Boat Law Basics

Earning my boat license was the first step to truly enjoying boat ownership. I thought the boating classes for license earners were extremely beneficial for feeling comfortable on the water. While the only state that requires an actual license to operate a boat is Alabama, many other states require you to meet specific educational requirements to earn boating certificates before I can legally operate a boat or any watercraft on public waters.

Terminology for the boat license test and certification vary by states, so my experience may not be identical to yours. There are also certain boat registration rules that you must learn about before operating a boat.

It is important to educate yourself on the rules of the waterways you will be visiting to ensure you do not break these laws and can experience a safe and enjoyable outing. If you are interested in learning how to get a boating license, how to meet educational requirements and regulations that may apply to your watercraft, then review the information below.

Boat License Laws

In my state, I needed to take boating classes state I could earn the proper certification to operate my boat on public waterways. Even if they were not mandatory by my state’s boating authority, boating education is always helpful to review local laws and important safety procedures. I found these educational opportunities found through the state’s fish and wildlife department and boating department.

If you are required to earn a boating safety certificate in your state, then you must attend a course that is approved by your state’s boating authority. Most of these boating classes teach you about specific boating laws in your state and some may require you to pass an exam to ensure you have absorbed the important information from the class. During these boating classes, you can learn more about:

  • Life jacket laws. You may be required to possess a certain number of life jackets on your boat, which may depend on the size of the boat and the number of passengers. Having the appropriate fishing apparel is very important.
  • Boating in the dark. Learning about lighting laws in your state and how to ensure you are seen and can see in the dark is important for your safety and the safety of your passengers.
  • Right of way rules. Before you can obtain your boat license or pass a safety course, you must learn about international, national and state-specific right-of-way rules.

In addition to teaching about these state and international boating laws, these important safety guidelines also teach about the consequences associated with breaking these laws. For example, if you get a boating under the influence (BUI) violation in Florida, then you could face a $500 to $1,000 fine and a maximum of six months in jail even if it was your first offense.

In addition to lighting rules, your state’s boat license test may cover specific sound and visibility laws that you must abide by to stay safe on the water.

How to Get a Boating License

I was required to pass a boat license test before I was awarded a certificate of completion for the boating education course. Although getting a boat license is not a requirement, I wanted to take the classes to review the state’s boating manual and laws and familiarize myself with safe boat operation practices. As a boat operator, I am still expected to understand and follow these boating rules while operating my watercraft regardless of having a license or not.

To keep my family safe on the water and prevent being involved in boating accidents or unknowingly committing violations on the water, I brushed up on my skills and the local boating laws. Knowing all these rules and regulations also helped me pick a fishing boat that is within regulation and can be operated with my type of boating certification.

Learn more about how to buy a fishing boat, by downloading this boat buying guide here.

    Did You Know? If you live in Alabama, then you must earn your boat license before you can operate a boat in public waters. However, most other states only require you to successfully complete a safety or educational course before you can operate your vessel. Some states, such as South Dakota and Wyoming, do not require you to take a course, earn a license or pass a test to operate your boat.

Other states, including Arkansas and Idaho, do not have specific mandatory boating education requirements for most boaters. However, these states have certain regulations for boaters operating personal watercraft or specific types of vessels.

Boat Registration Regulations

In addition to taking a boat license test, I am required to carry specific registration and licensing for my vessel. However, as I said before, the boat licensing requirements in your state may be different and not a requirement to operate your watercraft.

Since each state has its own legislature regarding boat registration and licensing, it is important to consult with your state’s boating department to learn about these laws. For example, in Texas, a boat must be registered if it is a:

  • Motorized boat of any length.
  • Sailboat at least 14 feet in length or with an auxiliary engine.
  • United States Coast Guard (USCG) Documented vessel.

Your boat license and registration must also stay active and valid if you live in a state that requires this documentation. Your state’s department may suspend your boat operating privileges if you attempt to operate your boat with an expired, revoked or suspended registration.

In many cases, you are also responsible for placing your registration decal and license number on your boat properly. Failure to do so may result in a violation. For example, in Mississippi, your boat registration decal must be placed on the forward half of the bow of your vessel so that it is clearly identifiable to the naked eye. The license numbers displayed must be block letters in a contrasting color to the boat and must be at least three inches tall.

Ensuring I have the proper boat registration is important so I can avoid hefty fines, violations or other legal consequences. Knowing my state’s boat license laws and regulations and following these restrictions help me feel confident about the safety equipment my boat offers, which can be crucial in case of an emergency. These regulations also helped guide my decision when it came time to purchase my first boat.

To learn more about the boat buying process, download this informative guide.