Do I Need A Captain’s License

We continue to get emails concerning USCG issued Captain’s Licenses. Some of these inquiries pose the question, do I need one, while others are curious as to what it takes to get one.

Do I need one? A Captain’s license is only required if you are taking passengers for hire. Section 2101 of title 46, (21a) of the United States Code defines passenger for hire as follows:

A “passenger for hire” means a passenger for whom consideration is contributed as a condition of carriage on the vessel, whether directly or indirectly flowing to the owner, charterer, operator, agent, or any other person having an interest in the vessel.

Section 2101 of title 46 (5a) defines “consideration” as an economic benefit, inducement, right, or profit including pecuniary (fancy attorney word for money) payment accruing to an individual, person, or entity, but not including a voluntary sharing of the actual expenses of the voyage, by monetary contribution or donation of fuel, food, beverage, or other supplies.” Additionally, employees or business clients that have not contributed for their carriage, and are carried for morale or entertainment purposes, are not considered as an exchange of consideration.

Bottom line: If you are a recreational boater, you are allowed to share expenses for a day on the water. Just don’t make payment mandatory if someone wants a boat ride.

How do I get one?

This question takes me back to the time 20 years ago when I sat for my first Captain’s License. I went to the Miami Regional Examination Center (REC) for the testing. As I recall there were approximately 25 people who showed up at 0800 to “get” their Captain’s license. Some of these people had been boating for years and thought the process would be simple. Some didn’t even know that there would be testing involved. At the end of the testing period there were only 4 people who completed all the testing modules. Of those only 2 passed, one of those was me.

The Coast Guard doesn’t require boat ownership as a prerequisite for a license, but they do require that applicants document at least 360 days of sea service on the water for an entry-level, or Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) formerly known as the “6-pack,” license. A “day” would be a trip of at least four hours. Of the 360 required days, 90 must have been within the last three years. If you do own a boat you can self document the time spent on that boat.

With the exception of the OUPV, all applicants must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old. They must have current first aid and CPR certificates and either be enrolled in an approved random drug testing program or have recently passed a chemical drug test. Applicants must also see a doctor for a physical exam and have a Transportation Workers Identification Credential before they will qualify for a license. Higher-grade licenses have additional requirements, but those are the primary qualifications and hoops someone must jump through before they can get a basic Captain’s license.

To qualify for a license applicants must also pass a written battery of Coast Guard exam modules testing their knowledge and understanding of rules and regulations, first aid, navigation, boat handling, weather, marlinespike, and a whole list of other topics on general seamanship. Usually taking four to five hours to complete, the exam modules are not easy but they are certainly effective at weeding out people who haven’t learned what the Coast Guard feels they should know.

Even though someone with decades of experience on the water might get upset that the Coast Guard doesn’t make it easier for them to get a license, I’m sure most would agree that, if only for public safety, the bar needs to be kept high. The experience of owning a boat and running it to and from the local fishing grounds is a good start, but it doesn’t necessarily mean someone has what it takes to safely take inexperienced passengers out on the water where so many things can go wrong.

For additional information on USCG Licensing visit the USCG National Maritime Center for requirements for the various levels of license, applications and further instructions.



Filed under Boat Operation, Boating Safety

63 responses to “Do I Need A Captain’s License

  1. Thomas

    If I own a boat, lets say 70 foot plus and I do some salavage work ,as a hobby, do I need a captain’s license?

    • captboatsafe

      You need a captain’s license if you are taking passengers for hire or operating a commercially inspected vessel.

      Capt Matt

      • Mike

        What about if you have a bass fishing guide service and you offer services on a local lake? It will only be on an 18 foot bass boat?

      • boatsafe

        It is my understanding that a Captain’s License is required if you are taking passengers for hire on federally controlled “navigable” waters including the Great Lakes and Wester Rivers. However, some states have requirements for licensing fishing guides on non federally controlled waters. You should check with your state boating law administrator for advice and details.

