Your Guide to Finding and Taking a Boat License Test

By Ken Schultz

Oct 08, 2019

Here’s what you need to know about finding and taking a boat license test, also known as a boater safety education course, which is mandatory in some states.

In many states boaters are required to complete a boating safety course in order to operate a motorized vessel. At the end of the course you take and pass an exam, get a certificate (a/k/a “license”), and have proof that you’re qualified to operate a boat. Often called a boat license test or a boat license exam, it’s worth taking even if you’re not required to do so, because it brings you up-to-date on boating safety, navigation, etiquette, local laws, and related issues.

The boat license test has nothing to do with registering your boat, which is a separate obligation; however, some states require that you show proof of having completed the course in order to register your boat. 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 to operate a motorized boat elsewhere, even if you move to another state.

How to Learn About a Boat License Test

  • First, find out what’s required to operate a motorboat in the state where you live. Some states only require youthful operators to take the course.
  • Second, see what your state accepts as a valid course. Generally, this is a course approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and recognized by the U. S. Coast Guard.
  • Third, see if the state offers it’s own course, and/or requires that you take it.
  • If the option exists, you can look for approved courses that can be taken online (usually for a fee), or are administered locally. Your state agency will have information about acceptable online courses.
  • State-approved courses taken in person are offered several times a year in many places by local U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary chapters, as well as by some large outdoor-supply retailers. There may be a fee for these.

Online or In-Person?

Taking an online boat license test is popular for those with a busy schedule and who have a good, reliable Internet connection (because it takes hours to complete the boat safety course before the exam). It can be done at your convenience on your timetable, which is especially useful if you’re in a hurry and can’t wait to go to a locally given course, some of which require attendance on multiple days or evenings.

Attending a locally-given course has some benefits, however. The course administrator will tailor some of the content to local navigational issues and peculiarities, which you would not learn about via an online course. And there’s a good chance you’ll learn something of value from fellow participants. Try to find one that can be completed in one sitting, rather than over multiple days.

Finally, if you’re going fishing while boating, make sure you have a fishing license, so that when you have the certificate, you’re all set.

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