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How to Get Your Captain’s License

If you enjoy working on the water and think you might want to get your captain's license, hesitate no more — it’s a great decision. Whether you’re a deckhand looking for a promotion or you own a boat and want to start making some money, having your license opens up all kinds of opportunities within the merchant mariner world. USCG-approved maritime schools help you get your license and teach you skills to make you a better boater. Before you know it, you’ll be on your way to lucrative and exciting experiences.

Throughout this article, we’ll cover everything you’ll want to know about the Captain's License:

Who Needs a Captain’s License?

In short — anyone who wants to get paid to drive a boat needs a captain's license.

The U.S. Coast Guard requires the operator of a vessel carrying passengers-for-hire to have a boat captain’s license. This legal barrier-to-entry is a significant advantage to those who do have a license. If anyone who knew how to drive a boat could get paid to do it, competition would be fierce. Luckily, there are plenty of job opportunities out there for good captains.

If you’re considering enrolling in a USCG-approved captain's license course to get your master’s or 6-pack license, you probably have some questions about the requirements. It can be a bit confusing, but this guide helps you through the process and answers some common questions. We'll go over:

  • How to become a boat captain
  • Types of captain's licenses
  • USCG captain's license requirements
  • The benefits of getting your captain’s license
  • How to renew your captain's license

How to Become a Boat Captain

To simplify, becoming a captain requires three things:

  • Boating Experience: The first step in becoming the captain of any vessel is to gain experience — either on your own boat or as a crew member on someone else’s. You don’t have to be a paid crew member to count your sea time toward a credential, as long as you’re aboard a registered vessel and the owner is willing to confirm your time. Either way, it’s best to accumulate crewing experience in your prospective industry before you get your license. For specific boats especially — like fishing or parasailing — most people start as a deckhand and work their way up. This way, you understand all operations of your vessel and are a better captain when the time comes.
  • Passing a USCG Exam: To get your license, you’ll need to pass a U.S. Coast Guard-approved exam. The exam requires careful studying and covers navigation, Rules of the Road, marlinspike seamanship, Deck General and more. The easiest way to pass the exam is by taking a USCG-approved captain’s license course. Maritime schools teach you specifically for the test and provide helpful resources and study tools.
  • Completing Certificates, Forms and Fees: After completing your class, you’ll submit an application package to the Coast Guard. It includes a medical examination, proof of drug screening enrollment and sea service forms, among other things.

Is Being a Captain the Right Move for Me?

If you don’t have a lot of experience on the water, you might be wondering if being a captain is right for you — especially if you’re young. For some reason, there’s an assumption that all captains are salty old men with white beards, which just isn't true. There’s a wide range of ages within all levels of the merchant mariner industry — both male and female. One great thing about having your captain’s license is that as long as you’re professional and have the skills to back up your credentials, you can land some great jobs.

What’s the Annual Salary of a Captain?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor, there are about 36,000 captains in the U.S., and their mean annual salary is about $81,000. Working aboard container ships and private superyachts is the most lucrative in the industry. The highest paying states are Mississippi, New Hampshire, Texas, Oregon and Washington, where the mean salary ranges from $97,000 to more than $120,000.

Types of Boat Captain Licenses

Before we get into the specific requirements to obtain a captain’s license, you should know a few the different kinds for which you may want to apply.

The license you qualify for depends on your boating experience. Depending on where you can operate and the tonnage of boats you can operate, you’ll be applying for one of the following three licenses.

1. Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vehicles (OUPV)

Commonly called a 6-pack license, the Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels credential allows you to carry up to six passengers on uninspected vessels. Uninspected means the Coast Guard doesn’t have to inspect your boat before you can operate, and the boat’s design and safety specifications aren’t as strict.

The Coast Guard issues 6-pack licenses for a specific range that reflects your sea service — either Inland, Inland and Great Lakes or Near Coastal, which allows you to go up to 100 miles offshore. For an OUPV, you need 360 days of sea time, 90 of which must be in the range for which you apply. For example, the Near Coastal OUPV requires at least 90 days on near coastal or ocean waters.

2. Master Inland

An Inland license lets you operate inspected and uninspected vessels within the designated boundary line for Inland Waters — essentially lakes and harbors. You can also use this license to work as a mate on near-coastal vessels, as long as you can document 180 days of sea time in the ocean. You need 360 days of sea time on any waters, with 90 on the Great Lakes if you wish to operate boats there, too.

