What Size Boat Requires A Captain’s License? And Other Licensing Matters

Published Categorized as Buying Guides

When you’re a teenager, you get your learner’s permit before your driver’s license. If you want to learn to fly a plane, you go to flight school. But what do you do if you want to be the captain of a boat? What size boat requires a captain’s license, and how do you get one? 

Most beginners are shocked to learn that you don’t need formal training or a license to drive a boat as long as it’s for recreation. But before you hit send and submit that down payment for that 105-foot Azmut you’ve been lusting after, let’s talk about what it involves. While you might not need a Coast Guard credential, you must do a few important things.

What Size Boat Requires A Captain's License?

Table of Contents

What Size Boat Requires A Captain’s License?

The requirement for a captain’s license does not depend solely on the size of the boat but rather its use and the number of passengers it carries for commercial purposes.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Commercial Purpose with Paying Passengers: Any boat operating for commercial purposes that carries passengers for hire will require the operator to have a captain’s license.
    • Inspected Vessels: For larger commercial vessels or those carrying more than six passengers, a master’s license with the appropriate tonnage is required.
    • Uninspected Vessels with Six or Fewer Passengers: For smaller vessels that carry six or fewer passengers (often referred to as “six-pack vessels”), an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV) license is needed.

For recreational boating, where you are not carrying passengers or cargo for hire, no captain’s license is required regardless of the boat’s size. However, many states have education requirements for recreational boaters, which might involve passing a safe boating course.

What Length of Boat Requires a Captain’s License?

The necessity for a captain’s license is not dictated by the length of the boat but by its operational purpose and the number of passengers being transported for commercial reasons.

What Is a Captain’s License?

A boat captain’s license, more formally known as a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) in the United States, is an official document issued by the United States Coast Guard (USCG) that certifies the holder is qualified to operate a vessel of a certain size and type. This license is necessary for individuals who wish to operate boats commercially, such as carrying passengers or cargo for hire.

Purpose and Benefits

The purpose of requiring a captain’s license is to ensure that those in command of vessels, especially those carrying passengers, possess the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience to operate safely and effectively. It ensures adherence to maritime laws and standards, enhances safety, and provides a pathway for maritime professionals to develop their careers.

In essence, a boat captain’s license is a credential that certifies an individual’s competency in maritime operations, promoting safety, professionalism, and regulatory compliance in commercial boating activities.

Types of Captain’s Licenses

There are several types of captain’s licenses, depending on the size of the vessel and the waters where it operates. The most common are:

  • Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV) License: Also known as a “six-pack” license, it allows the holder to carry up to six passengers on uninspected vessels. This is often used by fishing guides, small charter boats, and similar operations.
  • Master License: This license is required for operating inspected vessels that carry more than six paying passengers. The tonnage ratings on a Master License can vary, allowing the holder to operate larger vessels.
  • Deck and Engineering Positions: Beyond the operator or captain roles, there are licenses and endorsements for other maritime positions, including mate (pilot) and engineer roles.

How to Get a Captain’s License

Here’s a general outline of the steps involved:

1. Determine the Type of License You Need

  • Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV): Allows you to carry up to six passengers on uninspected vessels.
  • Master License: Required for operating inspected vessels or carrying more than six passengers. Varies by tonnage and operational area (inland, near coastal, etc.).

2. Meet the Basic Requirements

  • Age: Applicants must be at least 18 years old.
  • Experience: Candidates must have a certain amount of documented experience on the water, which varies by license type.
  • Physical Examination: A recent physical exam must confirm the applicant is physically capable of performing the duties required.
  • Drug Testing: Applicants must pass a drug test.
  • Background Check: A background check is conducted to ensure the applicant meets the character and security requirements.
  • Coursework and Testing: Applicants must complete approved coursework and pass a written examination covering topics such as navigation, maritime law, safety, and other relevant subjects.

3. Complete Required Training and Coursework

  • Enroll in and complete a USCG-approved captain’s license course covering topics like navigation, seamanship, tide and weather, maritime laws, and safety. The course often culminates in an exam that, if passed, may be accepted by the USCG in lieu of their own testing.

4. Pass the USCG Licensing Examination

  • If not already completed through an approved course, you’ll need to pass the USCG examination for your license category. The exams test your knowledge in areas relevant to the license you are applying for.

