How to Get Your Captain’s License

6 Jul 2023

Are you ready to take the helm and become a certified captain? Obtaining your captain's license opens up a world of exciting opportunities on the open waters. Whether you dream of commanding a luxurious yacht, leading fishing charters, or guiding adventurous tourists, this comprehensive guide will navigate you through the process step by step. From the required qualifications and training to the application process and exam preparation, we'll equip you with all the essential knowledge to embark on your journey to becoming a licensed captain.
Get ready to set sail on a thrilling path towards your captain's license, where the sea becomes your playground and the horizon knows no limits!
We'll cover everything you need to know about the Captain's License in this article:

What is a Captain’s License?

A Captain's License is an official certification that grants individuals the authority to operate a vessel as a captain or master. It is a document issued by the relevant maritime authority, such as the U.S. Coast Guard in the United States. However, The license signifies that the holder has met specific requirements, including experience, training, and passing a written examination. It serves as proof of competency and ensures that captains possess the necessary knowledge and skills to safely navigate and command a vessel.
A Captain's License may have various types and endorsements, allowing individuals to operate different types of vessels and engage in specific maritime activities.

Who Needs a Captain’s License?

A captain's license is required for anyone who wishes to be compensated for helming a ship.

A ship captain's certificate is required by the U.S. Coast Guard for the operator of a vessel carrying passengers for hire, cargo, goods, or materials. This legal barrier to entry confers a substantial benefit on those who possess a license. If anyone who knew how to operate a ship could become a commander, there would be intense competition. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities available as a ship commander for commercial vessels.

You undoubtedly have questions about the prerequisites if you're considering enrolling in a USCG-approved captain's license course to obtain your master's or six-pack license.
This guide walks you through the process and provides answers to frequently asked questions.

How to Become a Captain of a Ship

To find out how to obtain a marine captain's license, please fill out the following fields:

1. Experience

Obtaining experience is the first stage in becoming the captain of any vessel, whether on your own ship or as a crew member on another vessel. If you are aboard a registered vessel and the owner is prepared to confirm your time, you can count your sea time toward a credential without being a paid crew member.
Prior to obtaining a license, it is preferable to gain crewing experience in your desired industry. For specific ships, such as fishing or parasailing, the majority of individuals begin as Deckhands and work their way up. Thus, you will be a superior captain when the time comes because you will comprehend all vessel operations.

2. Passing a USCG examination

A U.S. Coast Guard-approved exam is one of the most crucial requirements for obtaining a captain's license and operating commercial vessels. You must study topics such as deck general, laws of the road, and marlinspike seamanship to pass this exam. The best method to prepare for a USCG examination is to enroll in a maritime school's USCG-approved captain's license program.
These programs provide the necessary materials, resources, and study aids for the exam.

3. Completing certificates, forms, and paying applicable fees

You will submit an application document to the Coast Guard upon completion of your training. It includes a medical exam, evidence of enrollment in drug testing, and sea service forms

Different Categories of Captain's Licenses

The acronym OUPV stands for "operator of uninspected passenger vessels." With this license, a mariner is authorized to operate an uninspected vessel for hire that can accommodate up to six paying customers. Alternately referred to as a "6-Pack" License.

1. Master Mariner License

Provides seamen with the qualifications necessary to operate a USCG-inspected vessel of up to the qualified tonnage and carrying up to the maximum certified passenger capacity. The conditions for an OUPV license have been met by this License. The Master Mariner License can be obtained in one of three different gross tonnage categories: 25, 50, or 100.

2. An endorsement for auxiliaries in sailing

This is an endorsement that may be added to a Master Mariner License, and it grants the holder the ability to operate sailing vessels that have been examined. For the Inland Endorsement, you need to have completed 180 days of sea service on a sailing vessel.
For the Near Coastal Endorsement, you need to have completed 360 days of sea service on a sailing vessel. OUPV licenses give the holder the authority to operate sail and power vessels that have not been examined and do not require an endorsement.

3. Endorsement for Roadside Assistance and Towing

It is possible for a mariner to engage in commercial assistance towing after receiving this endorsement, which can be added to a Master Mariner or OUPV License. There is no requirement for an additional maritime service.

What does a yacht Captain do?