  2. Michael

    Ok thanks for the information. I have been told that Old Hickory Lake is navigable…. but still unsure.

  3. Etienne

    Goog day,

    Want to start a charterboat for 6 to 8 people. I am living in New Zealand. What is the rules around charterboats?


  4. Troy

    I live in Sw Florida. My wife has a wedding business and she would like to add island wedding package. Only two passengers on a 19′ bowrider, we will be staying in onthe bay and river. Do I need my captain license?

    • captboatsafe

      No matter how many people or the size of the boat, if you are taking passengers for hire, you need a Captain’s License.

      Capt Matt

  5. Bonnie Smith

    What if you are a “guide” (versus a “captain”?) and go out with someone or a group on THEIR boat, instructing them re: fishing spots and techniques? Can you get paid by them and not have to get a Captain’s license?

  6. Capt Boozer

    back in the mid-1990’s i was sailing a hobbie ’16 catamaran on the beach, taking people for hire. One of my fellow sailers was hassled by an off-duty CG, asking for his license.

    I researched the laws and found I believe a loophole where I didn’t need a license because the boat was not a ‘motor-vessel’…but I DID need the commercial equipment like life jackets, radio, sound device etc.

    I even contacted the New Orleans office and they said ‘no motor = no license required’. I carried copies of the law and the N.O. officer’s name with my paperwork, just in case.

    Is this still the way it works? Is the 6 pack license required only for motor-driven boats? Looking at the laws today, there seem to be some new ones on the books for ‘sailboat schools’.

    Capt. Boozer

  7. alishia

    i have a 24ft pontoon boat and i want to start a private boat club for money. i realize i must get a captains license but what proof do i need to present regarding the 360 boating hour requirements? And, what if ive been driving boats for 10 plus years and never knew i would need my previous experience documented as future credit towards being eligible for the captains license? how do i accurately document that and will there be a practical portion of the exam to meet those basic requirements? pleae advise. thank u.
    alishia wright

    • captboatsafe

      If you own your own boat you can self document that time. You just need to be able to have supporting information that you indeed are the owner.There is no hands-on portion of the license exam just written exams including navigation general, plotting, seamanship and safety, rules of the road, etc.

      Capt Matt

  8. adam

    i want to start a kayak fishing charter business. do i need a captains license and a charter captain’s license in the state of florida for a non motorized boat 14ft in length

    • captboatsafe

      Clearly, the skipper of a cruise ship with hundreds of passengers will need a Coast Guard Captain License to operate his/her vessel legally. However a person giving seasonal fishing tours to one or a few individuals must also be a licensed Captain?

  9. Arthur Smith

    360 days of 4 hour “sea service” is going to be hard for me to do… I’ve been wanting to get my Captain’s License “just because”, but I can see now that will have to wait quite a while. Thanks for pointing that requirement out!

    — Arthur

  10. captainacorn

    Reblogged this on The Yacht Barn.

  11. Tim

    Can I Still get a captain license with a negligent operation of a watercraft charge?

    • captboatsafe

      You will, in the application process, be asked questions about your criminal history. It is then up to the USCG to determine whether or not you are still eligible. You should visit the USCG website at for additional information.

      Capt Matt

  12. Terry

    Can you answer several questions for me. 1) Does a commercial fishing boat captain have the same license as a charter boat captain? 2) Do charter boat captains need a commercial fishing license when taking customers out on fishing trips? 3) Can a charter boat captain sell the fish his customers catch commercially? 4) What are the differences between a commercial boat captain and a charter boat captain?

    • captboatsafe

      Since most of your questions deal with commercial fishing vs charter boats, let me start with the last question first. A commercial fishing boat captain technically does not need to have a USCG Captains license. The USCG Captains license is only required if you are taking passengers for hire. That said, there will be other licensing/permit requirements for commercial fishermen and women depending on the waters in which they are fishing.