5. Submit Your Application to the National Maritime Center (NMC)

  • Application Packet: Includes your application form, proof of your sea time, course completion certificates, medical certificate, drug test results, and any other required documentation.
  • Application Fee: Pay the necessary application fees.

6. Await Evaluation and Approval

  • After submitting your application, it will be reviewed by the NMC. This process includes evaluating your documentation and ensuring you meet all the requirements for the license you’re applying for.

7. Issuance of Your Merchant Mariner Credential

  • Once your application is approved, you will receive your MMC, which includes your captain’s license.

Continuing Education and Renewal

  • Keep in mind that your license will need to be renewed every five years, which may involve completing additional coursework, undergoing a physical exam, and submitting a renewal application.

This process can vary slightly depending on the specific license you’re applying for and your unique circumstances. It’s crucial to refer to the latest USCG guidelines and requirements, as they can change over time.

Do You Need a Captain’s License?

The need for a captain’s license, officially known as a Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC) by the United States Coast Guard (USCG), primarily applies to those operating a boat for commercial purposes with paying passengers on board. The specific requirements depend on whether the vessel is inspected or uninspected:

  • For a commercial or inspected vessel, one must hold a master’s license with the appropriate tonnage.
  • For an uninspected vessel carrying six passengers or less, an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV) license, often referred to as the “six-pack license,” is required.

Recreational boaters, who do not work for anyone and do not carry passengers or cargo for hire, do not need a captain’s license according to federal regulations or Coast Guard rules.

However, there are state laws that most recreational boaters must adhere to, including the requirement to pass a “safe boating course” in many states. These courses and requirements vary by state, so it’s crucial to research the specific rules where you live. The Boat US Foundation provides a comprehensive list of each state’s requirements, and formal training classes like the ASA 101 course might sometimes fulfill these state-sponsored course requirements.

When Do I Need a Captain’s License?

Here are the key situations when a captain’s license is required:

1. Operating Commercial Vessels

If you operate a vessel for commercial purposes, such as carrying passengers or cargo for hire, you will need a captain’s license. This is to ensure that you have the necessary knowledge and skills to safely navigate and manage the vessel under various conditions and comply with maritime laws and regulations.

2. Carrying Passengers for Hire

  • Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels (OUPV) License: Also known as the “six-pack” license, this is required if you are operating a small, uninspected vessel that carries up to six paying passengers.
  • Master License: Needed for operating larger inspected vessels or carrying more than six passengers, with the specific license level depending on the vessel’s tonnage and the waters where you operate.

3. Engaging in Towing Operations

For those operating towing vessels commercially, a license with a towing endorsement is necessary. This ensures the operator can safely conduct towing operations, which have their own set of challenges and safety considerations.

4. Serving as a Master or Mate on Inspected Vessels

Roles such as master (captain) or mate (second in command) on larger commercial vessels require appropriate licensing to confirm that the individual has the required expertise in navigation, safety, and vessel operations.

5. Operating Vessels in Federally Regulated Waters

Even if you are not carrying passengers for hire, operating in certain federally regulated waters may require a captain’s license, depending on the type of activity and the vessel.

Situations Not Requiring a Captain’s License

  • Recreational Boating: If you are boating for personal enjoyment and not engaging in commercial activities or carrying passengers for hire, you typically do not need a captain’s license. However, many states require boaters to complete a boating safety course and carry a boater education card.
  • Non-Commercial Activities: Activities that do not involve commerce, such as participating in races, personal fishing trips, or leisure sailing with friends and family, generally do not require a captain’s license.

An Overview of US Boat Captain’s License and Boater Education Requirements

New boaters often find what size boat requires a captain’s license confusing because the exact requirements vary from state to state. Plus, things have changed in recent years.

So here’s an overview of what you need to research to find out how to legally operate your boat in your state.

First, everyone wants to know if they need a captain’s license. This is the only part where the United States Coast Guard is involved, but the Coast Guard does not issue a “captains license.” Instead, they issue Merchant Mariner Credentials (MMC) with different grades, from engineers and deckhands to mates, operators, and masters. A “captain,” at least in Coast Guard standards, is considered a “master” or “operator”.

So, who needs a USCG captain’s license? The only person who must have one is when operating a boat for commercial purposes with paying passengers onboard. It could be an inspected vessel or an uninspected vessel. If a commercial vessel or an inspected vessel, you must hold a master’s license with the appropriate tonnage. If it’s an uninspected vessel with six passengers or less, you can use an OUPV license (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels–commonly called the “six-pack license”).

