is a legal document that allows you to operate a boat safely and legally. It also ensures that you understand the rules of the water and are aware of your responsibilities as a boat operator. Although most adults don’t remember much from their boating safety course, it’s still required to obtain in most states.

Most states also require you to have a valid boater safety certificate on board whenever you are captaining a boat. So make sure to keep it in your wallet at all times. Most people I know don’t carry theirs around, but if the coast guard feels like giving you a rough time they’ll ticket you for not having it.

Step-by-step guide on How to get your boating license

Step 1: Determine if you even need to get a boating license

In the United States, boating license requirements vary by state, but most states require boaters to have a boating safety certificate or license if they were born after a specific date (usually in the 1980s or 1990s). Each state also has different age requirements, and many don’t require people who are over the age of 16 to get a boating license.

See the whole list of requirements by state by clicking here. The states that don’t require a boating license include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Main, and South Dakota. Plus there are many more who don’t require boating licenses for people over the age of 16.

However, if you plan on moving or visiting a state or Canadian province that requires a boating license, you will need to get one. Most states offer temporary licenses that last one year and can be completed in 10-30 minutes.

Step 2: Find and complete a state-verified boaters safety course

If you have determined that you need to get a boating safety course, you’ll need to find a reputable boaters education program. The course I took a few years ago was from, it’s affordable, and I had no problems with it. They offer many different US states and a program for Canadians as well.

If your state is not available on that website, any option that is NASBLA certified course will be fine. There are also in-person safety courses available if that is what you prefer. Any NASBLA boaters certificate will work in all US states as long as you are old enough to operate a boat in that state.

Step 3: Pass the boating safety exam

After completing a boating safety course (this will take 3-5 hours on average), you will need to pass a boating safety exam. The exam will cover topics such as boating laws, navigation, and safety procedures which you will learn from the course.

Once you have passed the exam (most programs give you unlimited tries), you will receive your boating license in the mail. Boattests101 also gives you a valid printable temporary license you can use while waiting for your permanent license to be shipped.

Apply the rules and regulations you’ve learned when boating

One of the most frustrating things as a boater is another boater who doesn’t know what they are doing. A lot of the time this may be because of a skill issue (docking, trailering, etc.) but sometimes it’s due to a boater not knowing the rules.

Some of the most important rules are understanding right-of-way rules such as which way to pass when heading straight onto another boat (always veer to the right).

Another important rule is understanding and following signs on the water. For example, producing a wake in a no-wake zone may not seem like a big deal to an uneducated boater, but it could cause severe damage to boats docked along the shore.

Tips for taking the boaters education course and the official boat licensing exam

If we’re being honest, most people who take the online exam don’t do so very honestly. However, you should still at least understand some of the primary principles of boating and the safety equipment you need on board. Here are a few tips that I would recommend:

  1. Study the material provided in the boater education course thoroughly.
  2. Take practice tests to become familiar with the types of questions that will be on the official exam.
  3. Make sure you understand the laws and regulations related to boating in your state or province.
  4. Understand the proper use and maintenance of safety equipment on board the vessel.
  5. Be familiar with the navigation rules for your area.
  6. Understand the impact of weather and water conditions on boating safety.
  7. Get familiarized with the boating hand signals.
  8. Take a break if you feel overwhelmed and come back to study later.
  9. Seek assistance if you have any doubts or questions.
  10. Arrive at the exam location early and be well-rested.

If you have finished your education course and are confused by any of the tips above, I would re-study a few of the topics. I can promise you that the test is not all common sense and even after taking the boating exam a few years ago, I tried retaking it for fun and got a whopping 35 out of 60 questions correct.

FAQ (frequently asked questions)

Can I use my boating license in other states?

As long as your boaters safety certificate is NASBLA certified, it can be used in every US state that requires a boaters license. You can also use it in Canada.

Do I need to renew my boating license?

No, you don’t need to renew your boating license. All it takes is 3-5 painful hours of studying and test-taking, and you are a legal boater for life.