You just bought a boat. The open water beckons, and long days of sun, surf, and exploration are on the horizon. But don’t haul up anchor just yet. There are a few important things to know before setting sail for the first time. For an at-a-glance rundown of boating laws where you live, take a look at our state-by-state maps. We’ve also included more detail on common regulations and answers to frequently asked boating questions below.

Who can drive a boat: Certification requirements and age limits by state

Do you need a license for a boat?

Most states require boaters to complete a safety course before they can legally take to the water. Once you pass, this safety certification serves as a “boating license.” Safety courses are generally administered by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). Since NASBLA is the recognized boating authority in all 50 states, most will accept any NASBLA-approved certificate — meaning that if you were certified in Alabama, you won’t have to complete a second course to take your boat out in Wisconsin.

How old do you have to be to drive a boat?

Minors can legally operate boats in all 50 states, but each state has its own restrictions. Many set the minimum boating age at 12 years old. Others have no minimum age at all — as long as the child can pass a boater safety certification course. Parents should also take note of their state’s supervision requirements. In some places, certified minors are free to operate a boat on their own. A few states, however, require an adult to be on board when anyone under the age of 18 is operating. See our map above for age and supervision rules in your state.

What you need to drive a boat: Registration, insurance, and (of course) life jackets

Do I need to register my boat?

All states require registration for motorized vessels like motorboats and personal watercraft (PWCs). Most require sailboats to be registered as well, and a few (Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Minnesota, and Ohio) ask boaters to register paddle craft like kayaks and canoes. But unlike cars, not all states register boats through the DMV. Many issue titles through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Parks and Recreation, or other state agency. You can find your state’s requirements and issuing agency on the map above. For more detail about the registration process and pricing, see your state’s Boating and Registration Instructions on DMV.org.

Do I need boat insurance?

Most states don’t require boaters to insure their vessels. Only three — Arkansas, Hawaii, and Utah — stipulate that you must have liability coverage on the water. That said, we highly recommend considering a boater’s insurance policy if you’re on the water often. Boater’s insurance can cover damages to your boat, other watercraft, bodily injuries, and more costs that would make a sizeable dent in your wallet if you have to cover them out of pocket. For more information on boater’s insurance and a run down of our favorite companies, check out our review of the Best Boat Insurance.

Who has to wear a life jacket?

In most states, children under 13 years old must wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket while on a moving boat, unless they are below decks or in an enclosed area. Almost every state requires PFDs for people operating jet skis or being towed behind a boat (think water skiing, tubing, wakeboarding, etc.). See the map above for your state’s individual life jacket requirements. If you need help choosing the right PFDs for you and your family, check out this helpful brochure from the USCG.

Don't drink and steer: State laws on boating and alcohol

Are you allowed to drink alcohol while on a boat?

Rules around alcohol and boating tend to mirror rules about alcohol and driving. Most states set the legal BAC limit for boaters at 0.08%; any BAC above that threshold is considered “impaired” and unsafe to operate a boat. In just two states — North Dakota and Wyoming — the limit is slightly higher, at 0.10%. Boating under the influence puts yourself and others at risk, and BUIs can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. Punishments for BUIs vary by state, but may include fines, jail time, or marks against your driver’s license.

Can you have an open container on a boat?

Just like driving a car, it’s illegal to drink alcohol and operate a boat. This is reflected by the 0.08% legal BAC limit in most states. Unlike in a car, however, it is not illegal to have open containers of alcohol on a boat. That means that passengers are legally allowed to drink while on board — as long as they’re 21 or older, of course.

The Bottom Line: Boating Laws Checklist

Before getting out on the water, you’ll want to make sure that you’re following your state’s rules for safe and legal boating. Anyone with a motor-powered boat will need to register their vessel. In some states, you may also need to pass a safety course, obtain a boater’s license, or purchase insurance to drive legally. Use the list below as a starting point, and check our state-by-state maps above for more information on specific regulations where you live.

  • Register your boat with the appropriate state agency
  • Make sure all drivers are safety certified by a NASBLA approved course
  • Cover your assets with boater’s insurance
  • Stock your boat with USCG approved life jackets for all passengers