Do you need a license to drive a boat?

25th November 2021 Elena Manighetti

Do you need a license to drive a boat?

The short answer is: it depends. Each country has its own regulations for pleasure crafts, which can vary from state to state. In some countries, you can drive a small motorboat or sailboat without a license, while in others you need a certificate of competency to operate any vessel.

Let’s look at individual local regulations to answer the question in detail. Below we cover Australia, the UK, the USA, and much of Europe.

Disclaimer: Please don’t rely on this article only when researching boat license regulations. Check on a country’s official marine transportation website if you need a license and make sure to look up any additional requirements, such as a radio license. Laws change often.

Do you need a boat license in Australia and New Zealand?

Rules and regulations vary. In Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are the only states that don’t enforce a boat license. However, if you don’t follow local laws out on the water, you can be prosecuted.

Let’s look at the types of boats that require a license in each Australian state:

  • Queensland: any boat with an engine power greater than 4.5kW

  • Northern Territory: no recreational boat, but you must know and follow the local laws

  • Western Australia: any vessel with more than 6 hp

  • South Australia: any vessel fitted with an engine

  • New South Wales: any powered vessel that can go faster than 10 knots

  • Victoria: any powered recreational vessel

  • Tasmania: any boat with 4 horsepower or more

In New Zealand, like in the Northern Territory, you don’t need a license to operate a recreational boat, but you must know and follow the local regulations.

Do you need a boat license in the United Kingdom?

In the UK, you can operate a pleasure boat up to 24 meters (78.7 inches) in length or 80 tonnes (78.7 imperial tons) in weight without having a boating license, as long as you’re not carrying more than 12 passengers and are out on the sea. Inland waterways require a permit. 

These rules are valid in the UK only, though. If you travel in foreign waters, you may be required to hold a certificate of competence or a license.

Many countries in the Mediterranean require a basic certification, called the International Certificate of Competency (ICC). So if you plan to take your British-flagged vessel to Europe or charter a boat there, you will need to have an ICC.

Always check the rules around boat licensing of the countries you plan to visit.

Do you need a boat license in Europe?

Almost every country in Europe requires a boat license, depending on the size of boat you drive. If you plan to register your vessel in a specific country, you’ll need to follow the country’s regulations and go on a course there. A foreign license will not be recognised.

Below we have summed up the types of boats that require a license in the most popular boating countries of Europe.

  • France: motorised vessels with power greater than 6 horsepower

  • Greece: yachts and motorboats with more than 30 horsepower

  • Italy: motorboats with more than 30 hp and yachts sailing 6+ nautical miles off the coast

  • Croatia: all sailboats and motorboats

  • Spain: sailboats over 5m and motorboats over 4m with more than 15 horsepower

  • Portugal: all sailboats and motorboats

  • Turkey: any vessel

  • Montenegro: all sailboats and motorboats

  • Germany: vessels with more than 5 hp and vessels in the inland waterways

  • Switzerland: boats with a certain horsepower, depending on the Canton

  • Netherlands: boats over 15m that can go over 20km/hour

  • Norway: all boats over 8m with more than 25 horsepower

  • Sweden: boats over 10m long and faster than 15 knots

  • Finland: none

  • Ireland: none.

Do you need a boat license in the United States?

In the Unites States, things are rather complicated. Each state has very specific requirements, based on the age of the person operating the boat. Below we’ve summed up the requirements for each state. 

The following states require a Boater Education Card or license for:

  • Alabama: any boater older than 12

  • American Samoa: PWC operators 18 and under

  • Arkansas: anyone born on or after January 1st, 1986

  • California: anyone will need one by 2025

  • Connecticut: any resident who uses a boat more than 60 days a year

  • Delaware: anyone born on or after January 1, 1978

  • Florida: anyone born on or after January 1, 1988, to drive a vessel over 10 hp

  • Georgia: anyone born on or after January 1, 1998 to operate a motorboat

  • Hawaii: everyone

  • Idaho: anyone renting a PWC

  • Illinois: anyone born on or after January 1, 1998 to drive a vessel over 10 hp

  • Indiana: anyone over 15 who don’t have an Indiana driver’s license

  • Iowa: people 12-17 who operate a boat over 10 horsepower or a PWC

  • Kansas: anyone under 21 

  • Kentucky: children 12-17 years old to operate a vessel over 10 hp unsupervised

  • Lousiana: anyone born on or after January 1, 1984 to drive a boat over 10 horsepower