So, what if you are a recreational boater–not working for anyone and not carrying passengers or cargo for hire? In this case, no “captain’s license” is necessary per the federal regulations or Coast Guard rules.

There are, however, a slew of state laws you must follow. In the past 20 years, most states have passed laws requiring most recreational boaters to have passed a “safe boating course.” These boating laws vary from state to state, so you must research the rules where you live. The Boat US Foundation is a great place to get started. They have a list of every state’s requirements.

Generally, the boater education requirement is a simple online course you take and pass once. You might also be able to attend a traditional in-person class hosted by the US Power Squadron or US Coast Guard Auxillary. If you take formal classes for training on your boat, chances are you can have it counted. For example, the ASA 101 course (American Sailing Association) can often be used in place of a state-sponsored course. 

private boat captain license requirements

Boat Insurance Requirements

As described above, in most cases, recreational boaters only need to have completed an online safe boating course. There are no legal requirements for someone to have had any hands-on, on-the-water training–which is pretty shocking when you think about it. Boating can be pretty dangerous, and there are a lot of ways that a lot of things can go wrong. You can’t drive a car without getting training, and you can’t just hop in an airplane and take to the skies. But you can buy a boat and sail away. 

There’s one sticking point, however. More and more people are taking up boating, and boats have become larger, more complex, and more expensive than ever. Insurance companies have begun to notice and are setting much stricter limits than they once did. 

There once was a time when you could buy a boat–almost any boat you could afford–and get full coverage insurance relatively cheaply. Now, the insurance companies want assurance that you can safely operate that boat. Unfortunately, since there’s no official system to ensure boaters have experience or a license, the underwriters have had to devise their own ways to figure it out.

In many cases, it depends a lot on the size and cost of the boat. If your first boat is a modest 20-foot cabin cruiser, fishing boat, or trailer sailer, you can likely get insurance from a major underwriter with no hassles. Take your safe boating course along with a few lessons from a local training captain to learn how to dock. 

When it’s time to upgrade to a bigger boat, you’ll have had some boating experience–and hopefully a claim-free insurance record. So if you step up to a 30-footer, you might have a similar, easy experience. For this reason, the best boat for beginners is usually a smaller one to build experience on before moving up.

If, however, you have never boated before and want to try living on a sailboat in the Caribbean, taking a 40-plus-foot monohull sailboat to cruise the coast, or purchasing the best boat for the Great Loop and setting out on America’s waterways, you are going to have trouble finding insurance. There are many reasons for this, and none matter to this article. What’s important is that you realize that getting insurance might be much harder than finding a boat.  

In all of these cases, often, the only path to getting insurance is to prove that you have experience operating a similarly-sized vessel. But how do you get that if you don’t have it? The best way is to hire a training captain and go through a course on your boat. The insurance policy will stipulate that you must receive “x” days of training from a qualified captain before taking the boat out alone.

Insurance has been a hot topic among boaters in the last few years. This episode of the Liveaboard Sailing Podcast has some great information from industry expert John Neal.

Private Boat Captain License Requirements Around the Globe

The US has one of the most lenient systems regarding boater education and licensing. Many other countries require a skipper’s license for recreational boaters. So if you’re a US boater contemplating a bareboat charter or a world cruise, you’ll need to look beyond what the US and Canada offer regarding training and licensing. 

The world standard for training is the British Royal Yachting Association. Their training programs range from day skippers to Yachtmaster-Offshore, indicating you are training in long passage making, including celestial navigation techniques. These programs are offered both for recreational and commercial purposes. 

Most countries, especially in Europe, will require at least an ICC, or International Certificate of Competency, to operate internationally. To get it, you must pass the RYA Day Skippers course, including classroom and on-the-water training. If you already have some experience, you can skip the course and take the exams (written and on the water).

Private Boat Captain License Requirements for Charter Ton Boat – Bareboat, Sail, or Power

If you want to rent a charter boat, you have a few things to consider regarding licensing. For crewed charters, all you need to do is show up. 

But suppose you’re interested in a bareboat charter, where you’re responsible for the safe operation and navigation of the boat. In that case, you’ll want to determine the company’s local policies. All charter companies will have you complete sailing resumes and requirements checklist. Plus, when you arrive, you’ll always get a check out from a local captain.

How Do You Get a Real Boater Education?

