Do You Need a Boat License in Your State or Another State?

By Ken Schultz

Jun 10, 2019

Do you need a boat license is a confusing question, as you may or may not need to complete a boating safety education course to operate a boat. Here’s what to know.

Photos © Ken Schultz

So you just acquired a new or used boat. If you’re completely new to boating, you probably have a bunch of questions. If you bought the boat from a marine dealer, he/she can answer most of your questions. If you bought it from a private seller, don’t rely on that person’s knowledge of what you’re required to do. Here are answers to questions most newbies ask:

Do you need a Boat License?

Maybe. But first, get it insured if it’s a boat (and trailer) of some value. As with an auto, you want to take care of that before you leave the seller.

If your boat is powered by a motor (that includes a rowboat or kayak powered by an electric motor), you’ll need to register your boat in the state in which you live. Some states (i. e. Pennsylvania) require registration of all boats, whether powered or not.

Registration is different from a boating license, and it’s something you’ll have to renew annually, as with an auto. Do a search under the name of your state and “boat registration” to get started, and make sure that you have the old title from the seller as well as a bill of sale.

A boat license is a one-time requirement. You may have already acquired one in the past, or you can obtain it before ever purchasing a boat.

Do you need a boating license if you’ve taken a boating safety course?

Here’s where some confusion occurs. It’s not a boating license per se. In most states, you must take a boating safety education course, and successfully complete it, to be able to operate a boat. When you complete the course you receive a certificate (i.e the “license”). That makes you legal. If the course was approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and recognized by the U. S. Coast Guard, it’s good for life and qualifies you even if you move to another state.

In some states, it is not required that you take such a course, or the requirement may pertain only to people of a certain age. Find out where to take such a course and what’s required to operate a motorboat in your state. Online and in-person courses are available.

Do you need a Boat License to operate someone else’s boat?

Or does your spouse or child need one to operate your boat? That depends on the state you’re in. The answer is yes for many states, and in others it may only apply to young operators.

Do you need a boat license if you go to another state with your boat?

That depends on the other state’s laws. While each state recognizes the registration of another state, you’ll have to follow its regulations for operating a boat, which may differ from the regulations in your home state. If you have a certificate from a boating safety education course, you’ll be able to operate your boat (or someone else’s). But you will need a fishing license from that state to go fishing.

Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz
Ken Schultz was a longtime staff writer for Field & Stream magazine and is the former Fishing Editor of He’s written and photographed nineteen books on sportfishing topics, plus an annual fishing tips calendar, and his writing has appeared on various websites for more than two decades. His author website is