Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat? US License Laws

Some states compel boaters to have a certificate or license. Some states set age limits for those who want to get their boating license. In this article, I’ll describe whether you need a license depending on your specific state.

Do you need a license to drive a boat? Only a few states require you to have an official license to drive a boat. Most states, however, require boaters to undergo certain types of safety courses in boating. Every state oversees licensing requirements and boating education.

Read on to learn more about the boating licensing requirements in every state, and whether you need a license to drive a boat.

Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat?

In some states, you are required to have a license before you can drive a boat. In fact, only a few states have this strict regulation.

In most other states, a license is not required, but they require boaters to undergo some type of boating safety courses.

Each state regulates boating education and licensing requirements. Additionally, some states enforce age limits to those who want to apply for a boating license.

For instance, in California, a new law was passed in January 2018 requiring boaters to have a lifetime boater’s card. This card proves that boaters have the qualifications to operate a boat. To get this card, you have to pass a boating safety test that the state has approved. Once you get the card, it is valid for life.

Another example of a state that requires a boating license is the state of Florida. A boater will not be allowed to operate a boat in Florida waters if they can’t show such a license card under their name.

The NASBLA or National Association of State Boating Law Administrators also states that if you have completed an approved boating course, they will give you a boating card. This card is accepted in all states that require mandatory education in boating. Your card is accepted because NASBLA represents the authorities in recreational boating in all 50 states of the union.

What Are the Boating Laws in Each State?

If you want to be a boater, it is worth to invest your time and money in learning and completing a boating course – whether your state requires a boating license or not. And if you are a certified boater, you will enjoy discounts on boat insurance, apart from gaining water safety skills.

Every state has specific requirements and rules regarding boating safety and licensing. Here is a compilation of the boating laws and licensing requirements in the different U.S. states.

1. States with Mandatory Boating Education Law

These states enforce mandatory boating laws. Some states require safety certification for some boaters, while other states require it for all boaters. Surprisingly, only the state of Alabama requires its boaters to acquire valid boat licenses.

Western States

  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • California
  • Nevada
  • Utah
  • Montana
  • New Mexico
  • Colorado

Central States

  • North Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana

Eastern States

  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont
  • New York
  • Massachusetts
  • Rhode Island
  • Connecticut
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Delaware
  • Maryland
  • District of Columbia
  • Michigan
  • Ohio
  • Indiana
  • Illinois
  • Wisconsin
  • West Virginia
  • Virginia
  • North Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Kentucky
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Alabama
  • Mississippi
  • Florida
do you need a special license to drive a boat

2. States with No Mandatory Boating Education Law

The following states do not require their boaters to undergo boating education:

  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Arizona
  • Wyoming
  • South Dakota
  • Arkansas

Who Are Required to Finish a Boating Education Course in Each State?

Do you need a boating license to drive a boat? The following are required to complete a boating education course in their respective states before operating a boat:

Western States

  • Washington – Operators of motorboats with a minimum of 15 horsepower. The person should be 12 years old or older. This law was enforced in several phases. It started in 2008 at the age of 12, and the final phase was in 2014 when the age requirement was raised to 20 years old.
  • Oregon – Operators 12 years old and above on motorboats with at least 10 horsepower
  • California – Those convicted of moving violations while boating are the only ones who need to get boating education. They must successfully finish the course.
  • Nevada – Those born on or after Jan. 1, 1983, are required to finish a boating education course approved by the authorities. This law applies to those who are operating motorboats with more than 15 horsepower.
  • Utah – Operators of personal watercraft between 12 and 17 years old must complete a boater’s education course.
  • Montana – Those who operate PWCs with more than 10 horsepower and are between 13 and 14 years old should finish a boater’s education course or be accompanied by an adult.
  • New Mexico – Boat operators born on or after Jan. 1, 1980, should complete a boater’s education course.
  • Colorado – On Jan. 1, 1998, any person who wants to operate a motorboat should get a boater’s education course and be at least 16 years old. Those of ages 14 to 15 can only operate a motorboat if they have completed a boating safety course approved by the state.

Central States

  • North Dakota – Those between 12 and 15 years old are not allowed to operate a motorboat, including skis, PWCs, and those propelled by a motor with more than 10 horsepower. However, they can operate a motorboat if accompanied by a person 18 years old or older, or if they have completed and passed a boating course approved by the authorities.
  • Nebraska – motorboat operators from 14 to 18 years old should take and pass a boating safety course.
  • Kansas – Those who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1989, and below 21 years old should take and pass a boating education course.
  • Oklahoma – Boat operators between 12 and 16 years old
  • Texas – Boat operators who are 13 to 17 years old
  • Minnesota – Those between 12 and 17 who want to operate a motorboat with more than 25 horsepower.
  • Iowa People from 12 to 17 years old and want to operate a PWC or motorboat of more than 10 horsepower.
  • Missouri Those who were born after Jan. 1, 1984
  • Arkansas – People who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1986
  • Louisiana – Those who are below 16 years old

Eastern States

  • Maine – People who are 16 to 17 years old who want to operate a PWC.
  • New Hampshire – Those who are 16 years old and above who want to operate a boat with more than 25 horsepower motor.
  • Vermont – People who were born after Jan. 1, 1984
  • New York –  For motorboats, those who were born on or after May 1, 1996, should take approved courses from the U.S. Power Squadrons, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the NYS Parks. Only 10 years old and above can take these courses.

