State Boater Cards Explained

Do you need a boating license?

This year, my home state of California instituted its first-ever boater card program, which phases in mandatory boater education over eight years, eventually requiring all skippers to pass a state-certified boater education course and obtain a card issued by the state Division of Boating and Waterways.

California joins more than 40 other states and Canada in requiring some form of licensing or mandatory boater education. To provide you with the scoop about these programs, I pulled up the California Boater Card website — — and filled out the application, which included a $10 payment via credit card. The site then referred me to a choice of 10 approved boating-safety courses. I chose the free BoatU.S. Foundation online course, which includes seven sections.

State Boater Cards Explained
State boater card programs improve boating safety for everyone.Courtesy California Division of Boating and Waterways

“This will be quick, a slam dunk,” I thought. That’s not exactly the way it went down. The introduction indicates three to four hours, but I spent seven hours, including a lunch break. You can pause and return hours or days later. The course requires that you spend a minimum amount of time on each page, and each of the first six sections are followed by a 10-question quiz. There’s a 75-question final exam. Despite my 35 years as a boat owner, I learned some things. For example, I believed that sailboats always have the right of way. But that is incorrect.

The course also emphasizes that you are allowed to ignore such rules of the road if it means avoiding a collision — which is the first rule of safe navigation.

I finished the course and passed the final exam — with a 96. Within minutes, my temporary California Boater Card arrived via email, with the permanent card on its way via snail mail.

While the course and test proved not very difficult for this boating veteran, it was tough enough that I believe some boaters may find it challenging to achieve the score of 80 required to pass. Those who don’t pass can take the final exam as many times as necessary in order to pass. Some courses might also require that you review the material again before each exam.

A rigorous curriculum is a good thing, I believe. Knowledge translates to safety. I’ve long advocated for mandatory boater education, and now that I have earned my own California Boater Card, the concept makes even more sense to me.

To learn more about boater education for your state, visit and click on "State Education Requirements," or visit and click on "Take a Boat Course."