Only a portion of a Captain's work responsibilities include taking charge of the boat and ensuring its safe navigation through the oceans. A yacht captain is responsible for the overall safety of the vessel, the management of the crew, the creation of the budget, the administration of the vessel, the planning of the voyage, and the adherence to all international maritime regulations (ISM, MARPOL, and SOLAS).
The following are some of the duties that a yacht captain is responsible for:

  • Maintaining secure navigation and control of the yacht
  • ensuring that the boat complies with all of the applicable rules and regulations in every aspect
  • Assuring that the yacht is ready for the annual inspections required by both the flag and the class, as well as port and governmental inspections,
  • The formulation of budgets and the administration of budgets
  • Recruiting, supervising, evaluating, and firing of crew members
  • Monitoring the ship's preventative maintenance duties
  • Ensuring conformity with applicable laws and regulations
  • Taking care of yacht repairs and inspections
  • Keeping an eye on both fuel expenses and dockage rates
  • Acting as an ambassador for the yacht, as well as hosting and entertaining visitors as necessary
  • Voyage planning

The Fundamentals of Obtaining a Captain's License

When applying for a license for the first time, the applicant has to choose the type of license to pursue. When applying for a new license, applicants can choose between two different categories.
You have the option of submitting an application for a license that will allow you to operate an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) or the more common "Six Pack" license. The holder of this license is restricted to transporting no more than six paying passengers on any vessel that falls within his tonnage rating, regardless of the highest capacity rating that the vessel may be permitted to carry. This restriction gives rise to the name of the license.
An alternative choice is to obtain a Master's license, which entitles the holder to transport up to the maximum number of passengers that is permitted for the vessel in question. An OUPV license holder, on the other hand, does not need to be a citizen of the United States, unlike those who possess a Master's license. Having a Master's license unquestionably opens doors to additional opportunities; yet, as I will explain in a bit, the level of knowledge required to qualify for those chances is commensurately higher.

How to Choose a License Tonnage

Choosing the right license tonnage for your business or operation is a critical decision that can impact various aspects of your operations. To make an informed choice, you need to consider several factors. Here are some key steps to help you navigate the process:

1. Determine your requirements

Begin by assessing your specific needs. Consider the size and type of vessels you plan to operate, the nature of your business activities, and the geographical areas in which you intend to operate. This evaluation will help you identify the tonnage range that aligns with your operational requirements.

2. Understand tonnage measurement systems

Familiarize yourself with different tonnage measurement systems, such as gross tonnage (GT) and net tonnage (NT). These systems provide a standardized way to measure a vessel's internal volume, which affects regulatory requirements, fees, and operational limitations.

3. Research applicable regulations

Research and understand the regulatory framework governing your intended operations. Different tonnage categories may be subject to specific regulations, such as safety requirements, crewing standards, and port fees. Ensure compliance with the applicable rules and regulations of the chosen tonnage category.

4. Evaluate financial implications

Assess the financial implications associated with different tonnage categories. Consider factors such as registration fees, insurance premiums, port dues, and taxation requirements. These costs can vary based on the chosen tonnage category and could significantly impact your budget.

5. Consider operational limitations

Take into account the operational limitations associated with each tonnage category. Some tonnage categories may have restrictions on the areas in which you can operate or the type of cargo you can carry. Ensure that the chosen tonnage allows you to meet your operational objectives effectively.

6. Seek professional advice

Consult with maritime experts, such as naval architects, maritime lawyers, or classification societies, who can provide guidance on selecting the appropriate tonnage license. They can offer insights into the regulatory landscape and help you navigate the complexities of the decision-making process.

Qualifications and Application Requirements for a Captain’s License

Now that you have an understanding of licenses and endorsements, we will proceed to discuss the exact requirements that must be met in order for you to earn your certification. The following is a rundown of the information that should be included in your application to the Coast Guard.

1. Evidence of One's Age

At the very least, you have to be 18 years old in order to join the OUPV. You have to be 19 years old before you can become a Master. If, on the other hand, you want to fulfill all of the prerequisites by the time you're 18, the majority of the credentials you need are only good for a single year, which means that you can submit your application as soon as you become 19 years old.

2. Time at Sea

To be eligible for a Captain's License, you need to demonstrate that you have a minimum of 360 days of combined experience. These days must have been taken during the past three years on at least ninety of them.