Those who are below 14 years old are not allowed to operate PWCs. They should also hold a boater’s safety certificate from the U.S. Power Squadrons, the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, or the NYS Parks. This certificate is only given after completing an 8-hour boating safety course.

A person can operate a PWC even if he or she doesn’t have this certificate. However, he or she must be accompanied by a person over 18 years old and a holder of this certificate.

do you need a captains license to drive a boat
  • Massachusetts – Those who are between the ages of 12 and 16 years old. People who are below 16 years old are not allowed to operate PWCs.
  • Rhode Island – People who want to operate PWCs and motorboats with at least 10 horsepower and were born after Jan. 1, 1986.
  • Connecticut – Anyone who wants to operate a motorboat for more than 60 days a year.
  • New Jersey – Those who want to operate a motorboat regardless of their birthdates.
  • Pennsylvania – Those born after Jan. 1, 1982, with motors that have more than 25 horsepower, including those who want to operate PWCs.
  • Delaware – Those who were born after Jan. 1, 1978
  • Maryland – People born after July 1, 1972, and those who operate motorboats in state waters.
  • District of Columbia – Any person who operates a motorboat in state waters needs to secure a boating safety certificate. It will only be issued to those who have successfully completed the state’s boating safety course.
  • Ohio – People who were born on or after Jan. 1, 1982.
  • Indiana – All people who want to drive a watercraft need to get a valid driver’s license, except for 15-year-olds who have passed a boater certification course and have an Indiana identification card.
  • Illinois – Those who are at least 12 years old and younger than 18 years old – if they want to operate a motorboat.
  • Wisconsin – Those who were born on Jan. 1, 1989, and those who are younger than 16 years old.
  • West Virginia – Those who were born after Dec. 31, 1986
  • Virginia – Started with a phased boating safety education according to boaters’ age on July 1, 2009
  • North Carolina – 14 to 16-year-olds who want to operate PWCs need to get boating safety education courses.
  • Tennessee – Residents born after Jan. 1, 1989 need to pass a proctored exam.
  • Kentucky – Children from 12 to 17 years old need to get boating certification.
  • South Carolina – Those who are below 16 years old who want to operate boats with at least 15 horsepower motor by themselves.
  • Georgia – Children ages 12 to 15 years old who want to operate boats on their own.
  • Alabama – Those who operate a watercraft on state waters.
  • Mississippi – People who were born after June 30, 1980.
  • Florida – Those born on or after Jan. 1, 1988 must complete a boater education course certified by the NASBLA, or have passed an equivalency exam to operate a motorboat of 10 hp. or more, including PWCs.
  • Michigan 12-year-olds are allowed to operate a motorized boat with no more than 6 horsepower without legal restrictions. If they are supervised by a 16-year-old, they can operate motorboats with more than 6 horsepower but no more than 35 horsepower. Thus, they can’t operate a motorboat with more than 35 horsepower under any condition. 

Those between 12 and 15 may operate boats with no more than 6 horsepower without any legal restrictions. However, they can operate a boat with more than 6 horsepower if they pass a boating safety course accepted by the Dept. of Natural Resources, and when they are accompanied by someone who is at least 16 years old.

So we’ve answered the question “do you need a special license to drive a boat”; next, let’s look at how you can get a boating license.

How Can I Get a Boating License?

It is relatively easy to get a boating license. The process is not as comprehensive as that of acquiring a car driver’s license. For instance, you don’t need to undergo an on-water driver’s education.

Follow the simple steps below to secure a boating license:

  1. Find out the requirements for boater education in your state.
  2. You can take an online or actual classroom course on boating safety and education.
  3. Take the test and pass it.
  4. Pay your course dues after completing the course.
  5. Get your completion certificate and license and take them with you whenever you are operating a boat.

Conclusion – Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat?

So, to recap, very few states require an official license to drive a boat. Thankfully, though, most states require boaters to undergo certain types of safety course in boating. In this regard, every state oversees licensing requirements and boating education.

Do you need a license to drive a boat? For safety reasons, you do really need it. Some states require boaters to have a certificate or license. Other states set age limits to those who want to get their boating license.

Statistics coming from the National Transportation Safety Board indicate that highway fatalities exceed boating fatalities. Moreover, U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that 70 percent of the 7,700 total boating accidents every year is due to operator error. Interestingly, it is suspected that only about less than 10 percent of minor boating accidents are reported.

It’s for these reasons that I like the idea of a boating license. I think it would reduce safety. However, I understand that it can be time-consuming getting a license and like the freedom of not requiring one. Use our guide above to know exactly whether you need a license for the state you will be boating in.