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  • May 27, 2024

    We all know that driving a car without a license is a crime (a misdemeanor) that can draw hefty fines or even jail time. But what about driving a boat on a lake without a license? 

    Questions — and misconceptions — about boating licenses are common, especially because the rules are a little different in every state. As such, we get questions like these all the time:

    • How do you get a boating license?
    • How long does it take?
    • Do you need a license to drive a boat on a lake?

    The answers? It depends — largely on what state you’re in. So before you weigh anchor, make sure you meet your state’s boat licensing requirements.

    We’ll get into some of the specifics below.

    Types of Licenses for Boating

    Nearly every state requires some kind of boating education to legally drive a boat on a lake — or anywhere else. In some states, you need a safe boating certificate; in others, you need a boating license; and in still others, you need both a safe boating certificate and a boating license.

    Currently, the only states that don’t require any type of license are Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arizona, Arkansas, and Maine.

    Other states each have their own licensing nuances. For example, Texas requires a boating license for anyone operating a watercraft that’s 14 feet or larger or has a 15-horsepower engine. The state also requires the operator to register the boat and carry a photo ID.

    That said, Texas boaters don’t need a license in certain other instances, including:

    • Non-motorized canoes, kayaks, or rubber rafts of any size
    • Children born after September 1, 1993, who are 13 or older and accompanied by an adult with a license

    Other states, like New Jersey, require both a boating safety course and a boating license. Fortunately, this isn’t a difficult process. You simply pass the safe boating course and pay a small fee at the DMV. They then add a designation on your license that says you’ve passed the course, and that your boating license is good for a lifetime.

    An important distinction to remember is that safe boating certificates and boating licenses are not captain’s licenses. A captain’s license is the highest license you can earn, and it’s required if you want to take paying passengers out on your boat. What surprises many boaters is that even with a captain’s license, you may still need to meet other boating license requirements — like a boating license and/or boating safety course — depending on your state.

    Captain’s License Requirements for Different Bodies of Water

    First, let’s clear up the common misconception that boating on saltwater requires a captain’s license, but boating on freshwater doesn’t. The truth is, the type of water has no bearing on whether you need a captain’s license or not.

    In general, the real distinction is whether the Army Corps of Engineers maintains the body of water. Whether it’s a lake, reservoir, or river, if the Army Corps of Engineers maintains it, it’s considered navigable waters by the Coast Guard. That means there are clear Rules of the Road that need to be followed, and the Coast Guard requires a captain’s license if you take your boat out for commercial purposes. 

    Since the Coast Guard’s use of the term “navigable waters” indicates such specific parameters, it doesn’t necessarily apply to every lake you can take your boat out on. Some inland waters may not require a captain’s license. For example, the owner of a private lake decides whether they’ll require you to have a captain’s license to operate commercially. 

    If there’s any question about captain’s license requirements for a particular body of water, verify with your local Coast Guard. It’s a worthwhile step, since license violations can result in fines of up to $10,000 per day. 

    Important note: Even if the Coast Guard doesn’t require a captain’s license for commercial operations on a particular body of water, your insurance or title company may. By and large, if you’re going to take on paying passengers, it’s safest to have a captain’s license.

    Infographic: Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat on a Lake?

    Best Practices for Boating on Lakes

    Always check your state’s requirements to see if you need a safe boating certification, a boating license, or a captain’s license before you take your boat out on the water. It’s also important to find out whether you need to register your boat.

    Once you have all the paperwork done, follow these safety tips:

    • Keep the proper life-saving equipment for your size vessel.
    • Ensure you set up a float plan so someone will look for you if you don’t come back on time.
    • Check the local weather forecast.

    Another best practice is getting your captain’s license — even if you only use your boat recreationally. A captain’s license deepens your boating knowledge and enhances your safety on the water. It’s a great way to take your favorite hobby to the next level.

    Mariners Learning System offers a comprehensive, self-paced course approved by the U.S. Coast Guard to help you get your license within one year.

    Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat on a Lake? Final Thoughts

    So, do you need a license to drive a boat on a lake? We hope that the “it depends” answer makes more sense now. By looking up local requirements and/or checking in with the local Coast Guard, you should have no problem meeting the requirements for your situation.

    That said, regardless of each state’s varying licensing requirements, you need to be ready for anything when you’re out on a lake. We find that most of our students are recreational boaters with considerable experience under their belts — but who realize there’s more they need to learn.

    At Mariners, we focus on providing hows and whys, not just becauses. We’ve had thousands (yes, literally thousands) of students come back and report seeing things on the water they never realized were there — but they were able to handle every situation after taking our courses.

    Quote Card: Do You Need a License to Drive a Boat on a Lake?

    Get started earning your captain’s license today with Mariners.

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