  • Maine: people over 12 who drive a boat with over 10 hp unsupervised

  • Massachusetts: anyone 12-16 years old under no supervision

  • Michigan: people born after June 30, 1996 

  • Minnesota: teens 12-17 to operate a motorboat over 25 horsepower

  • Mississippi: people born on or after June 30, 1980

  • Missouri: anyone born on or after January 1, 1984

  • Montana: teens who are 13 and 14 must be accompanied or pass a course

  • Nebraska: anyone born after December 31, 1985

  • Nevada: people born on or after January 1, 1983, to drive motorboats over 15 hp

  • New Hampshire: people 16 and over to drive a boat over 25 horsepower

  • New Jersey: all power vessel operators

  • New Mexico: people born on or after January 1, 1989

  • New York: anyone born on or after May 1, 1996

  • North Carolina: anyone born on or after Januay 1, 1988 to drive vessels over 10 hp

  • North Dakota: anyone accompanying teens 12-15 on a vessel with more than 10 hp 

  • Northern Marian Islands: everyone

  • Ohio: people born on or after January 1, 1982 to operate a boat with more than 10 hp

  • Oklahoma: anyone 12-15 years old to drive a vessel over 10 hp

  • Oregon: anyone over 16 operating a powerboat with more than 10 hp

  • Pennsylvania: boaters born after January 1, 1982, to operate boats over 25 hp

  • Puerto Rico: anyone born after July 1, 1972

  • Rhode Island: anyone born after January 1, 1986 to operate a vessel over 10 hp

  • South Carolina: people younger than 16, to operate a 15hp vessel unsupervised

  • Tennessee: residents born after January 1, 1989 

  • Texas: anyone born on or after September 1, 1993 to drive a motorboat over 15 hp or a sailboat over 14ft

  • Utah: people 12-17 

  • Vermont: anyone born on or after January 1, 1974

  • Virginia: everyone

  • Washington: anyone to operate a vessel 15 hp or more

  • West Virginia: anyone born after December 31, 1986

  • Wisconsin: people born on or after January 1, 1989 who are over 16.

Recreational boaters need a Boating Safety Certificate in:

  • District Of Columbia

  • Colorado (14 and 15-year-olds only)

  • Maryland (anyone born on or after January 1, 1972).

Recreational boaters don’t need a license or Boater Education Card in:

  • Alaska

  • Arizona 

  • Guam

  • South Dakota

  • Virgin Islands

  • Wyoming.

If you get a Boater Education Card, license, or Boating Safety Certificate from the State you reside in, other States will recognise it. So you can travel around the country and rent boats anywhere with one single card. Boater Education Cards don’t expire.

This is just a brief summary - remember to check the up- to-date full list of requirements on your state’s official website for transport.

Boat license: Conclusion 

No matter what the regulations in the country you’re boating in are, your safety and that of those around you is your responsibility. 

You may not be required to take a test to jump on a motorised vessel or sailboat, but once you’re out on the water, you need to know what to do and how to behave. Following road safety protocols can confuse other boaters and cause accidents. For example, right of way works differently on the water.

Even if you’re only renting a small boat for a few days, take time to learn the essential COLREGs (we wrote an article about them) and to understand basic navigation (here’s an article about the most used ATONs). It doesn’t take long and it will help you stay out of trouble. 

Before heading out, you’ll need to check the marine weather forecast. If you’re only hiring a small boat for an afternoon, you can rely on the rental company’s guidance. If, however, you’re going out on your own, learn the basics of how to read a marine weather forecast. On some days, it’s best to stay on shore. A sunny calm day can turn into a very windy day with big waves and strong currents.

That said, gaining a boat license doesn’t mean you’re suddenly an expert on all things boating. There’s a lot to learn about boat handling and maintenance that a short course can’t cover. You will keep learning through experience, but it’s a good idea to research various topics in your own time. You may also want to enroll in a boat safety course to get the hang of important safety protocols.

Please make sure to check the latest regulations around boat licensing for your area. Do not rely on this article only.

Download the Deckee app from the App Store or Google Play to plan and log your next boating trip. Look up anchorages and fishing spots on the map, figure out your heading, and log your trip.

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