Buying a boat is pretty easy, but yacht brokers conveniently forget to tell you about a lot of stuff. One of the most disadvantageous is the necessity to get some kind of training on your vessel. However, it’s a vital component of going boating, and it makes it more fun. When you’re confident in your abilities to handle the boat, you’ll be more relaxed and enjoy your boat more. 

The “good old” days of hopping in a boat with no formal boating education are ending. While you still don’t need a full-fledged Coast Guard captain’s license, you need some boating experience. Start with an online course that meets your state’s laws, and then get a few hours at the helm with an experienced training instructor to learn how to dock and handle your boat in close quarters around a crowded marina.

boater education

What Is the Difference Between a Boating License and Captain’s License?

The terms “boating license” and “captain’s license” are often used interchangeably, but they refer to distinct certifications with different purposes, requirements, and privileges.

Boating LicenseCaptain’s License
Scope and AuthorityFor personal, recreational use within specific state boundaries. Does not permit commercial operations.Allows for commercial operation of vessels, both domestically and internationally, depending on the license type.
Requirement and ProcessInvolves passing a boating safety course approved by the state or a recognized organization. The course may be completed online or in person.A more rigorous process involving documented sea time, passing physical examinations, drug testing, background checks, and completing approved maritime training courses. There are also rigorous exams covering navigation, maritime law, safety procedures, and other relevant topics.
RecognitionGenerally recognized by state authorities for recreational boating.Federally recognized and required for professional maritime careers.

Boating License

  • Purpose: Primarily for recreational boaters. It certifies that the holder has basic knowledge of boating safety, navigation rules, and state boating laws.
  • Requirements: Typically involves passing a boating safety course approved by the state or a recognized organization. The course may be completed online or in person.
  • Validity: Generally applies to recreational boating within state waterways. The rules and requirements can vary significantly from one state to another.
  • Use: A boating license (or boater education card, as it’s called in some states) is required by many states for operating personal watercraft or boats of certain sizes. It does not grant the authority to operate commercial vessels or carry paying passengers.

Captain’s License (Merchant Mariner Credential)

  • Purpose: Required for individuals who wish to operate vessels commercially, such as carrying passengers for hire, operating charter services, or working on larger maritime vessels.
  • Requirements: The United States Coast Guard (USCG) issues these licenses, and applicants must meet stringent criteria, including documented sea time, passing physical examinations, drug testing, background checks, and completing approved maritime training courses. There are also rigorous exams covering navigation, maritime law, safety procedures, and other relevant topics.
  • Validity: Recognized federally and internationally, allowing for the operation of commercial vessels in waters governed by the USCG and beyond, depending on the license’s scope.
  • Use: A captain’s license authorizes the holder to operate inspected and uninspected commercial vessels, carry paying passengers, perform towing operations, and serve in various capacities on merchant ships, among other professional maritime activities.

Coast Guard Captain’s License and Boater Education FAQs

What is the largest boat you can operate without a captain’s license?

The US Coast Guard only requires “captain’s licenses,” more properly called masters or operator credentials, when operating for hire, carrying cargo, or paying passengers. Recreational boaters do not need captain’s licenses, but most will need to pass a state-approved safe boating course and meet the requirements set by their insurance companies.

Do I need a captain’s license for my personal boat Florida?

No, but you must take and pass an approved safe boater course. You can take the FWC course online, or you can take an in-person class from the Coast Guard Auxillary or Power Squadron. A list of FWC-approved safety education courses can be found online.

Can you captain your own yacht?

It depends on where you are in the world. In many places, if the yacht is longer than 9 meters, you need some sort of skipper’s license or Certificate of Competency. In the US, if it is an inspected vessel or operated for hire, you will need a CG master’s license. In most other cases, you will need to have at least passed a state-approved safe boater course.

What size boat requires a captain’s license in California?

To operate any recreational vessel in California, you must pass a state-approved safe boater education course and apply for a Boater Card from the State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW). See California Boater Card for more details. Large vessels operating for hire, with cargo or passengers, require you to have a USCG captain’s license.

Who would need to hold the captain’s license on the boat?  

The individual who needs to hold the captain’s license on a boat is the person responsible for navigating and operating the vessel.

By Matt C

Matt has been boating around Florida for over 25 years in everything from small powerboats to large cruising catamarans. He currently lives aboard a 38-foot Cabo Rico sailboat with his wife Lucy and adventure dog Chelsea. Together, they cruise between winters in The Bahamas and summers in the Chesapeake Bay.

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