3. Master Near Coastal

A Near Coastal license allows you to operate inspected and uninspected vessels on inland waters and up to 200 miles off the U.S. coast. That’s right — 200 miles is considered near coastal. You need 720 days of sea time, 360 of which must be on ocean waters.

How to Choose a License Tonnage

The tonnage of license you receive is also dependant on boating experience.

A 100-ton license requires 180 days aboard boats over 51 gross tons or 360 days aboard boats over 34 gross tons. A 50-ton license requires 180 days on boats over 26 gross tons if your service began after March 2014. If your sea service started before March 2014, you only need one day on a vessel over five gross tons. If you don’t meet the requirements to make the 50-ton cutoff, you’ll receive a 25-ton license.

Figure out the gross tonnage of the boats you crewed on by either contacting the vessel owners or calculating it yourself with the USCG guide to tonnage.

Types of Endorsements

In addition to your license, you will need endorsements for some vessels. A few common ones include:

  • Sailing Endorsement: If you plan on working as the captain of a sailboat, you need this endorsement. It requires 360 days of sea time aboard a sailing vessel — not separate from the 360 required for your license — and you’ll have a small additional section added to your written exam.
  • Assistance Towing Endorsement: To work for a marine company that tows other boats, like Seatow or Vessel Assist, you’ll need an assistance towing endorsement. It doesn’t require any towing-specific experience, but you do have to pass a short written exam that's included in most captain’s license courses.

  • STCW Endorsement: If you’re planning on working aboard vessels over 72 feet long or on international voyages, you may need to first take an STCW course in addition to your captain’s license course. STCW stands for The Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping and is commonly known as ‘basic safety training.’ The course teaches firefighting, survival and first aid.

It’s best to apply for as many endorsements as you can on your original merchant mariner credential. The more you get, the more time you save not having to upgrade later.

Qualifications and Application Requirements

Now that you know about licenses and endorsements, we’ll go over the specific requirements you’ll need to receive your credential. Here’s what to include in your application to the Coast Guard:

  • Sea Service Forms: Fill out your sea service forms and have the owner or manager of the vessel confirm your time. One day of sea service is equal to eight hours working aboard a vessel — this doesn’t include overtime. You can count sea service from age 16 onward. In all cases, you need 90 days of your sea service to be within the last three years. After you've compiled all your sea time, confirm you have enough to qualify for your desired license. Double check your forms with this Coast Guard guide to documenting sea service.

  • A Completed USCG-Approved Exam: Again, the easiest way to pass your license exam is by attending a USCG-approved maritime training school. Once you pass the course, you receive a certificate of completion, which is valid for one year.
  • A Transportation Worker Identification (TWIC) Card: The TSA issues TWIC cards, and you need one for any merchant mariner credential. You’ll have to pay a fee and pass a government background check to receive your card. For additional information and how to apply, visit the TWIC website.
  • A Medical Examination: Before you make an appointment with a doctor, use the USCG medical examination guide to avoid common errors the Coast Guard will reject. Choose a medical examiner that is familiar with USCG physicals. A few of the portions of the physical require careful attention inexperienced doctors may miss.
  • Proof of Drug Screening Enrollment: Every merchant mariner credential requires you to enroll in a random drug screening program. Some marine employers offer one, but you will need proof of enrollment to receive your license. The DOT Drug Consortium has a relatively cheap program that satisfies this requirement.
  • An MMC Application Form: Fill out the application form for your captain’s license carefully. Be sure to specify which range and tonnage — unless it’s OUPV — of license you’re applying for.
  • A Photo ID: Once you have your TWIC card, this will satisfy the requirement for a photo ID. It will also be the photo that appears on your license.
  • Proof of Application Fees: Be sure to pay the appropriate fees through pay.gov. Consult the USCG payment webpage to determine what you need to pay for your license evaluation. It’s always a good idea to print the confirmation page after you pay.
  • A U.S. Coast Guard Oath: For all original merchant mariner credentials, you’re required to take a supervised USCG oath. You can do this at an approved Coast Guard facility, such as a regional exam center or maritime training school.
  • At Least 19 Years of Age: To receive your captain’s license, you must be 19 years old. However, if you want to complete all the requirements when you’re 18, most of the certificates you need are valid for one year, so you can send in your application as soon as you turn 19.

  • First Aid and CPR Certificate: For your original license, you need to be First Aid and CPR-certified. Courses are frequently available no matter where you live, and most are affordable. You can typically complete the course in an afternoon.
  • Proof of Residency (OUPV Only): If you’re getting your OUPV license, you must prove permanent residency with a green card or valid state ID.