      Now to question 1, same answer as above. Question 2, if a charter boat captain is taking fishing trips he/she would need a USCG License and whatever other licenses/permits that are required for commercial fishing.

      Question 3, good question, I can only assume if the charter boat captain has his USCG license and all licenses/permits required for a commercial fisherman/fisherwoman that he/she could sell the catch commercially. This however could bring up other considerations such as… would the passengers who catch the fish want so kind of compensation. Not sure how that would work.

      Any input from commercial fishermen/fisherwomen would be greatly appreciated.

      For more information on USCG licensing go to

      Capt Matt

  13. Gabriel maciel

    Quisiera hacer mi licencia de capitán,pero no entiendo mucho inglés sabes si hay clases en español en Miami??.
    Capitán gabriel maciel

  14. Reverend ReBecca

    If I am a minister and am collecting a stipend fee for performing a wedding, and that is the only cost they are paying…and I offer them the option to perform the wedding on my personal boat, would I need a Captains license for that? Their payment for their wedding ceremony would not be contigent upon their being on my personal vessel, it would just be an option I could give them, like performing it at their home, my home or on my boat.
    Also, if I operated Sunday church services on my boat and the only monies received were that of donations or tithes, would that also need a license?
    I will not charge anyone to board the boat for any reason, or charge anyone to receive my services on my boat, but if they hire me for my services, can I give them the option of having their ceremony performed by me on my boat and not need a Captains license?

    • captboatsafe

      As long as money is changing hands, no matter how it is classified i.e. donations or tithes, it is my understanding that you would have to have a Captains license as this could be construed as passenger for hire. That said, you might make a case to the USCG if you never left the dock to do a ceremony or hold services but that would be their call. I would suggest you attempt to get a definitive answer directly from the USCG. .

  15. acenchase

    I have a couple of questions about the 360 days on the water requirement. Although I don’t own a boat at the moment, I did and will again soon. I also spent a lot of time on boats in my teen years where I was not the owner or operator. Can I estimate the days I spent on the water in the past or do I need to start from scratch now? If so, what does self document really entail? Thanks for your help and expertise.

  16. Tom the dog guy

    My wife and I operate a dog adventure business. We take customers’ dogs to parks, beaches, and other recreation spots for hiking and romping. We are paid for these services. We’d like to add an “island adventure” option and are wondering if an OUPV license would be required. In other words, is a dog considered a passenger?

  17. Tom the dog guy

    Good source. Sorry I called you Capt “Mike” instead of Capt Matt. Thanks for all your help.

  18. trey

    can i captain a boat with a outboard of less than 10hp without a captains License?

    • captboatsafe

      Only if you are carrying no paying passengers. That doesn’t mean just not paying for the dinghy ride. If they are chartering or renting a boat and you are shuttling them to the boat, they technically are still paying.

      Capt Matt

  19. Chuck Perry

    Hi, can you please clarify your reply to Tom’s questions if a Captain license is required for a kayak guide?

    • captboatsafe

      Any time you are taking passengers for hire, no matter what the type of vessel, you should have a Captain’s license.

  20. Mike

    Okay sorry to beat a dead horse but…… Now, if I am a kayak ” guide” then the client would not be on my vessel. I would be renting them a vessel and they would follow me to fish, my kayaks are all one person. So would I need a captains license or just the state guide license in the scenario? Not a paying customer on my boat. They would be paying for the service of me showing them where to fish in a rented boat.

    • captboatsafe

      After having addressed this question many times I do understand your position. However, I’m not sure that would be the USCGs position. There are some things you can do to confirm your thoughts but probably the best is to ask the USCG directly. You can read the “legal language” as set forth in the CFRs (Code of Federal Regulations) particularly parts 33 and 46. . You will also find tons of information at the USCG National Maritime Center . Or, you can contact the USCG for information and direction at .

