Types of Boats

Do I Need a License to Operate Fishing Boats?

Two kids and a man wearing lifejackets on a fishing boat.

If you plan to operate fishing boats, you may be wondering what kind of licensing you need or whether you need one at all. In most cases, the answer is yes, but there are some times when you might not. 

Also, remember that a license, in this case, isn't the same as a driver's license for vehicles. However, "license" is often interchangeable with a "boater education card," which is typically required for anyone who's going to be operating a boat. Here's what you need to know before you take your fishing boat out on the water.

Silhouette of a person standing on a boat with a fishing pole, fishing boats concept.

Look Into the Regulations for Your Area

Regulations for boats, including those used for fishing, vary depending on various factors.

Your location is one of the biggest issues to consider, but it's certainly not the only one. Whether you're in freshwater or saltwater areas also matters, as does whether you're fishing commercially or recreationally. 

For example, a commercial fishing boat that operates nearly every day will have more licensing and regulation requirements than a recreational boat with weekend anglers on it. If you're buying a boat for fun on the waterways and some occasional fishing, you likely won't have to worry about as many regulatory issues.

However, it's still important to look at the regulations for your local area to ensure you're following them. You want to comply with any laws that apply to you to avoid fines and other problems. That also helps you have more fun and peace of mind when fishing or boating.

Follow Boating Safety Regulations

Whether you're fishing commercially or recreationally, you must follow safety regulations. These aren't the same as other legal requirements that might affect commercial and recreational anglers differently.

Instead, they're designed to cover everyone and protect boaters, anglers, and others who enjoy the water.

You'll be required to have the proper safety equipment for your boat, which may vary based on the size of the vessel and the number of passengers it can carry. For example, a larger boat may need multiple fire extinguishers, and vessels carrying passengers need appropriate life jackets.

There are also strict safety rules for alcohol consumption and navigation laws to protect boaters from collisions, running aground, and other issues. By taking a boater education course, you can improve your knowledge and skills, which reduces your risk of injury and other matters while fishing or otherwise using your boat.

A man stands on a boat and reels in a fish, boating license for fishing boats concept.

Specialized Licenses and Endorsements

If you're fishing in protected areas or operating a charter fishing operation from your boat, you may need additional licenses, endorsements, or permits.

A regular boating license, or boater education card, doesn't cover these circumstances. Checking the requirements can help you get the proper licensing for unique needs or situations.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

If you decide to operate a fishing boat without the proper licensing or permits, you could face severe penalties.

There are fines and other legal repercussions for non-compliance, which can ruin your experience on the water. Staying informed about applicable regulations and getting the proper licenses is vital to avoid legal issues. 

Boating without a license generally carries a fine for a first offense, and the amount can vary depending on your state or other jurisdiction. If you don't get a permit and are caught a second time, the fines can go up, and you can face additional consequences.

Since a boater education card doesn't expire, you don't have to worry about renewing it once you get it. Just carry it with you when you're on your boat.

A man at the front of a fishing boat holding a rod and reel over the water.

Resources for More Information

These are some of the best places to check for more information about fishing licenses, boating regulations, and related topics. 

United States Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard provides information about boat licensing and other water safety details. If you're in the United States, they're among the go-to options for getting your boating questions answered.

National Association of State Boating Law Administrators

If you're looking for state boater laws, NASBLA provides information and education about boating safety and the individual laws for every state. You can find a lot of excellent boating knowledge there.

You can also look for information on state-based sites and through fishing organizations. Finding suitable informational and educational materials is essential when navigating the licensing process and staying compliant with regulations. 

Boat-Ed provides information and education by state so you can see whether you need a license and the best way to get one. If you're not in the United States, you'll want to follow your country's jurisdictional requirements for safe and adequately licensed boating and fishing adventures.

A boy and a woman holding fishing rods walk on the dock, fishing boats concept.

Get a Boating License for Fishing Boats and Stay Safe on the Water

When thinking about your next fishing trip, make sure you have a boating license before heading out.

Don't take chances with licensing or safety if you plan to operate fishing boats this season. Boaters and watersport enthusiasts can take an online course to get a boater education card (or license) through Boat-Ed and have the peace of mind they need when on the water. Get the knowledge you need for the best boating experience – then enjoy more fishing trips!

Find the course for your state and start learning through our free online study guide.