Before submitting your application, use the USCG acceptance checklist to double check that you’ve satisfied all the requirements. You can then either mail in your application or speed things up by scanning your documents and submitting them through the Coast Guard’s website. The issuance process usually takes one to three months.

The Benefits of Getting Your Captain’s License

If you feel a need to be on the water, then being a boat captain is the best job for you. You have more responsibility than a crew member, but once you’re comfortable with your vessel, captaining becomes second nature. Plus, you get to skip out on most of the manual labor the on-deck crew must handle.

A few more reasons the life of a captain might be for you include:

  • Job Opportunities: As we said earlier, the barriers-to-entry in the marine world keep competition manageable. The boating community is surprisingly small in some harbors, and once you get into the workforce, there can be a lot of job opportunities — captains tend to help each other out.

  • Travel: Being a captain in specific industries can lead to some unbelievable — and free — traveling. If you work your way up to being the captain of private yachts, you can get paid to travel around the world on your employer’s dime. It’s not just a pipe dream — people are doing it right now.
  • Free Food and Accommodation: As long as you’re aboard, your meals won't cost you a dime. Also, if you work on a boat that goes on extended trips, you have free accommodation, which can save you a lot of money in living expenses for the year.
  • Career Options: There are many career paths within the merchant marine industry, and you can find one that suits you best. Whether you prefer a predictable, stable job — like working aboard a ferry or living the fast-paced, dynamic life of working as a private charter captain — you can find your niche.
  • Unique Work Schedule: Many marine industries have unique work schedules if you’re looking to avoid the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. agenda. Some vessels, like container ships or private yachts, even operate on a time-on, time-off basis. This concentrated work schedule means you might be aboard for weeks or months, but then you have extended periods of time off to relax, travel or do whatever you like.
  • Money: If you get your license, you can start making decent money rather quickly. You also earn more cash than you do as an unlicensed crew member — even if you take another job as a crew member after you’re a captain, you’re often paid a higher wage just because you are a licensed merchant mariner.
  • Excitement: In addition to the travel opportunities, every day as a captain is its own adventure. Your surroundings are always changing, and every day is unique.
  • Freedom: Being on the water is a benefit in and of itself. If you decide to turn boating into a career, you can skip the cubicle life and have the ocean as your office. You get to work outside, be more active and feel like you got out into the world each day. Not to mention, you'll experience countless precious moments like watching the sun sink into a red horizon or running with a pod of dolphins that make you think to yourself, "Am I really getting paid for this?"

How to Renew Your Captain's License

Once you receive your captain’s license, we highly recommend not letting it expire. Even if you don’t plan on using it in the near future, it's still a good idea to keep renewing it — and you only have to do it every five years. If you let it expire and then decide that you want to start operating boats again, you'll have to satisfy all of the Coast Guard requirements from scratch.

Renewing your license is easy. You will need:

  • 360 days of sea service within the last five years or a refresher course through a USCG-approved training school. These refresher courses can take as little as one day and cover Rules of the Road, Deck General and Deck Safety.
  • A completed application form for renewal — this is the same form you use to get your original license, so be sure to specify you're renewing yours
  • DOT drug testing enrollment — with proof of a test within the last six months
  • A USCG mariner medical examination — the same type as for your original license
  • Payment of fees through the USCG website

If you do let your license expire, there is a one year grace period in which you can renew it without having to complete the full USCG exam again. Even if you decide to pursue another career, many people use their captain's license after retirement. It’s a great way to make some extra money and keep yourself busy on the water.

What Are You Waiting For? Contact MITAGS-PMI to Start Your Captain Training Today

A captain's license is an excellent foot in the door to the merchant mariner world, as it shows marine employers you’re competent and committed to the industry. Not only can it lead to well-paying opportunities, but it's also one of the most exciting career paths out there.

If you have enough sea service and are about to take the next step, enrolling in a USCG-approved training course is the best way to go. Experienced teachers can give you the tools you need to pass your exam and walk you through the application process. They'll use hands-on techniques to help you learn practical skills that will prepare you for a career as a captain.

MITAGS-PMI is a vocational training center for aspiring captains and other maritime professionals looking to expand their careers. Our training involves the most innovative, practical techniques and technologies, and our passing students all leave with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed as a captain.

For more information about our maritime courses, contact MITAGS-PMI today — we're more than happy to help.