Boat license restrictions and regulations: It’s all about safety

Boat license restrictions and regulations: It's all about safety

Photos © Ken Schultz
If you are new to boating, you may be wondering whether any boating license restrictions apply to you.

As with driving a car on public roads, most states have laws about who can or cannot legally operate a motorized boat. So it’s more about regulations than restrictions. In addition, the laws regarding operating a personal watercraft (PWC) differ from a motorboat and do not apply to non-motorized boats such as canoes, kayaks, row boats, dories, and small sailboats.

Age can determine who can operate a motorboat

Age is one of the main restrictions on boating licenses, as some states have a minimum age for legal operation of a motorboat or PWC. Or they mandate that anyone born after a certain date must have completed an approved safety course. Some states require that only young operators (often between the ages of 12 and 16) hold a boating license. In some cases it depends on the power of the engine on the boat.

Participation in a safety course may be required

Many states require you to take a boat safety education course – online or in a classroom. You will then be given a boat safety education card (also known as a “boat license”). This allows you to operate a motorized boat in your state and any state that has restrictions or requirements for a boating license. These education cards have no expiration date. So if you move to another country, you will still be insured.

Keep the card with you

Once you have the license, what are the limitations or requirements for boating licenses? That depends on the state, but a few things are generally in place across the board.

What you don’t need to operate a motorboat is a government-issued driver’s license. However, you must have your boat training card with you when operating a motorboat. And you need to show a law enforcement officer if asked to.

Holders of a safety education card are safer

Regardless of the regulations you live in, it has been shown that boat operators who haven’t taken a boat safety course are statistically more likely to be involved in accidents than those who did. This, and the fact that such courses educate you about your state’s laws, boating in general, and navigational issues (the so-called “road rules”) make it useful whether or not it is necessary.

Some states require boaters to take a boating license test or take a boating safety course before operating a motorized vessel on state waterways. However, it is important to understand that taking a test to get your boating license is different from registering your boat.

You might like it too

Ken Schultz

Ken Schultz was a longtime contributor to Field & Stream magazine and is the former fishing editor of He has written and photographed nineteen books on sport fishing subjects as well as an annual fishing tips calendar. His writing has appeared on various websites for nearly two decades. His author website is