3. The Forms of Sea Service

Please ensure that your sea service forms are completed, and then check with the vessel's owner or manager to confirm your time. In the maritime industry, one day of service is equivalent to working eight hours aboard a vessel; this does not include overtime. Starting at the age of 16, you can start counting time spent in the military.
In any event, you will need to have completed at least ninety days of sea duty within the past three years. After you have accumulated all of your sea time, check to be sure that it is sufficient to qualify you for the license you want. Use the Coast Guard's guide to documenting sea service to double-check the forms you've filled out.

4. A Finished Test That Has Been Approved By The USCG

Attending a maritime training institution that is approved by the US Coast Guard is, once more, the most straightforward way to pass your licensing exam. After successfully completing the training, you will be awarded a completion certificate that is valid for one calendar year.

5. A Transportation Worker Identification Card (often known as a TWIC)

TWIC cards are issued by the TSA, and in order to obtain any commercial mariner certification, you must have one. In order to obtain your card, you will first need to pay a fee and then pass a background check conducted by the government. Visit the website of the TWIC for further information as well as instructions on how to apply.

6. An In-Person Medical Evaluation

Use the USCG medical examination guidance before you schedule an appointment with a physician so that you can avoid making frequent mistakes that will cause the Coast Guard to reject your application.
Find a medical examiner who is experienced with US Coast Guard physicals and pick them. Some aspects of the physical examination require careful attention, which less-seasoned medical professionals might miss.

7. Documentation Proving Participation in a Drug Testing Program

It does not matter what kind of license or credential for merchant mariners you are trying to get; you will be forced to join in a drug testing program so that you can be subjected to random drug tests. In order to obtain your license, you will need to provide confirmation that you are enrolled in one of these programs, which are offered by certain marine businesses.
Be sure to give your captain's license application the thorough attention it deserves. When applying for a license, make sure to indicate the range and tonnage requirements, unless the license is for an OUPV. One that contains a photograph.
When you have obtained your TWIC card, you will no longer be required to present a separate photo identification document. It is also the photograph that will be printed on your driver's license.

8. Evidence of Payment of Application Fees

Make sure that you pay the required fees using the website. Check out the payment page on the US Coast Guard website to learn how much you have to pay for your license examination. After making a payment, you should always print the confirmation page for your records.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What are the basic requirements for obtaining a captain's license?

To obtain a captain's license, you typically need to meet certain requirements, which may vary depending on your country or region. Generally, you'll need to be a minimum age (such as 18 or 21), have a specified amount of boating experience (ranging from a few months to a few years), possess a valid first aid and CPR certification, and pass a written examination.

Q2. What type of captain's license should I pursue?

The type of captain's license you should pursue depends on the type and size of the vessel you intend to operate. Different licenses are available for different categories, such as inland waters, near coastal waters, or offshore. Consider the specific requirements and limitations of each license to choose the one that aligns with your boating goals.

Q3. How can I gain the necessary boating experience to qualify for a captain's license?

To gain the required boating experience, you can start by accumulating hours on the water through recreational boating or working as a crew member on a vessel. Some countries may have specific guidelines for the type and duration of experience needed. It's beneficial to keep a logbook of your boating activities, including dates, hours, and the nature of your involvement.

Q4. What are the steps involved in obtaining a captain's license?

While the exact steps may differ based on your location, the typical process involves several key elements. These include meeting the eligibility requirements, completing any necessary training or coursework, submitting an application to the relevant maritime authority, passing a written examination covering topics like navigation, rules of the road, and safety procedures, and potentially undergoing a practical examination or sea trial.

Q5. Do I need any additional certifications or endorsements along with my captain's license?

Depending on your specific goals and the type of vessel you intend to operate, you may need additional certifications or endorsements. These could include qualifications for operating commercial passenger vessels, towing endorsements, sailing endorsements, or endorsements for specific types of waterways.
Research the requirements in your area to ensure you obtain the necessary certifications for your desired boating activities.


In conclusion, obtaining a captain's license is an exciting and rewarding endeavor for those passionate about boating and maritime activities. While the specific requirements and procedures may vary depending on your location, there are some general steps to follow. First, ensure you meet the basic eligibility criteria, such as age and boating experience. Next, consider the type of captain's license that aligns with your goals and the vessels you wish to operate. Gain the necessary boating experience, either through recreational activities or working as a crew member. Keep a detailed logbook of your hours on the water.

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