      The only areas that I am aware of that go contrary to the full USCG Captains license requirements are the “Launch Operators License” and I believe the State of Maine has a designated “Outfitters Guide”. Both of these are exceptions but had to be submitted to and approved by the USCG. The do not give a person the right to act as an actual USCG Captain but the designation is limited to a recognized entity, the vessels allowed to be operated are designated to a certain size, the routes are further limited and must be the same on each outing and the hours of operation are limited. An example might be a recognized yacht club that uses tenders to transport its members from shore to their vessels at a nearby anchorage.

      Capt Matt

      • Mike

        Since I sent you this question I did contact the USCG directly. There is no requirement to have OUPV to rent a kayak to someone, where they go from there is up to them. If they pay to follow you to the fish it’s perfectly legal as long as they are on there own vessel (kayak). The petty officer explained it to me like someone renting a jet ski at the beach. The owner isn’t required to have a captains license to engage in the business of renting a boat to an individual. He did however give me some information on the ACA (American canoe assoc.)which can certify you as a paddle sport instructor , although this is not required to engaging in the business of paddle sports in my state. After some more research I found two,other outfitters in the general area that offer fishing and guided Eco Tours in kayaks. One is certified by the ACA one is not. Just thought you may want the information. Thanks for your service.

  21. Glen Larson

    One of my workers was using a 24′ aluminum boat registered as commercial for transportation to and from a jobsite. Does he need a capatins liscense?

  22. brandon

    If I have 2, 6-pack captains on one boat can I carry more than 6 paying customers?.

  23. Dave

    I’ve only been operating a waverunner for 10 years, but I still acquired the OUPV 6 pack for advancing my knowledge & as a challenge.
    There are no lower limits on vessel size, so I could still qualify.
    It’s a challenge of a test & a lot of hoops to jump through, but it’s a great license to have & give a lot of pride.

  24. OzarksBoatRental

    Is there an online course where you can get the same credentials, privilege and become a certified captain?

  25. george

    hi do I need a captains licenses to commercial fish on my 37 foot boat with my family and friends

    • captboatsafe

      You would not need a Captains license as long as you are not charging for your family and friends to go out. However, if you are operating a commercial vessel you may require other licensings/inspections.

  26. Shaun

    Does Section 2101 of title 46, (21a) of the United States Code apply to the whole of the US? I’m interested particularly in Florida.

    If I bring a friend I met online, through a fishing social network, on my boat to fish offshore, and we agree to split expenses (I do not realize a profit), do I need a license? I conclude from your description of the code that I would not need one. However, I have heard that this is treading a fine line.

  27. Alex

    If I organize a birthday party and the venue is the marina. I charge to organize this event. Kids are coming, families, entertainment, BBQ. If a guests other than the person who paid wants me to take them on a tour of the area on the boat, Do I need a captains license? What about the person who paid for the event can I take him?

    • captboatsafe

      If the boat ride and the party are not related and no money or anything that could be construed as compensation no license is neccessary.

  28. kevin

    If I am going to get my 6-pack OUPV certification and get paid for charter fishing on lake Michigan how do I need to document my vessel with the coast guard? There is several different descriptions for documenting the vessel. EX: great lakes, coastwise, recreation. I will primarily use the boat for recreation but will occasionally guide as a charter fisherman. When I document with USCG what would I choose?

    • captboatsafe

      First you need to determine if you are eligible for documentation. You vessel has to be at least 5 net tons. A Certificate of Documentation may be endorsed for fishery, coastwise, registry, or recreation. Any documented vessel may be used for recreational purposes, regardless of its endorsement, but a vessel documented with a recreational endorsement only may not be used for any other purpose. Registry endorsements are generally used for foreign trade.

      You can find all the info you need for documentation at

  29. daniel

    I might buy a boat in new York and navigate to port Isabel Texas will I need a license or anything in particular.

    • captboatsafe

      Technically only if you are taking passengers for hire. But I hope you have some boating credentials to attempt such a trip.

  30. Scott

    If you own a commercially operated and inspected boat, can you run it temporary without a license/

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